For much of Monday, the Guardian’s cricket homepage led with two stories from two very different ends of the sport’s pyramid. In one, Australia’s when the Ashes get under way next month; the other told of a 15-year-old umpire in an under-11 game in Melbourne. And the juxtaposition called to mind something that Ted Dexter once said, suggesting: “The general atmosphere in cricket as a whole is determined by the cricket at the top, Test match cricket.”
In 1909, Lord Alverstone, then president of Surrey CCC, spoke of his attitude to the game. “Success does not solely depend upon the number of games that are won,” he said. “Success depends on playing games in a true and sporting manner, in acting in a friendly and sporting manner towards opponents, in valuing friendships made on the cricket field, for real cricket friendships last always. In every phase of life, in defeat or in victory, the endeavour should be to ‘play the game’.” It is a handy definition of the so-called “spirit of cricket”, a vague notion of gentlemanliness that has for ever doused the sport with tiresome streams of sanctimony. It is a competitive sport, and should be played hard. But there must surely exist a line that should not be crossed.
“As soon as you step on that line it’s war,” Warner had said, looking ahead to the Ashes. “You try and get into a battle as quick as you can. I try and look in the opposition’s eyes and try and work out: ‘How can I dislike this player? How can I get on top of him?’ You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them to actually get up when you’re out there.”
Warner is not the first cricketer to talk in such terms. “If I was getting into a batsman it was to convince myself that this was the worst bloke in the world and I didn’t want him out there,” Merv Hughes, among the most infamous sledgers of the modern era, once said. “That usually happened at innocuous times, when the game was going through a little flat patch. I had to get up for the contest, and my way of doing that was to take it out on the batsman.”
Hughes actually had a distaste for cricket when it was played in an atmosphere of friendliness, considering the sport inferior when “there’s no spite in it”. “But then not everyone shares my view on how to play cricket,” he said. “Some people don’t have to hate the opposition to motivate themselves. I’d hate them and try to kill them. To me that’s easier than to like them and maybe back off in crunch situations.”
In an excellent interview with the Observer published in 1964, Dexter spoke at length about his views on the spirit of cricket. In it, he was asked why he disapproved of, in the words of the interviewer, Kenneth Harris, “sportsmen who favour ‘the acid’”. “Perhaps because I see no reason at all why people should be miserable when they are competing with each other, whether it’s sport, or anything else,” he replied. “And partly because proper personal relationships make for better cricket anyway.”
The idea that a sportsman might, in order to motivate himself, need to despise his opponents, to “hate them and try to kill them”, seems to meet with approval in some quarters. To this writer it seems deplorable. In 1993 the Times’ then cricket correspondent, John Woodcock, responded to the idea flourishing at that time that Hughes’s aggression embodied what Test cricket is “all about”. “Hughes has many admirers. He is a rousing member of this Australian side, and at times even its inspiration,” he wrote. “Test cricket, too, is a very hard game, as is right and proper. But if the day ever comes when open and unfettered abuse becomes what it is ‘all about’ then we really shall have been betrayed.”
Warner also said that history “is a big part” of the reason he feels so hateful. And there certainly is a historic and largely unrequited enmity between the Australians and the British, both in cricket and in life. The latter is a subject that John O’Neill, then chief executive of Australian Rugby Union, memorably spoke about a decade ago last week, during the 2007 Rugby World Cup. “Whether it’s cricket, rugby league or rugby union, we do all hate England,” he said. “All I’m doing is stating the bleeding obvious. No one likes England. If they want further proof, how do they think France won the right to host this World Cup? It’s simple. No one would vote for England and they were the only other country in the running. The only votes England could be assured of back then were their own. Sadly, this is all a by-product of their born-to-rule mentality. It’s been there for a long time now and nothing has changed.”
Neville Cardus travelled to Australia for the 1954-55 Ashes, and identified a general background hostility among its sportsmen, and its residents in general (warning: what follows will feel wildly anachronistic). “The brilliance and gallantry of Australian cricket at its gayest is hard and aggressive at bottom; no art for art’s sake about it,” he wrote. “Graciousness and charm are the most rare of all characteristics in the Australian character and scene. The girls that come out of the offices in Martin Place at five o’clock every evening, dressed as though appearing in the latest musical, are nearly all remarkably pretty; but charm is missing. The voices suggest hardness of purpose. No romantic nonsense. The wonderful beauty that night brings to Sydney, covering city and the waters of the harbour in purple, apparently has no effect on the Australian imagination or the aesthetic sense. I was once asked by a sub-editor of a Sydney newspaper if I wouldn’t mind eliminating from a cricket article the word ‘beautiful’. I had described one of Stan McCabe’s strokes. ‘It’s cissy,’ said the sub-editor.”
In cricket terms, the enmity is widely seen as having started with Bodyline, the brutal and unsportsmanlike tactic employed by the English to counter Don Bradman’s brilliance in the 1932-33 Ashes series. Back in 1964 Dexter spoke of how he and Australia’s then captain, Bobby Simpson, were trying to create “better cricket” between the nations. “We are playing Test matches in a better atmosphere,” he explained. “We chat to each other at the wicket, we spend quite a bit of time with each other socially, after the game. When the game is on, we spend quite a bit of time in each other’s dressing rooms. We’re still just as keen to get each other out, and we play just as hard, but the atmosphere is good-natured. This may sound very corny to you, but it makes a hell of a difference to us, and I think it will make a hell of a difference to cricket.”
Why, he was asked, had none of this happened before? “Because human nature is what it is,” he replied, “and history is what it has been. It all goes back to the early 30s really and, well, ever since then there’s been a kind of cold war in cricket, which I’m glad to say is coming to an end.” Or not, as it turned out.
Cardus, writing in 1935, hoped that Bodyline had had one positive side-effect. “It has been responsible for the fact that nobody nowadays is likely to talk of cricket in terms of the old moral unction,” he wrote. “A year or two ago orators in thousands came out with the old cant about playing cricket – ‘it isn’t cricket’ – whatever their theme and whatever the occasion. Footballers, tennis players, and jockeys had reason to look upon cricket as a dreadfully priggish affair. Larwood and Jardine performed a sanitary service in a direction which probably did not enter into their intentions, which were strictly tactical; they cleared out of cricket a humbug which would have made WG Grace pull at his whiskers in some impatience and bewilderment.”
And yet here we are, still with the hate and the humbug. Considering the case of Warner it strikes me as tremendously depressing that something as joyful as sport should need to be fuelled by something so antithetical as hatred, but perhaps with his words Australia’s vice-captain is holding a mirror up at us all. As Woodcock wrote in 1991, when describing another ill-tempered Australian tour – in the West Indies, on that occasion: “To some extent cricket has always been a reflection of the age in which it is played. And nobody would suggest that the world in which we live gets any more elegant, or less violent.”
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