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In praise of the civilizing obsession of cricket


Maybe it is the balance of terror -- the nuclear standoff -- that holds back India and Pakistan from full-scale war over Kashmir. Then again, these two cricketing powers share a national obsession, namely the standing of their white-flannelled warriors: those fast bowlers, spinners, batsmen, wicket-keepers, slip and short leg fielders who make up their teams.

It is not simply the diversion of national aggressions to the greensward, to the battle of bat and ball. Could it be that C.L.R. James, the West Indian classicist and Marxist, got it right when he argued in his book Beyond a Boundary that Britain, as it industrialized, was insulated from some of the nastier cultural depredations of capitalism by the civilizing influence of sport, particularly cricket? Cricket, he believed, provided a paradigm of an egalitarian society where cooperation, competition and the celebration of individual prowess were played out within the rules of the game. James also discerned a subtle sense of restraint -- of respect for one’s opponents and an unwillingness to win at any cost.

He was talking, of course, about those necessary prerequisites for sustaining the common good. Such Jamesian thoughts came flooding back in October when the BBC (TV) World News carried a story on the Afghanistan cricket team’s visit to Pakistan -- against a backdrop of harsh terrain, American bombing and desperate refugees. The side was setting out to seek international acceptance. Stage one was a series of club matches in Pakistan en route to recognition by the World’s cricketing control board. There on the screen were the Afghans, decked out in their white flannels, bowling and batting with considerable skill. Then came a break in the game. Both teams gathered together, knelt facing Mecca and prayed.

Interviewed by a BBC correspondent, who reported that most sports had been repressed by the Taliban, but not cricket, the Afghan captain explained that his players had crossed the border into Pakistan leaving their families behind. They had no fears for their safety: Wives and children would be taken care of by neighbors. As for the war, they had lived in the middle of conflict before, most recently against the Russians. Now, for these few days, there were more important matters. “We will play cricket,” he said, “in any situation, whether we are being bombed or not.” Pakistan had invited them to play, they loved the game and he expressed the hope that it would “bring the youth to peace.” Within a few years he anticipated matches in Britain, Australia, the West Indies, South Africa and elsewhere. “We have the potential,” he concluded. It is worth noting, in this context, that the current captain of England’s cricket side is a British Muslim, Nasser Hussein.

If the Afghan cricketers struck a poignant, perhaps bizarre note in a news program dominated by Sept. 11 and the U.S. assault on their country, they also offered a glimmer of hope for our globalizing world. Even as it teeters on the brink of yet greater violence, networks of international cooperation are being strengthened. These include the United Nations and its agencies, nongovernmental organizations such as Medicine sans Frontiers, Soccer’s World Cup and, yes, international cricket. Add to this recent, if tentative, contacts between leaders of the great religions, and maybe -- just maybe -- the next few decades will not evolve into a nightmare.

Peter Walshe teaches in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In a previous incarnation he played cricket for Oxford University.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002