Cricket is thought a chivalrous activity, laden with codes and laws, courtesies and knightly grace. The copy-book drives and cuts evoke the thrusts and parries of expert swordplay; the mode of delivering the hard ball conjures the long-bow and the javelin at once; and the sound of leather on willow is deemed poetic, in and of itself. Spin, in this game at least, is honest. These things are true, but they are not the whole story. Those readers who come from non-cricketing nations, bear with me. For if you are stumped by talk of googlies and doosras, you will certainly be able to understand blood, sweat and grim determination. Cricket provides an object lesson in manliness: it presents the appearance of a dignified contest in good form, but is really a brutal encounter requiring courage, nerve, skill, stamina, and a high-tolerance for pain.
A cricket ball, fabricated from cork and leather, is hard as stone. It is bowled at speeds approaching 90mph from a distance of 22 yards at a man with nothing but some padded fabric and a blade of seasoned willow to defend himself. If it hits fingers, they break. If it hits thighs, they turn blue and purple. If it hits heads, not properly protected, then skulls fracture. Should it hit you in what cricket commentators politely call the ‘midriff’, all you can do is pray, and then hope to be able to count to two. Facing a lumbering, sweating, stinking confusion of arms and legs that is a fast bowler is akin to staring down an angry bull with nothing but a red rag for your defence. On the part of the bull, witness the sheer effort; on the part of the matador, regard the picture of concentration.
In a sequence of events that can last up to five days, this display of brute strength, violence and courage goes on, as one team determines to be victorious over another. Yet, strangely, the game often ends in a draw (not a tie, and not for merely semantic reasons). Honours are determined to be even. A concerted, protracted and genuine attempt to wear down the opposition, if not to hurt them acutely, frequently ends with a hand shake, a public appraisal of the other team’s character and moral qualities, and an affable statement that the indeterminate result is of no consequence, because the game is the true victor. What does this mean? It refers, I think, to the spirit in which the game is played. It is played to be won; it is played with no punches pulled, and with no apologies for its occasionally violent consequences; the endeavour employs great depths of character and resolve which, made manifest, display the measure of the men involved, and by which they are to be judged. Found to meet the mark, the result does not matter.
When Henry Newbolt penned the immortal lines extolling England’s youth to ‘Play up! And play the game’, he did not mean for us to forget the second verse, which defined his meaning of the word ‘play’. It is not in winning that cricket finds its importance, even if one endeavours to play to win. Nor is it in the taking part. Merely to take part is passive, and an insult to any game. The importance lies in the complete abandonment of other considerations – including one’s skin and bones – for the spirit of manly inclusion gained through whole-hearted commitment to a shared cause. Honour is just ‘a name’. Cricket is a proving ground of manly character, not to be gained through noble appearances alone, but through noble deeds.
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