Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: The nourishing nature of cricket

Cricket excites and bores—it rouses and calms
December 6, 2023

As a captain and player, I believe that sport is storytelling, and that even a disinterested observer can find the tensions of narrative on the field. I am reminded of the Adelaide test of 1979, when we, England, had batted first and been dismissed for a modest score. By the second morning, we were on top, but Australia’s opening left-hander Graeme Wood was looking good. Off-spinner John Emburey and I discussed the importance of keeping Wood quiet, not letting him get going again with freedom. We could see he was champing at the bit. We knew he liked the sweep shot. We put our best fielder, Derek Randall, at deep-ish square leg—in an unusual position slightly in front of square and 15 or so yards in from the boundary. A single loose ball down the leg-side would have scuppered the plan, as we had minimal cover for a sweep played well behind square leg. In the event, Emburey’s persistence and accuracy worked. Trying to cut loose, Wood swept from off stump or just outside, top-edged the stroke, and was caught by Randall for 35. The plan was good, the execution perfect. The cat caught the mouse. The tussle was not only tactically and pragmatically satisfying, but also elegant. 

For the spectator capable of disinterested attention, this engagement between batter and bowler (and captain), with its uncertain but urgent denouement, gives pleasure that goes beyond its practical contribution to tilting the game towards an ultimate result. It is of interest and value in itself, whatever follows.

German friends of mine, who have continued to be ignorant of and puzzled by cricket during their 30 years living in England, were visited by compatriots who asked to see an example of this peculiar pastime. The four found a green where a village game was taking place. They were all charmed by the rhythm of the activity. The slow repetitions with slight variations; the pulse of moments of activity with little and larger rests and pauses. 

The white-clad figures, once described by British art critic Adrian Stokes as liable to be hard to distinguish from the air “from a scattering of cows”, represented for Stokes the browsing and feeding nature of this slow dance of white on green. He emphasises the nourishing nature of cricket, the feeling that alongside the aggression of the struggles, there are also echoes of the peaceful nature of the infant-mother feeding situation. 

Australian painter Brett Whiteley, who had little or no liking for cricket, came to one of the first ever day-night internationals, between Australia and England in Sydney in 1979. He was intrigued by the beauty and drama of the ball-by-ball encroachment of fielders towards the batter, each movement climaxing in the bowler’s delivery. Brilliantly lit, in the darkness of the surrounding crowd, stands and sky, this pulse, regular as breathing, delighted him. 

Cricket excites and bores. It rouses and calms. Organised, rule-based, umpire-surveyed games, as well as more informal ones on the park or maidan, offer participants and spectators satisfaction that goes beyond the momentary aesthetic pleasures, and far beyond the tribal jubilations and disappointments involved in winning and losing. 

Aesthetic pleasure also merges with moral and psychological admiration. While we value people for their moral excellence, the integrity of their behaviour and actions, we also admire them for something that comes closer to grace or elegance of personality. 

In his autobiography, novelist Graham Greene wrote the following about Herbert Read, another art critic. “He was the most gentle man I have ever known, but it was a gentleness which had been tested in the worst experiences [on the Western Front] of his generation… It was the same man who could come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming—you noticed only that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly altered… Complete honesty, born of complete experience, had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair.” 

Such ease of personality is not merely a matter of good manners. It is an inherent, unwilled capacity to influence others toward a more open, more honest orientation. And it has aesthetic overtones. There are beautiful personalities as well as beautiful bowlers and batters. 

I suspect that the great Garry Sobers, whose every movement was relaxed and flowing—he even walked beautifully—conveyed something of his personality in his cricket that went beyond the technical. Watching Sobers, we as spectators saw a person whose arrival on the scene, like that of Herbert Read, evoked calm, perhaps even wisdom. We witnessed Sobers’s natural poise and generosity. 

Players need challenging opponents. Viv Richards owed something to Shane Warne, and Shane Warne had a debt to Viv Richards. Each stretched the other, within the aegis of the game. Each enhanced the other’s play. Each was immersed in the immediacy of the contest. The pleasure for them, for their teams and for the spectators, was closely related to the fascination of the battle between these two star-players. At every level, there can be similar duels. 

The attitudes of such antagonists, such protagonists, approaches the sublime. And the sublime is a central feature of play itself. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga believed that the essence of play is epitomised by that of young animals. For them play is physical, enjoyable for its own sake with no ulterior motive. There are even “rules” restricting aggression; lion cubs nip each other, but don’t do actual harm. All this applies equally to young humans. Such qualities remain, in differing degrees, in human adults, both in game-playing and in life. This kind of involvement is playing for its own sake, not from any extraneous motive. 

Huizinga thought such an attitude is easily contaminated, for example by an intense desire to win, or by being infected by the lure of monetary gain. But such simplicity of involvement, such sublime enjoyment in the thing itself, exists in sport and in other forms of life. And I can’t think of a better word for it than “aesthetic”.