30 March 2018

Sentimental education

Illustration for Tom Brown's Schooldays by Arthur Hughes

Last night, I saw the Steve Smith press conference from across an RSL dining room and it was quite close enough to get the message.

On Wednesday, I spoke to my counsellor about some free-floating anxiety. It’s everything and nothing anxiety that gets hoovered up out of the ether, and it can be useful to spread the contents of the vacuum bag out on the floor and see exactly how ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ it is and just in case there is, I don’t know, a lost earring in there.

Part of the everything-nothing was the ball-tampering crisis, and my counsellor said she knew quite a few people who were going through a bit of an identity crisis about themselves and being an Australian because of the scandal, and… I’m going to have to interrupt you there. There is nothing about this incident that challenges my sense of who I am or what being an Australian means. I have no idea how that even works. The sum total of my personal ball-tampering-related anxiety is a) feeling really sorry for Steve Smith, and b) a pathological conviction that any mess whatsoever is ultimately my fault and I have a responsibility to fix it.

What is crucially missing from my own existential make up in this equation is the experience of cricket through the eyes of a cricket-playing child. I have never idolised a cricketer, fantasised about being a cricketer, attempted to emulate a cricketer’s action. I have never had the experience of me being small and them being big. I have never bonded (or dis-bonded) with a parent, teacher or any other kind of authority through cricket. I have never gone through any complicated formative experiences to do with friendship, enemies, teamwork, or peer pressure through cricket. There is no Bildungsroman in my experience of cricket.

Some good articles have been written about the connection between cricket and the national Bildungsroman in order to explain the level of response to this incident. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Either way, it’s a narrative that leaves me cold or rather at room temperature, because I’m not trying to claim any moral or intellectual high ground from this fact, it just is what it is.

I am in awe of our cricketers in the sense that I am in awe of their extreme physical and mental discipline, their extreme personal sacrifice and above all their tolerance of extreme psychological exposure and pressure to perform. Early on in this saga, someone drew a parallel between Steve Smith’s “I’m embarrassed to be here, quite frankly” press conference of Hobart 2016 and his “I’m embarrassed to be here, quite frankly” of Capetown 2018. Their point was that “embarrassment” didn’t cut it, quite frankly, and Smith was going to have to do better to avoid embarrassment being the symbol of his weakness as a captain.

There’s something else to be drawn from this parallel. When do the actions of our national cricket team launch a thousand headlines and letters to the paper? When does public contempt rain down on them like hailstones? When they misbehave, yes, but also when they lose. Where do you think they get the message you must win at all costs from? People try to annex moral ground in these situations by making out that in both cases it is about playing the game properly and players showing appropriate respect for their position. Batsmen are losing their wickets out of some lack of character, not because of technical error or lapse of judgement. 

Somehow the amount of the money they are paid is invoked as both the reason they do not perform properly (what can you expect from mercenaries?) and the reason they must perform properly (I demand my money’s worth!). And the eternal, eternal refrain of “there are hundreds of others ready to replace you in a heartbeat, mate, so you’d better shape up quick smart.” Um, this kind of argument is why unions were invented. 

There is a moral dignity we expect from our cricketers because of the complicated ideology attached to sport in general, which is very much bound up with its relationship to children - the child we were ourselves, the children we see watching now, the adulthood training that sport is supposed to represent. Sport is inseparable from this dynamic, and the morality of players is important relative to this dynamic.

We are also all adults however, us and the cricket players and, as adults, not particularly big or small, or big and small in different ways and at different times. Good people do bad things. As adults in the ordinary world, there is a moral dignity we need to afford to cricketers, as we do other human-sized adults. However big your own existential angst in response to this situation is, I'm sure it is dwarfed by Steve Smith's.

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