On sport, and identity | Part I

31 12 2013

“… culture isn’t something that people exist and work within, but something that they are inextricably part of and contribute to, for better or for worse … You are the culture, so are you going to be a force for good or bad? “

Philip Darbyshire

The Australian, 25 June 2013.

“Kimberley, a bit of PATRIOTISM please.”

I received this admonishment via Twitter direct message for my vocal support of the English cricket team during the Brisbane Test.

It’s a question posed fairly regularly whenever cricket is played. You’re Australian. How can you cheer for the other side?

The answer is twofold.

I was a cricketing child of the late 1970s and 1980s and I loved watching the West Indies play. I loved the relentless pace attack, a production line stretching from Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner through to Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose. I loved the devastating panache of one I.V.A. Richards. I loved the immutability of the best opening partnership in Test cricket history: Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. I had a ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’ World Series Cricket beach towel, but I always put my hand up as ‘Big Bird’ in the daily matches played in the wide, grassy areas at Moby Dick Caravan Park, Pacific Palms. I loved the game, and the Windies captivated my soul.

I shared the love among individual players from all nations. Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Sunil Gavaskar, David Gower. I loved the genuine contest between the cricketing nations of my youth. That seemed to disappear with the resurgence of Australian cricket under Allan Border. Border was the captain Australia needed after the DLP-style schisms of the Packer years and rebel tours of South Africa, but I just couldn’t warm to the ‘hard-edge’ mentality. As Border himself warned in 2005, Australia’s dominance became a negative. The brilliance of Lara disguised the Icarus-style plunge of cricket in the Caribbean. Post-apartheid South African sides including Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock under performed. New Zealand? I don’t remember anything about New Zealand cricket apart from Daniel Vettori and the change from brown to black one-day colours. For a shining hour, I cheered on Zimbabwe until the Mugabe regime’s fuckwittery made the country (never mind the cricket team) a horror show of hyper-inflation and internal displacement. I became more interested in the cricketing fault lines on the subcontinent, as the Pakistan of Wasim and Waqar gave way to the slumbering, lumbering Inzi and the crazily-gifted laziness of Shoaib Aktar. Sri Lanka, relatively new to Test cricket, delivered the doosra, Jayasuriya and Jayawardene; but the treatment of Murali Muralitharan in Australia was abject. A great of the game labelled a ‘chucker’ by our Prime Minister and viciously attacked by spectators who could not or would not entertain the thought that we were privileged to witness two very different masters of spin bowling. Wiser heads shook in disgust. Andrew Symonds was subjected to disgraceful racial vilification on tour in India. The Barmy Army booed Ricky Ponting in England. Bottles were thrown at Australian players on the pitch in Jamaica. For every event, there had to be a repulsive comeback. On field hostility and the sheer ugliness of cricketing crowds across the world were enabled by the dismissiveness of the cricket establishment. Perhaps naively, I never imagined I would witness it first hand, but I did in the summer of 2003/04. That’s when I fell completely away from Australian cricket. India’s batting line up was the first to rival the West Indian pacemen for a place in my heart. Sehwag, Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar. They were individually astonishing, but the Sydney Test was something special. Sehwag swashed and buckled. Laxman’s lyrical big ton. Ganguly’s refusal to declare until day three. Dravid’s elegant, unbeaten 2nd innings They weren’t just raining on Steve Waugh’s parade, they were dancing in the Australian captain’s place, on his home ground, in the match he had dictated would be his final Test.

And then there was Sachin.

I saw Sachin Tendulkar at the crease for hours, plowing his way to his highest Test score. Not so much a pretty innings, but character writ on his bat. It should have been everything anyone who loved cricket could hope to see, regardless of your allegiance. Sitting near me on the boundary in the Noble Stand, a group of Australian men sprayed racial abuse at Tendulkar, to the obvious distress of Indian families around them and the oblivion of the titan at the crease. An Australian fielder turned his back on play, and laughed with the men. ‘Little Master? He’s a fucking little curry muncher!’ A pantomime shake of the head. Roars from the drunks. The player resumed his attention to the game, too late to hear me stand and spit venom at ‘my fellow countrymen’. I copped an earful, of course and gave it back until a friend dragged me away. The behaviour of the spectators was appalling, and the player joining in took the biscuit. I didn’t go on Day 5. There was no joy in my heart for what had become the Steve Waugh Show.

I am reminded regularly that other teams and other crowds behave just as poorly, if not worse. I don’t yearn for a time when cricket spectators the world over sipped cups of tea and clapped politely regardless of the team they support. It never existed. Everyone sledges, ‘patriotic’ fans stick it to the enemy, and we’ll just paper over the cracks by serving mid-strength hops-flavoured water and ban beer snakes and beach balls. ‘Everyone else does it,’ is the excuse of squabbling siblings in the back seat of a car. Grow up. I’m not English, or South African or Indian. I have the privilege of an Australian birthplace and passport, but I choose not to be part of a culture which does not strive to lead on and off the field. I’ll congratulate Australian players on their milestones even if boorish, sulky English players don’t. That’s my code. I’m not asking your permission, or for you to join this club of one. I’ve watched plenty of cricket, from the NSW Country Cup, T20, one-days and Test matches and not seen anything else remotely like it, but the memory of that January day a decade ago feels like a tattoo of an ex-boyfriend’s name. From reports and images of crowd behaviour in Bays M1-M10 at the MCG during the Boxing Day Test, it’s not getting better. Not yet.

PS: I’m crazy for the Southern Stars, but you know, they’re just ‘ladies … looking good as always‘.

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