Australian vice-captain David Warner

The current ball-tampering scandal in world cricket has created an interesting variation on the “baseball conundrum”, as developed by Noam Chomsky, and the “cricket vs republicanism” argument of the philosopher David Stove around the same time.

Chomsky’s “baseball conundrum” was this: he was driving through Boston one day, grousing about the ability of Reagan Republicans to convince working-class people to vote against their own material interests, while listening to a sports radio phone-in show, in which people discussed the rules, strategies, tactics and team management of baseball with the most acute forensic skill. How could people do that, he wondered, and be so at sea in the world of politics?

The answer to that, never fully elaborated in my opinion, in the enormous debate around that followed, is that sport is something you surround – quite literally, in the arena — while politics surrounds you. Sport, in its performance, is a reconcretisation of a series of abstract rules, while politics is an ever more distant abstraction of concrete interests and everyday life. Sport has taken on its current character, as the arena of values, in the decades after the 1970s, when the great left-right battle over socialism was lost, and both sides of western politics became adherents of a managed capitalism. Sport, always an involving thing, became the place where capital-F Freedom — natural talent fused with shaped skill, small decisions echoing grander ones and vice versa — was enacted by proxy. Owing to good weather, the Australian revolution happened in cricket.*

Conservatives had their own variant on the sports/politics nexus. David Stove — simultaneously the most under and overrated philosopher in Australia’s history — proposed the “cricket v. republicanism” model. Echoing the conservative philosopher Oakeshott, he argued that things like cricket represented embedded and incommensurable practices that grounded a society, fusing concrete and abstract together (he, heh, did not use this language). Society divided over those for whom something like cricket, with its history, idiosyncracies, etc, represented a passion, and those for whom the then-lively republican movement – with its ideas of progress, improvement, and plans for living — did.

The tampering scandal has brought both those ideas to the fore again, but in a more complex fashion. What is currently called the “cricket crisis” – it is not; cricket cannot have a crisis because it does not matter; not-mattering is the whole point of cricket – has been taken as a drama of our values, and it unquestionably is. In an era of totalising capitalism, where the only ends are means (money, markets, commodities), cricket has obviously become a media commodity. But its internal structure has also become infected with the “logic” of the commodity.

Cricket, like all games, relies for its meaning and pleasure from “system-maintenance” – every individual act within the game, must reinforce the integrity of the game, or it becomes a parody of itself. Cheating in high-stakes poker is rational; cheating in a Christmas day game of 500 is pathetic and destructive. Cheating in sports has come about not merely because of external profit motives, but because the implicit understanding of game maintenance has started to die among its practitioners, amidst a culture of hyperindividualism and “#winning”. **

Compare the “bodyline” scandals and this one. Bodyline playing was strictly legal. But it offended “sportsmanship” – a set of meta-rules by which any game operates – which, beyond the written code, made the game playable. Bodyline’s wider implication was obvious: it occurred at exactly the time that the British empire was being transformed into the Commonwealth, with the modification of Australia’s “dominion” status in 1931. The colonies were not only revolting, they were shellacking. Bodyline’s violence was more than merely tactical.

The latest ball-tampering has something wilful about it. Bancroft and co. have lost millions in endorsements, future broadcasting contracts, business connections etc. Surely they could have seen that risk? There appears to have been a positive desire to cheat, an enactment of capitalism’s nihilism, and the destructive nature of individualism as a root philosophy of life.

But while the scandal may show that sport partakes of wider cultural conditions, it also shows something else: you can’t, positively or negatively, read off a set of wider social values from how we talk about or manage sport. Sport is, or can be, an arena where we play-act situations in which morality and self-interest collide. In everyday life, they rarely do. We don’t live in arenas of contestation with visible rules; most people live in vast systems utterly beyond their comprehension, and getting more so. 

Sport may well provide a place where one could insist that values matter, and try and show people that a world governed by individualism and self-interest does not work. But sport is also a tool used to ensure that such a world does work, without the culture breaking down entirely. The more insistence there is on the need for morality in sport, the more its absolute opposite can be enforced elsewhere. So it is not that the morality of sports does not matter in a country of detention camps and a steady and studied killing-off of rural Indigenous society: it is that this non-mattering thing, this white-flannel ballet of futility, has become all that can matter. 

*”owing to bad weather, the revolution in Germany, happened in music.” Tucholsky, 1923

**yes, you could overstate the novelty of that. In the 19th century, WG Grace, if he went out early due to a freak shot, would sometimes simply stay in. “They came to see my playing, not your ruling” he told the umpire.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey