CRICKET VERSUS REPUBLICANISM
Quadrant, June 1977, reprinted in Cricket versus Republicanism (Quakers Hill Press, 1995)
IT PASSES MY understanding how anyone with even a grain of sense can feel pleasure at the prospect of a republican Australia: an Australia, that is to say, even more "base, common and popular" than it is now. Anyway, I am myself for the British connection. In my World XI, Britons - Shakespeare, Purcell, Newton, Hume and Darwin - would be the first five picked. Either to the British exclusively, or to them more than to any other nation, the world owes, and Australia especially owes, whatever it has of scientific knowledge, sober philosophy, stable government without oppression - and cricket.
Only the British, and indeed, to tell the truth, only the English, could have invented this game. It requires gentlemanliness, and teaches it. This sounds like headmaster's talk circa 1938. It is, too. It is also true. I have seen cricket make gentlemen out of the most intractable. Australian materials, at least for four hours on Saturday afternoons, more times than I could count. It doesn't always work, of course; that would be unreasonable to expect.
But the fact remains that the game, as it required a ripe civilisation to invent it, is also a means of transmitting civilisation to others. Of course I do not mean to suggest that this is why it is played. It is played because playing it is a pleasure beyond price. The cricketer, even the humblest village player, when he reflects on his life, can recall very few things so deeply delightful as the time he caught so-and-so at short forward leg ("off a full-blooded drive, mind you"); or the time he smashed so-and-so's bouncer through point for four ("and along the floor all the way").
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
Just because cricket is so civilised and subtle a game, "an essence almost too fine," it might have been expected that it would never take root in this harsh country. And in fact Australian barracking, by its quantity and overwhelmingly stupid quality, seems to testify to a residual antipathy to any problem more complex than can be solved by the sturdy republican method of everyone immediately having a go.
But the book before me [On Top Down Under. Australia's Cricket Captains, by Ray Robinson] is a reminder, not only of how widely and deeply the game has taken root here, but of the fact that at cricket the Australian is a Pom-beating animal. The margin of superiority is slight, but it is consistent, and therefore calls for explanation. I have heard dozens of theories advanced to account for this. My own belief is that it is due to a difference in attitude towards the opponent: that whereas the Australians hate the Poms, the Poms only despise the Australians. I was very interested, therefore, when Neil Harvey, during the wonderful centenary test just ended, said something similar only in politer words: that Australians always want to win more than their English opponents do.
But Australia, unlike England, has no literature of cricket. We have nothing to put beside the very beautiful chapter called 'The Flower Show Match' in Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man; nothing, even, to put beside Hugh de Selincourt's novel The Cricket Match, which, though good, is far inferior to Sassoon. We have only cricket journalism. Ray Robinson's book is a very favourable specimen of this class. It is vilely written, but it is an extraordinarily rich collection of stories, jokes, statistics, facts of every kind, bearing on Australian test cricket under every captain from the beginning to Greg Chappell.
The circumstances here and now are obviously far less favourable towards a literature of cricket than they were, say, for Sassoon in the Weald of Kent in 1903. Still, I cannot help thinking that there are the seeds, in Australian temperament and Australian wit, of such a literature; though it would of necessity be a less gentle literature than the English one. There was, for example, a severe kind of poetry in what Greg Chappell said to Terry Jenner when the latter fell, bleeding from the head, hit by a short ball from Snow at the SCG a few years ago, and the ball careered away unregarded. Unregarded by everyone, that is, except the non-striker Chappell, whose only comment to Jenner was, "There was a single in it." Has not that the real Duke-of-Wellington touch?
And again, the Sydney Hill every now and then produces wit of a quality which no English crowd ever produces. Not in this book, but in Alan Davidson's cricket autobiography, is the best example I know. The Rev. David Sheppard, having allowed yet another playable ball to go unattempted outside the off stump, was admonished in clerical tones from the Hill: "And it came to pass..." Such a thing gives me hope for my fellow-countrymen; and the joke was only made possible, I might point out to my anti-British friends, by the "peculiar institution," the Church of England.