From where I sit: Loyalty tests

In cricket, as in other fields, choosing sides matters, writes Richard Bosworth

December 24, 2010

I went to the first day of the England-Australia test match in Perth recently.

That, from my youth, was a privilege that a male academic expected from his job.

After all, with Christmas near, there were no students on campus and a day stolen with sport could always be replaced by a laborious Sunday at one’s desk.

On this occasion, my virtue was greater since I was the guest of A. J. Barker, the official historian of the West Australia Cricket Association and the author of some shorter books of cricket history. We chatted about such matters; maybe we were “working”.

Tony is a Yorkshireman but, after five decades of residence in Australia, he has switched his cricketing allegiance to his new nation. So, as Australian wickets fell, it was a dismal day for him. I, however, since 1954 have always considered myself a Pakistan supporter, a dedication that, in recent times, has sometimes elicited sardonic guffaws from my friends. In the curious way of sports loyalty, I was 10 when Pakistan became “my team”, along with Leicester City. The initial prompting of such behaviour is lost in my unreliable memories, except that, growing up in the guilt-laden world of Sydney Anglicanism, I could not be a fan of teams that always won.

Maybe that childhood determination also helps explain why I believe passionately that criticism is the first duty of historical and other humanities scholarship. It is this refusal simply to believe that today prompts the assault waged by the dominant power of the market on those “generalist” subjects fostering active citizenship more directly than obedient employment. To our economic and political masters’ pleasure, it becomes harder and harder to be a “disloyalist”.

So, in December 2010, a cricket Test had its opening loyalty ceremony. That event included the solemn playing of the national anthems of the two rival teams who assembled on the ground and gave every sign of knowing the words. In case of who knows what – perhaps terrorist attack? – behind them stood uniformed soldiers. In the Australian case, there was the extra of a blessing from a member of the local indigenous community, suitably dressed in “traditional costume”. No woad-adorned ancient Briton appeared, however, to encourage the English team. This fusing of indigenous religion with that of the nation has become automatic in contemporary Australia. From this year, an indigenous salute is added to the opening prayer in every parliamentary session. At the University of Western Australia, no graduation ceremony, no public lecture, can happen without acknowledgment that the place stands on Noongar land and the Noongar people are its eternal custodians.

It is all very odd. Nations like to make unhistorical claims that they have always existed. Presumably the rhetoric about soil and blood grants eternity to new Australia, as well as helpfully distinguishing us from malign mother England and our greatest patron of recent times, the US. Whether it improves the appalling social deprivation of many indigenous Australians may be debated. But even in the innocent surrounds of a cricket match, the curious modern conundrum is posed. Under the market’s rule we are meant to know that the state is bad, expensive, incompetent, needing to be wound back. But, armed as we seem to be in an endless war on terror, the nation is good, very good; it should be all embracing and is especially embodied in our heroic and pure soldiery.

Can a 10-year old Australian boy today, say, decide hereafter to follow Bangladesh and Inverness Caledonian Thistle? I doubt it. We disloyalists live in testing times.

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