On the corruption of Cricket

by Elias Blum

When I went to Tuvalu, I took amongst my reading material Sir Arthur Grimble’s ‘A Pattern of Islands’. Grimble joined the Colonial Office in 1913 and began his career as a District Officer in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu). He ended up as Governor of Jamaica. He recounts how, in his early days in the Colonial Service, junior officers were expected to spend a couple of hours a day ‘in nets’ – that is, practicing their batting and bowling.

On station, one of the first jobs was to create a cricket ground and to teach the natives cricket. They drilled the locally recruited police, clerks and the native magistrates in cricket.

Grimble describes this in some detail. He is of the opinion that the game is a giant teaching exercise – to teach people the value of fair play, sportsmanship and justice. The whole enterprise of training them for self-government, in his view, requires a mastery not only of cricket, but more importantly of the spirit of the game.

In a system that relies on unwritten rules, convention, social norms, traditions etc, this made a certain amount of sense. You cannot operate – or understand – the ‘British constitution’ unless you have a keen sense of what is ‘cricket’ and ‘not cricket’. It’s the same process of gradual acculturation into unwritten rules that underlies cricket, the conventions of parliamentary government, and the operation of the legal system and civil service.

It’s mostly nonsense, of course. The unwritten rules privilege those who know them and exclude those who don’t. They are a barrier to entry. They are vague enough that those in positions of power can choose to ignore them – while pretending not to. I don’t know why I could always see through the sham, when others seemed to be enchanted by it. Perhaps it is a product of having been educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow, not Oxford or Cambridge – I don’t know. But it always seemed to me to be a wholly unsatisfactory way of doing business. It so much better, when it comes to the constitution of the state, the system of government and the rights of citizens, to write it down, be clear and honest, and stick to it.

Yet perhaps there’s a connection – albeit a tenuous one – between the corruption of cricket and the corruption of the polity. I’m not suggesting one causes the other. But ball tampering and political scandals (from ‘cash for questions’  to the recent allegations surrounding Cambridge Analytica) seem to have the same underlying cause: a retreat away from ‘gentlemanly restraint’ as a guide to conduct and a renewed shameless embrace of ‘doing whatever it takes to win’.

We seem to be in an even worse state, under shameless oligarchy than we were under pompous aristocracy.

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