The Cricket Tragic
Even as the many Western Australians who decked themselves out in the blue and gold enjoy the ecstasy of a third national Australian rules football title, the State’s sporting consciousness inevitably turns with the spring breeze to the national summer sport. The first non-Victorian team to purloin the Premiership back in 1992, one suspects that many Eagles supporters fondly imagine that the AFL Cup is only at home when it is under glass and key in Perth. The little urn containing The Ashes, in contrast, rarely leaves England and will not physically change hands should Ponting’s men triumph this summer. If you follow the Australian cricket team, whether you are of the generation of Benaud or Border, or younger even than Michael ‘Pup’ Clarke, chances are that your knowledge of the game includes the principle that win, lose or draw, The Ashes remain in their home, at Lords. Even when we beat England, as we did in every series between 1989 and 2005, the Ashes belong in their home and most cricket-lovers are content that the Old Urn stays there. Sometimes tradition or sentiment is simply more important than the winner taking all.
One Australian who will be following the cricket this summer is the self confessed cricket tragic, Prime Minister John Howard. Perth is hosting the third test in Perth from the 14th to the 18th of December and capacity crowds are expected every day. Mr Howard may make it a couple of sessions in the series, but a cricket season is a lengthy business and despite his obsession, the Prime Minister will probably only see a fraction of the overall play. Nevertheless, he will no doubt follow the score in that strange osmotic way that many Australians are capable of doing. Middle of a meeting; someone else’s office; ‘know the score?’ ‘yep, England 3 for 78 at tea’; such transactions are a part of the culture and probably as common in the Federal Cabinet as any other workplace. After all, Mr Howard cares about cricket.
But cricket is time-consuming. The Australian men’s test team are all on sufficiently lucrative contracts that they can afford to make playing the game their full time employment. However, the health of the sport nationally depends on there being a mountain of which Ponting and company are merely the shining summit. The cricketing massif is composed of tens of thousands of Australians: playing, coaching, ferrying kids, umpiring, encouraging. Your average suburban cricketer devotes a couple of nights a week to training and perhaps one day a weekend for the matches, for half of spring and most of summer. Then there is fundraising, rolling wickets, maintaining gear and all the associate ritual and rigmarole. Only a sport, of course; but games build friendships, character and community and are the stuff upon which suburban legend is made. Essential feelings of home and season are infused with the smell of batting gloves or indeed the gentle patter of the ABC radio commentary. The sensory associations, in the span of a single human life, can feel timeless.
Though it might seem a safe part of the national tradition, cricket is vulnerable. Indeed this year something has happened which could, in the long run, have a devastating impact on the sport. In order to be seriously involved in cricket, no matter how amateurish, you have to be able to regularly and reliably commit substantial chunks of time to the game. So what, one wonders, will happen now that large numbers of Australians have less control over their own time than ever before? What if your fellow opening bat can’t play on the weekend, because he now has to be at the workplace on Saturdays or he will lose his job? What if the under-sixteens can’t get a coach, because Mr Smith who has held the position for years isn’t able to leave work on Wednesday nights any more? What if Ms Jones, who usually not only drives her own son to the game, but picks up a couple of his mates on the way and then stays to score the first innings can’t do it anymore because she is forced to get back for another shift? Sadly, these hypothetical examples are not a ‘what if’; this is the world of the Work Choices legislation introduced by Mr Howard, the cricket lover.
Mr Howard’s affection for cricket does not seem to include much of an emphasis on giving working Australians time to participate in the game. For many Australians the Howard Government’s industrial relations legislation will lead to employment insecurity and the need for multiple low-paid jobs; a society in which many of us will not so much have a home and work balance as just an endless anxious struggle on the edge. If you cannot rely on reasonable working hours or fair pay and conditions, then what does that do to your ability to have time to spend at home with your family, let alone to get down to the park and put the pads on? We have before us the looming spectre of an Americanised industrial relations system, of which the death of some suburban cricket teams, killed by the Howard Government’s ideological obsession with industrial relations, might just be collateral casualties. The great game of baseball, we can perhaps console ourselves, takes less time.
The great cricket writers have long asserted that the game has the capacity to transcend sport. In the context of the new industrial relations environment, cricket stands as a convenient metaphor for the full spectrum of sporting, artistic and volunteer activities; for social relationships; for community, friends and family. If you cannot exercise reasonable control over your own time, the fabric of your own personal life and engagement with society must fray. It has sometimes been suggested that England’s decline as a cricketing power in the late eighties and nineties was directly associated with the attacks on public assets and institutions under Margaret Thatcher; ‘no such thing as society’ it seemed, would include the communal activity of cricket. It may be that in Australia we will face something similar, with the arrival of a society in which the question of whether or not a kid plays cricket depends on what his or her mum and dad might do for a crust. Perhaps, one day, as a retired Mr Howard settles back in his dotage to relax under the spell of the ABC cricket commentary (and who knows, perhaps interspersed with commercial advertising introduced under his government) and if Australia is not doing well, the former Prime Minister might think of the missing players; the kids that never had the chance to give the game a proper go, all because of the industrial laws brought in way back in 2006. Perhaps then the cricket tragic might see through the ideological blinkers and understand the damage his government has done.