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“It’s Only a game”

I have received a couple of (mild) reproofs for attaching too much importance to the Australian cricket cheating scandal – any importance at all, really.  “It is, after all, only a game,” is the gist of their argument.

They have a point, I suppose, but it is arguable, and I would be among those doing the arguing.

Context is everything, and in this context – three Australian cricketers conspiring to scuff up the ball in a match against South Africa, in case you had not heard – the offence is not so much against the opposing team in a game of cricket but against the pride of a country that regards its sporting heroes as symbols of the nation’s standing in the world. 

Laugh if you will, but it is a fact, and it explains the cries of outrage and anguish that greeted the news back home.  Even Australia’s prime minister felt impelled to intervene, calling for severe punishments for the miscreants.

Australia as a nation is barely a century old, with little in the way of elevating history to boast about.  In Britain, a country with such a long history that most of its citizens hardly know much even about the supposedly ‘glorious’ bits, such a scandal might have been greeted with cynical shrugs of shoulders.  It would have dominated the sports pages for a while, but probably would have received scant coverage in the main news sections. 

Things are different Down Under, as the Brits call that faraway land of strange creatures populated by people they patronisingly (and absurdly) regard as unreconstructed convicts.  There, sport is a metaphor for the country’s identity.  Its successes symbolise its progress in nation-building.  Beating the ‘mother country’ at cricket in a series called The Ashes – which Australia has just accomplished, and very handily too – is your average Australian male’s idea of Nirvana. 

Americans may chortle – the very idea of cricket strikes them as laughable, quaint, anyway – but most baseball fans can still talk knowledgably about that sport’s all-time scandal, the fixing of the 1917 World Series between the Chicago Black Sox and the New York Giants, and many can still recite the facts: who did the fixing and the names of the players involved, like the infamous ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson.  And that benighted contest (which as the newspaper boys used to say, “rocked the nation”) took place during a world war, in which the United States would shortly participate.

There is another aspect to the Australian scandal that has nothing to do with the sport itself, or with national identity or symbolism, and that is an economic one.  Two of the players involved in the cheating plot earn tens of millions a year, not just for their sweaty endeavours on the field of play but through lucrative corporate sponsorships.  That takes the scandal from the sports pages to the financial pages.  Perhaps it goes to the medical pages as well, since psychologists are probably even now trying to work out what motivated a couple of multi-millionaires to risk everything by mucking about with a cricket ball in a game they were already well on the way to losing anyway.    

The cheating scandal will pass from every section of the newspaper soon enough, but Australia right now is in a state of shock, and embarrassed to its very core.

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