The recent scandals and poor performance of Australia’s national team will quicken the quest for practical solutions. But the deeper question is – can cricket recover its importance as a cultural institution and icon, and continue to serve as a spiritual ceremony for a secular people? Or will it be reduced to the status of a sport and continue to fade as a symbol of our national identity?
Cricket has lost its exalted position in Australia. It attracts interest in the summer holidays but is rapidly waning as a cultural institution and historical icon. It risks being reduced to the status of a sport – interesting for some but no longer serving as a symbol of our national identity.
An insight into the plight of cricket in Australian culture might be drawn from a comparison with the recent history of Catholicism. In the 1960s the Catholic Church reformed the ritual of the Mass. It changed its expression from ancient Latin to vernacular language, and stressed a community rather than a ceremonial style that was expected to boost the popularity of the rite.
The novelist Wilfrid Sheed, son of the Australian publisher Frank Sheed, highlighted the effects of these and other changes:
A religion lives by its noises. People picked up the new tone, and to hell with the substance. Sunday Mass might still be important, but it didn’t sound important. So we didn’t go anymore. Confession? Who would endure that ordeal if it weren’t a question of life and death? The Church had lost its gravity. By expressing ancient beliefs in modern terms it had removed all their weight. That is the whole point with modern terms.
(Transatlantic Blues, 1978)
Cricket underwent a similar reformation in the 1970s. It rejected the traditional display of slow and apparently boring cricket. It insisted on a new order inspired by a different aim – to widen the appeal of the game and make it more approachable and enticing. The inevitable result, in a secular culture, was the dominance of commercial imperatives. They have amplified the excitement of the game, but threatened the integrity of its values and sabotaged its cultural significance.
Present-day cricket mirrors the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church. Both are beset by scandals, but the common challenge they face is recovering fundamental respect and public credibility.
‘Big Bash’ won’t finally do it. It sounds and looks all too much like aggression. It scorns the other values that cricket holds dear, such as grace, courage, resourcefulness and patience.
No doubt cricket has its own problems. Some are specific to the game – the poor performance of Australia’s elite cricketers and the ball-tampering scandal that compromised senior players, including the Australian captain (a position of previously unrivalled honour in the nation). Other factors are more general, such as the length of time required for cricket in a busy society and the competitive attraction of other sports.
But its most urgent and profound challenge is to recapture cultural significance and authority. This is what made a cricket a truly national sport – that it mattered to us. It excited our loyalty, whether we were passionate followers of the game (“cricket tragics”) or largely indifferent. It was bound up with our history and identity as a people.
Australian culture has prided itself on being straightforward and secular. It has avoided mystical enthusiasms. Our most sacred celebration, Anzac Day, comes closest to transcending the secular. Each Dawn Service combines, in a haunting way, secular reverence and religious hope. Anzac Day exalts such qualities as heroic self-sacrifice and a capacity to live with grief.
Australia has been, in the main, tolerant of religious faith – at least until recently – but has always asserted the supremacy of secular principles.
The cultural importance of cricket lifted it above the secular. It invested it with a quasi-religious gravity. A cricket test between Australia and England evoked a similar response to that of the English soccer coach, Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.”
Cricket has served in Australian life as the sporting equivalent of a religious ritual. A test match is an arena on which our aspirations and values as a people have been played out. It has been a cultural symbol and ceremony, a mark of baptismal loyalty. For ordinary people, it has been nothing less than a sacramental way of being Australian.
Each summer it has endorsed our national faith as a people. It has been a communal ritual that fuses seriousness and relaxation in a characteristically Australian way.
Nothing crystallises the exalted position of cricket in the Australian soul more powerfully than the Boxing Day Test. It is our version of a secular liturgy, taking place straight after Christmas. It is an annual ceremonial act – even if rivalled in some measure by the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. It serves as a secular counterpart to a religious service at Christmas time, such as midnight Mass in the Catholic tradition.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw recognised that cricket cannot simply be seen as a sport that prizes physical accomplishment. Shaw, an Irishman, understood the higher importance of cricket for the English – and, by extension, for Australians: “The English are not a very spiritual people,” he commented, “so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.”
If cricket is to be once more of cultural meaning in Australia, a ceremony that transcends the excitement of a sport, it will need to inject new purpose into the game at the junior level.
The former Queensland premier Peter Beattie has recently urged the corporate sector to become more active at the grassroots level of sport. Speaking especially of the banks, he asks: “What are you doing about developing junior sport?” They need to sponsor local development programs and cultivate the talent of promising young sportsmen and women.
In my hometown of Armidale, a junior cricket carnival each January, the Walter Taylor Shield, has shown the value of an interstate competition that nurtures among the young a spirit of idealism as well as the development of skills. It engenders humility in victory and graciousness in defeat.
The counter-reformation starts at the grassroots.
Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College Australia and a former university librarian.
Illustration: Tourism SA.
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