On the perils of safety, Or a challenge to make the new year one of illogical recklessness

It ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Test match cricket once again at its maddening, spirit-testing, soul-searching best had tantalised and teased for a day. The South African team, chiefly in the form of batsmen AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, had seen out most of the day to put South Africa in a position to do one of two things. The first possibility, the one which would have been the focus of most of the hopes and plans at the outset of the final day, was a draw. Having batted all day, to have saved a game on which they had a tenuous grasp at the day’s outset, would have been a very good achievement from manifestly the best team in the world. They are ranked number one, and deserve to be so. A brave, young, inexperienced Indian side had put up a good fight, and a draw would have kept the series alive for both sides going into the second and final game in the two match series.

The second possibility was to go for a win. To go for a win which was within grasp. To go for a win which, if achieved, would have made history; increasing the long-held record for successful match-winning run chases run chase by a barely credible 10 per cent. Well within grasp as such a feat was, it required gambling on a risk-reward axis of high sporting stakes; to do so would mean risky shots which would put the draw in danger; batsmen still to come in were the least competent of the line-up, one was injured and batting for him would either be impossible or run the risk of worsening his injury.

The option taken was the first one. Safety won the day, the draw was secured and the best team in the world went to the second and final match in the series with the series still theirs to win – as they duly did after seeing off more plucky Indian resistance. The decision was an entirely sensible, logical, professional one.

Which is precisely the problem. The series had already been ruined before it started by the money-wielding intransigence of the Indian authorities bullying scared and compliant South African authorities into accepting a format of the visitor’s wishes. A two match Test series is, all agree, deeply unsatisfying and ultimately insignificant. In the long-term, no one will remember who won a two match series. But it suited the Indian authorities to have it this way, so that’s what happened. Money won the political game. With a two match series forced on them, it made perfect sense for the South African team, clearly superior to the Indians, to safely bat out the draw and go into the second game with the series there for the taking.

However. However…

What better way to undermine the power of money and cricket politics than brazenly going for the illogical win when every professional instinct preached safety first? What better way to transform a very good team stacked with a few great players into the history books by taking the rarest of opportunities to rewrite what players, fans and journalists thought of as possible? History was lost on the altar of safety.

Safety isn’t always dangerous. The human instinct towards safety is there to keep us alive, clearly. But sometimes it’s best unheeded; it’s possible to train your instincts to cut against the grain and go for that which seems illogical. The reasons not to do so are always good. Make prudent financial plans, sure. But what if a little bit of imprudence might release what’s needed for a project to start that could ultimately lead to the employment of many more and raising them beyond mere subsistence? I’m not claiming greatness for myself, by any means … but there were many appealing jobs in nice places I could have taken; instead we chose the adventure of a new country and a job that was all potential and no recognition. I know which option presented me with more life. On the face of it, there’s more logic in not living for God. There’s no proof of His existence, there’s no reward that I can see and touch dangled before me; following seems a life-lesson of giving-up. But … what if there’s eternal fruit for others in the no-reward choices I make today? What if there are consequences I can’t dream of to me investing in 2 or 3 lives of no so-called ‘significance’?

What, comes the reply, if I die and there is nothingness? Well, I won’t ‘know’ objectively so it won’t matter. But I will have lived for something beyond me, more than me.

The courage to risk at the right times comes with a sense of history and heritage, of knowing the wider context. If you know the sweep of history of which you’re a part, then you’ll know when your place in that lies within your grasp. Cricket has a rich history. One way of expressing that is in the numbers on the front of the shirts the players wear. These represent where that player stands in the history of his nation’s sporting heritage – if the number is 123, then he will be the 123rd player to have played that format of cricket for his country. In the day-to-day grind of professional sport, it’s easy to lose sight of a game’s historical significance. This is one way of cutting against that. The South African team is an exception. The country was excluded from cricket, and many other sports, in the apartheid years. The numbers on South African shirts count only those who represented the country since it was readmitted to world cricket in 1991.

Entirely understandable  – the desire and need to build a new country. But as the heroes of the safe transition to South African democracy taught us, you can’t forgive what you don’t know. History has no reset button; what makes the achievements of the South African nation great is the scars and the pain which freedom has been achieved in spite of. The present means nothing if you don’t know where you’ve come from. Others have done a better job of unpicking this than I have – click here for but one example.

The current South African team is, and deserves to be, the best in the world. It contains some great players and other very good ones. In 30 years time the players may be remembered, but the winner of a two-match ‘series’ won’t be. Within their grasp lay a history rewriting shot at corporate greatness, lost at the hands of professional safety and logic. What if …. ?

What if, indeed. In 2013 I lost a friend to terrorists. Like all of us, he was a flawed human, but one thing you could never accuse him of was a desire to play safe. He impacted lives because he chose the illogical and the great at the expense of the sensible. There is a time and a place for planning, prudence and safety. Of course there is. But let’s resolve to never let safety scare us into inaction. If it hadn’t been for God’s illogical decision to pack Himself into human form and allow Himself to be spat upon, whipped, broken and hurt, I’d have had to find something else to live for.

The sums of eternity do not add up. No. They make a deeper sense than logic.

In praise of … counter-cultural sport

Well that’s a ridiculous title. Is there a field of endeavour less counter-cultural than sport? By its very definition it habitually elevates to ridiculous levels of acclaim and fame the young, the physically disproportionately able and the (often) atypically beautiful. Elevating the cult of personality; a seemingly endless lust for more attention, more money, more everything; ultimately utterly pointless in the eternal scheme of things yet to so many taking on an unnatural level of importance. Counter-cultural?

Yes, it can be and often is. It may be in the burgeoning and increasingly respected paralympic movement; it may be the sports club run by volunteers in inner-cities; it may be the romantic stories of winning against the odds. Sometimes, often, sport is and can be beautiful and life-enhancing.

For now, let me talk about test match cricket in that context. Strip cricket down to bare essentials and it is a ridiculous sport. All sports are ridiculous in essence; but cricket is so absurdly contrived, so littered with a history of English colonialism, so often rooted in class privilege, as to stand out as especially absurd. It’s suffered recently and has adapted in response. Dwindling audiences for domestic cricket around the world; the one-day 50 over format suffering; the seeming ubiquity of the instant thrills of Twenty20 versions of the game bringing in attention, coverage, money and even glamour to a game sometimes seemingly teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

Yet ultimately the highest level of the sport – international test match cricket – remains gloriously, essentially counter-cultural. A test match is the name given to an international cricket match played between two teams over 5 days. If the game runs to full-length with no weather interruptions, that’s 30 hours of sport. 30 hours. There are only 9 teams playing it globally at the top-level. They won’t just play one test match – they will play a series of occasionally two, often three, sometimes 4 and between certain opponents 5, matches. That’s a long time. Often a winner will emerge. Sometimes it won’t, and therein lies the format’s counter-cultural beauty.

As I write, a three-match series has just concluded in New Zealand. It should have been straightforward. An eighth-placed New Zealand team in turmoil hosted the number-two England team. England were widely expected to romp to victory, weather permitting by an overall score of 3-0. In the first match weather saved England from losing a match New Zealand deserved to win; the result was a draw. In the second match weather prevented England from completing a victory they had just about earned; again, a draw. In this third match, New Zealand totally dominated for 4 days. On the fifth, New Zealand threw everything at England. One English player stayed on a score of zero for well over an hour. By all rights New Zealand should have won. Somehow, miraculously, England clung on – for a draw – in a match in which they were indisputably inferior. Thus at the end of a 3 match series, 15 days, a possible 150 hours of sport, the score was 0-0. Yet it was breathtaking, nerve-shredding, emotion-draining, gripping. A five match series  – such as is played out between England and Australia known as The Ashes – is all those things, multiplied exponentially. 0-0 after 150 hours Ridiculous. Yet in an age of the instant answer, when some church cultures promise solution and resolution, when politicians think of short-term vote-winners, this tells us something vital about not always getting what we want or even deserve and yet how that is somehow more right than getting what you think you should get.

Ahh the Ashes. I’ve been to a lot of live sport – world cup football, my beloved Arsenal football club, the Olympics, American Football, golf, rugby … so much I have been privileged to see. The Ashes – especially live – is unlike everything for suffocating tension and intensity. Years of colonialism, years of history, of tactics developed to achieve the ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent; of other tactics to physically damage the opponent; all that and more erupts into a five-match series which captivates and entrances two nations and international fans. For England and for many others this reached a peak in the English summer of 2005 which became the most intense, tightly fought, but also fairly contested, sporting occasion most of us have ever or will ever see. Click that last link for an article hinting at that summer’s excruciating beauty.

But none of this still quite does justice. I could talk about the rich tradition of cricket writing which this post can’t touch; I could talk about the high levels of depression and suicide amongst professional cricketers; I could talk about broadcasters who can fill hours of air-time during rain delays with riveting, infuriating, moving discussions. In the end, for all these truths, its deeply personal. I love sport. I watch a lot of it, lots of different sports, and get passionate about it. It means much to me; sometimes too much. My football club Arsenal is mine, for better or worse. It’s part of me and my family. But put a gun to my head and give me only one sport, and it would have to be test match cricket. When I grew up in a sports-loving house, cricket was on network television and football wasn’t. So cricket was the sound of our summers, on television and radio during long car journeys. It was in trips to London grounds on summer-holidays. I was soaked, earthed, bought up with cricket in the blood and bones of my being as deeply as my own DNA. I can’t forget it, can’t get rid of it.

In my memory. when a Test match would start, something would happen. Traditionally in England that was a Thursday at 11 a.m., though sometimes that now changes. What would happen, in my mind anyway, was that my Mum would make some good coffee, and we’d sit down, sip our coffee and eat some shortbread. And the day would drift on, the summer would burble by with the cricket ever-present. I’m just old enough to remember an absurdly improbable series known as Botham’s Ashes in 1981, which cemented cricketing heroes, myths and legends in my eight-year old psyche.

That’s what it is for me. So when I’m having a bad day, something cricket related will do something to and for me. The languid, slow, intense rhythms of the game can be a strange agent of healing in my head in ways I can’t explain. It worms into my psyche and does something. If a test match, especially an England one, is starting and I’m able to watch, I will make coffee and grab a biscuit (ideally shortbread), and I’ll be connected to my family even though my Mum has died and I’m physically absent from the rest.

I, we, will always need the strange and alien beast that is test cricket. It takes time to learn to love it. Like all time spent, it profoundly, endlessly repays you.

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

For two years or so, early in my life as ordained church minister, I was co-chaplain to Leyton Orient Football Club. This wasn’t a paid post – it was in the parish I was working in, and an opportunity arose to help out there as part of my day-to-day work. Leyton Orient isn’t a big club – outside of English-based football fans, it’s a club unlikely to be known. It sits in a diverse, bustling part of East London, at the heart of the community of Leyton from which it takes its name. It has a small stadium which I rarely saw full. It was during my time there that a chaplain at another club said to me words which explain much – both about the mentality of the professional athlete and that of the committed fan. “There are two crucial lessons you need to learn as a sports chaplain”, he said. “The first lesson is that it’s only a game. The second is that it’s never only a game. Learn those lessons and you’ll be alright”.

Those words came back to me when I first saw Fire In Babylon – a 2010 documentary film about the dominant West Indies test cricket  team of the 1980s. They were only a playing a game – but, as the film compellingly demonstrates, it was never only a game. The film simply, creatively tells the story of Test match cricket as the quintessentially English pursuit. A sport exported via colonialism to a select, but diverse collection of countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands. It’s that last geographic destination that this film concentrates on. That’s because cricket is everything to that group. Everything in that they only exist as a collective for the purposes of international cricket. The West Indies national anthem is about cricket. The team plays home games on a variety of different islands. They unite, different cultures and passports and places, around this and this only.

So the team rediscovered something – aggressive, direct fast bowling. I say fast – a small, hard missile aimed at your head or ribcage, travelling at 90-95 mph. As team after team fell – literally fell – before them Test cricket was turned from a 5-day chess match to a full on contact sport. Equipment and rules changed, and the West Indies dominated.

But what this meant beyond the game was more important. A team of black players, finding their own voice and expression, defeating and humiliating the white colonial masters on their own soil. Wrestling with the decision to play – for money – in apartheid South Africa. Moving from loveable, but flawed entertainers to a beautiful, brilliant, at times flawless professional team. Bob Marley was the soundtrack, the West Indies team the visuals.

Fire In Babylon is the 90 minute explanation, with fantastic music, of why 5 day test cricket is way more than a sport. It’s a test of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s an expression of freedom and means of oppression. It is  – like all great sport – metaphor for many, many deeper things. It reminds me that when I can’t tear myself away from updates and coverage of an England Test match or Arsenal; that the emotions that bruise, batter, enrapture and enfold me as I follow are not really about the sport. They are about the family I grew up watching these sports in, learning about them in, going to the grounds as part of. These games aren’t games; they are a way of telling the story of our lives, our families, our countries and our communities. Ask South Africa about 1995; Liverpool Football Club about the number 96; or the American people why it’s important that a team of (then) no stars called the Patriots won the Superbowl in early 2002. If you want a book to read, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is as good as you’ll get on this – in that case from the point of view of a football fan.

There must always be perspective – we all know people, or are people who need to remember that sport is, just sport. But those tempted to criticise and sneer must also know that it’s never just that. Fire In Babylon shows and tells this, to stunning effect.

At the time, some said the West Indies team that was sweeping all before it was ruining Test cricket. In a way they were.

But sometimes you have to ruin something in order to discover it.

I rated this move 9/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com