Taste of bitter Ashes – what cricket can tell us about climate change

As an Australian, it kinda sorta gives me a small amount of pleasure to write the following sentence  “England lost the Ashes in a record time of 12 days.”  To those in the know, these are (mildly) surprising words. To normal people (i.e. not “cricket tragics”) they will ask two pertinent questions – “what are you talking about?” and “what on EARTH has any of this got to do with the existential threat that is climate change? And you better not be clickbaiting me so I read you gloating about cricket”  In the next 1900 words or so, I’ll try to answer those questions.

“The Ashes” is the name given to cricket series between England and Australia, dating back to a surprise defeat to the Australian team in 1882 when it was still a bunch of colonies. A Times journo pronounced the death of English cricket and the bails (the little wooden pegs that are part of the stumps) were allegedly cremated. The tiny urn containing the ashes of the bails is held by the side who won the last series. Most series have five matches, with each match lasting five days (yes, that’s not a typo: a match is played over five days, and often at the end of that time, neither team has won. Again, I am not making this up.)  Australia have been dominant of late, and hold the Ashes. The English team is now in Australia. It needed to win the series of five matches in order to regain the Ashes. Having lost the first two matches, it needed to win in Melbourne. Instead, after a little more than two days, it lost in the most humiliating circumstances many can remember (no, I’m not chuckling as I write this – why do you ask?). 

That’s most of the boring stuff (and most people find Test cricket excruciatingly boring, like “baseball on sleeping pills”) out of the way.  Because, you know, climate change is not boring, it’s exciting and fun to think about, oh yes.

Sport as morality play

As is often the case when a team gets roundly beaten, questions of character, motivation and the marital status and profession of the beaten players’ mothers are brought up.  Explanations for under-performance are sought in family trees and psychological dispositions.  Sport has often served as a morality play in this way, and is seen as a training ground, character-forming for the “game of life” and for the Great Game of Empire  (see for example the quote (probably apocryphal) of the Duke of Wellington visiting the elite public school Eton and saying  ‘It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won!’  (for an excellent account of this, and George Orwell’s involvement, see here).

This way of thinking – of sport in the service of Empire – reaches its apotheosis in Henry Newbolt’s unironic poem Vitai Lampada  , which shows the boy on the cricket field becoming the man. The second verse goes like this

The sand of the desert is sodden red —

Red with the wreck of a square that broke;

The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,

And the Regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England’s far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks —

      “Play up! play up! and play the game

This is of course, questionable (1). 

Sport as metaphor for tension/indication of difficulty

More generally, sport is also an excellent (or rather, popular – the two are not identical) source of metaphor for tense times and difficult endeavours.  Two examples will have to suffice. 

In the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” on Meatloaf’s album Bat out of Hell we have two young people “making out” and the song then turns to a Baseball commentary from Phil Rizzuto who commentates what is going on –  “two down, bottom of the ninth” (2).

Somewhat more recently, in the season twelve episode of the American situation comedy “The  Big Bang Theory” “The VCR Illumination” the protagonist Sheldon Cooper is taught a lesson in persistence by his late father, an American Football coach, via a videotape style “win one for the Gipper” half-time speech.

Sport as metaphor for climate change

By now, if you’re still reading/skimming, you’re probably cursing me and saying “where’s the climate change?”  And finally, you get your answer #WorthTheWait.

Various people have tried to deploy sporting metaphors for climate change, with varying degrees of aplomb.  At the aplombier end, albeit didactic,  is a 2010 novel, “Climate Change for Football Fans: A Matter of Life and Death” by James Atkins.  More recently at the plummier end, (and plumbing the depths of sprezzatura) British Prime Minister (at time of writing) Boris Johnson gave a speech at the G20 meeting in Rome, shortly before the  Climate Conference in Glasgow where he likened our predicament to a football match.

“I would say that humanity as a whole is about 5-1 down at half-time. We’ve got a long way to go, but we can do it. We have the ability to come back but it’s going to take a huge amount of effort…. Team World is up against a very formidable opponent in climate change.”

Back to the Ashes – (did I mention England got slaughtered?)

It is easy to look at this as a morality play about “character”, or examine the individual stature of specific players and whether they are Too Old (though on fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, see this encomium).  These analyses can be entertaining, and cathartic, without being flat out wrong – there can certainly be an element of truth. But older hands, and those interested in longer-term change rather than venting/performing their outrage/virtue, tend towards structural analysis , looking at the incentive structures are for players, and the shape of the rest of the ecosystem in which Test matches exist.  Because since the late 1970s, with the coming of serious amounts of one day cricket, the types of cricket being played have expanded rapidly.

Various commentators (including Jonathan Agnew on the BBC, among many others) point out that the sorts of matches which enabled a elite batsman (and the current problems with England are – or are perceived to be – mostly about its batsmen rather than the bowlers) can sort out problems in their technique, gain experience, regain confidence etc. From this analysis,  those sorts of matches, at the county level, are being shunted to the beginning and the end of the season because the far more lucrative “limited overs” (one day, “T20, The Hundred) matches are taking the prime spots in the schedule, leading to a kind of Gresham’s Law, where bad technique (so called ‘hit and giggle’) drives out the good.

The problems go deeper, down to the local level. A good friend makes the point

Yeah, times are indeed changing. Some of the forces may be unstoppable. But the ECB has some choices about what it incentivises. It may find that if there are no rest matches or test revenue starts drying up because England are getting walloped in 3 days that the T20 money doesn’t replace that. I don’t particularly blame the players – they’re following the money. My local club always managed to get a decent (often Test level) Pro in for the summer. They struggle to do that as players can now make far more money playing T20. The last decent one we had was [redacted]. He was S African test. But he packed that in as he was making shit loads playing IPL, West Indian T20, for Sussex in our T20 etc etc. Basically just a merry-go-round of slogging it for an hour for a lot of money.

As I replied

That’s the whole thing in microcosm, isn’t it?

Because the young’uns can’t look up to an international, learn from him…

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy positive feedback loop 

There’s more to be said (3) , but I’ve kept you long enough. In this reading “T20” cricket, and the Indian Premier League, are, in this reading, the wicked Sirens, seducing our heroes from the One True Path of “tradition”.  This means batsmen never learn the patience and stamina to ‘grind it out’ a la Geoffrey Boycott or gaia-help-us, Chris Tavare.  

In climate terms, (yes, FINALLY with the climate stuff) the one-day fixtures are analogous to the empty-calorie attractions of glitzy technofixes (CCS, Hydrogen), ambitious round-number targets for round-number years, and proclamations of Net Zero,  Meanwhile, Test matches are the long slow process of institutional change, of the social, political, economic and cultural shifts which make the difference  (by institutions I mean not just organisations, with constitutions,mission statements and employees/members, but also the sets of social and legal norms about what is “good” and “normal”). It is easy to push the metaphor too far, which may be why I have buried it so far in this screed. Thin gruel.

So, are there any other tenuous parallels I can draw between what has happened to English Test cricket and humanity’s prospects for seeing in the 22nd century in better shape than it saw in 220,000 BC? I’m glad you asked. Because one has just come to mind – both English cricket and our species have been kicked in the goo(g)lies by an Australian, one that Dennis Potter named his fatal tumour after – i.e. Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch used cricket (taken from free to air in 2005)  (and especially football) as a battering ram to make his media empire more profitable. There’s a book (apparently very good) about this, called And the Sun Shines Now.

Meanwhile, on climate the Murdoch press has been, historically (and especially in Australia) a major impediment on the kind of ambitious, progresssive, collective and legal action that was needed, at a systems level, to do something vaguely sensible about climate change (In a recent Quarterly Essay the Australian journalist and commentator Laura Tingle mentions that the lack of Murdoch in New Zealand may be a contributory factor to the relative lack of polarisation of climate policy there).

I’m not saying all of it – or even terribly much of it – is Murdoch’s fault. I’ve spent all this essay trying get us beyond morality plays, and don’t intend to fall back into that trap. The problems go deeper than Rupe.

What needed to be done?(4)  We needed to focus more on the unglamorous stuff, that gets less attention, than the high profile “resource testeria” shiny stuff. But the incentives were not there. And now, like the Poms (did I mention they got slaughtered?), we are about to get skittled out for a low low score.

Footnotes

  1. The deeper questions, of who gets to play, how is the game rigged, the racialised, gendered and classed aspect to all this, let alone the able-ism, is beyond the scope of this rant.
  2. Rizzuto had to pretend that he didn’t know what he’d been hired to do, and the song’s producers didn’t mind – to be anachronistic – being thrown under the bus. See here. But I digress.
  3. You could (and I probably, for beer, would) argue an analogy between the hollowing out of local structures because of economic incentives, with the political situation around collapse of parties and party structures, throw in some ill-defined  “neoliberalism” cites some jeremiads about the collapse of Civil Society, but I am already drawing a long bow here.
  4. Fixing climate change is easy. All we need to do is invent a time machine and go back and make different decisions, and create societal institutions that value the long view. Simples. 

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