Towards a theology of cricket

1. I shall not attempt something so presumptuous as to claim the preference of a game for the Almighty: I am sure he can choose for himself. However, as the playwright Harold Pinter, an Englishman of Jewish heritage once said:

‘I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth - certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either’.

2. ‘Cricket’ is itself a byword for grace: for the supremacy of the spirit over the letter. ‘It’s not cricket’ is an accusation above all of Pharisaism, of perhaps mastering the frame of the game but not its understanding its essence. In the infamous Bodyline series of 1932-33, the Australian captain Bill Woodfull famously said to Pelham Warner, the English manager: ‘I do not want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is playing cricket and the other is not.’

3. Cricket is a game that relates directly to the surface of the created and cursed earth; it is exposed to the wind and the rain and the sun. The ball is bowled to bounce from the dirt and grass and to respond to it.

4. Cricket is a game invented by shepherds to play while their sheep grazed on green pastures and drank from still waters. It is a pastoral game.

5. True cricket has a quasi-biblical relationship to time. It combines the universal truths of the sages with the dynamic progressions and epic dimensions of covenant history. In test cricket at least, patience is the virtue most required – for spectators and players alike.

6. If Cricket's messiah was Don Bradman, her patriarch was the appropriately named W. G. Grace. He was more Jacob than Abraham: a wily grasper and a shamateur at that, a replacer of bails...but an impassable bearded giant at the crease.

7.  Men of well-known Christian faith have adorned the game. Among the most notable of these are the aptly-named Rt Rev David Shepherd, who played for England after being ordained; Australian captain Brian Booth; England keeper Alan Knott; South Africa’s Trevor Goddard, Shaun Pollock and Jonty Rhodes; Jack Hobbs who scored 197 first class centuries; and West Indian speedsters Ian Bishop and Wes Hall. This is makings of a classy XI. Not selected were the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje, although he made a very public apology for his corrupt behaviour just before he died in an air crash; and Pakistan skipper Mohammed Youssef, who converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name from Youssef Yohanna in the process.

8. The late Peter Roebuck could see the redemptive potential in cricket for individuals and even for nations and became one of its missionaries. Cricket – like other international sports – promises to unite the nations and promote peaceful relations between them. Writer George Orwell was more skeptical about sport and international politics, though he was watching a football match between England and communist Hungary at the time. There once was a war between Honduras and El Salvador over a soccer match. It would be unlikely that cricket could ever cause bloodshed in this way – but Roebuck expected too much of the game. It is great fun, but it can’t change hearts.

9. The batsman who ‘walks’ is expressing a far more Christian view of the world than the batsman who doesn’t. The batsman who acknowledges that he is out even when others cannot see it is saying that the truth is what actually happens, and that it matters in every instance. The batsman who does not walk is firstly postmodern, in that for him nothing is true until it is described as such (‘it’s only actually out when the umpire says so’) and secondly, fatalistic, in that he argues that umpiring mistakes in his favour will eventually balance those mistakes that fall against him - so he might as well make the most of his luck while he has it.


Feature photo: Sam Hames

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (8)

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  • Robert James Elliott
    January 24, 12 - 12:18pm
    Rugby is the better game. Life is a contact sport, it requires perseverance (playing for 80 minutes), overcoming obstacles (beating tackles), stopping opponents (making tackles), and loyalty to one’s team and allegiances (playing for the team). Everyone in a rugby football team is their brother’s keeper whereas cricketers often play as individuals. Cricket is simply more pouncy. Acquit ye like men!
  • Sandy Grant
    January 25, 12 - 9:40am
    Michael, thanks for a bit of fun, which couldn't help getting serious at one or two points!

    It does remind me of a joke hard Simon Manchester tell when he was preaching in Moore College chapel way back when I was a student. And perhaps sadly for you, this may appeal more to Robert...

    So there's a man weighing up whether to believe, and he wants to know whether his beloved rugby really is the game they play in heaven. And in a dream, an angel appears to him and says, "Well, I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that they really do play rugby in heaven. The bad news is that you've been selected on the wing this weekend!"
  • Robert James Elliott
    January 25, 12 - 10:00am
    Very funny Sandy. Cricket also has a nasty white-trash sledging element that is less common in rugby, I think because there is overt violence and physical contact in rugby, where as cricket just has the odd bouncer and some verbal abuse. Sadly Australian cricket are world leaders in sledging and abuse. But these are matters of personal taste and no game is necessarily more or less biblical. For Sydney Anglican purists, note that even Oliver Cromwell seems to have played cricket, even when other Puritans denounced it:
  • Michael Jensen
    January 25, 12 - 11:49am
    I've written a bit more about cricket here
  • Colin Murdoch
    January 25, 12 - 2:32pm
    Most in or from Melbourne would know that for decades AFL is more popular than church, religion, rugby league, basketball, rugby, and the crowds that come remotely close would be in cricket and the Australian Open tennis...

    It was AFL Super coach, Ron Barassi, when coach of North Melbourne at the time, after parachuting out of a plane for the first time approx 30 years ago, made the front page of a Melbourne newspaper with his proclamation:Barassi says;"Better than Sex!"

    Some wondered at first glance whether he was referring to coaching or the AFL being better than sex, but in the fine print, he was of course referring to his first parachuting experience.

    I have never heard that said of cricket; even though I enjoy it!

    So, since Man was created in the image of God, and Ron Barassi declared that, coupled with Alex Jesaulenko former Carlton Great, and Geelong father and son duo all being referred to as "God" often; I think AFL comes the closest to being more closely aligned with the preferences of God...-)
  • Ernest Burgess
    January 26, 12 - 11:31am
    I like all sport including cricket and rugby I like the passion and the commitment of the players as they excel to be the best in their game, Paul used the games of his day to illustrate how we as Christians should work for the Lord. However the theology of sport has a dark side expressed in nationalist fever that divides and separates, be it at the local club level or at state (state verses state mate verses mate)level, and of course the Olympics express who are the great sporting nations for the glory of sport. No when I watch a game I have to keep on remembering that I belong to a Kingdom and a King that transposes any call to nationalistic/team spirit that I might have, they are games in the light of eternity and having an average of 99.4 carries no weight.
  • Ben Roberts
    January 26, 12 - 11:39am
    There is an episode of Yes Minister where Sir Humphrey exclaims to the Minister that the proposed action would not be appropriate. The Minister dismisses this first exclamation to which Sir Humphrey follows up by referring to it as being 'Not Cricket'. The Minister then agrees as he could not possibly act in a manner that 'was Not Cricket!'
  • Rodney Kerr
    February 1, 12 - 4:16pm
    You're not the first to have done this, Michael. I have a great little book on my shelf entitled "Cricket and Christianity" (ISBN: 0 85892 268 1) by former Australian captain Brian Booth with Paul White. He brings cricket, theology and the Christian life together in one exciting book. I've even used it in my preaching (I was challenged to do so by a Bible Study group once). The subtitle says it all, "To help you to live with a straighter bat and to maintain a better line and length".