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