Recent headlines regarding the murder of Pakistan national cricket team coach Bob Woolmer during the ongoing Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean have aroused gentle interest in an enigmatic, but still widely mid-understood game. Somewhat remarkably, England’s greatest gift to her former colonies: cricket, has somehow slid into popular American discourse.
Cricket, that poorly understood sport whose popularity remains largely confined to date within the former British colonies, was once a game of the leisure class. Somehow, most Americans continue to carry some vague fantasy of bourgeois Englishmen and green pasture-like fields when I mention the sport. I suspect the white uniforms of its traditional five-day length form plays some role in this misnomer regarding an institution which remains, and I say this with pride, a lifelong obsession for this East Asian Australian.
This is slightly unusual, given that almost all of the people an average American might hope to see playing cricket are brown. In particular, they are South Asians, most likely graduate students, most likely found having a hit around on the engineering school fields at a university near you. And these young men, bespectacled and tamely dressed as they might be, only begin to hint at the now institutionalized obsession with which the game has infiltrated the sub-continent. As with many other nationally validated sports, cricket boasts a marvelously colorful history, one which mixes geo-political tension with steady dollops of racial and match-fixing scandal. The India-Pakistan rivalry is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the two neighbors’ tense relations; Sri Lanka’s rise to recent greatness is a glorious tribute to sport’s ability to transcend and unify despite prolonged ethnic conflict.
But as an Australian who fawns over his team line-up like an estranged widow aunt, much of the politics is abstracted. In previous decades, we boycotted playing against the South African team because of apartheid, and pummeling the usually hapless English team as an anti-colonial “sit and spin” got old many years ago. For well over a decade, in fact, for much of my life, Australia has been the world’s dominant cricketing nation by a significant distance. Due in part to our sports-driven culture, an above-excellent talent pool, or perhaps a particularly poor patch for our international rivals, cricket for Australia has become a pre-arranged cruise down self-congratulatory boulevard: where the Southern Cross flag waves as the boys (almost) always hoist the trophy, and look good doing it too.
Ahh, the boys. With their blonde highlights and goatees, model-like girlfriends and surfer personas, the current Australian squad is a perfect reflection of the millennial metrosexual meme, currently needling a place into masculinity’s mainstream. They’re quiet yet brash, swatting opponents over the boundary lines as they stroll to another victory, as Matthew Hayden did in Australia’s recent demolition of Bangladesh. Body-wise, they wield toned, bronzed physiques, closer to the homoerotic models of Men’s Health magazine than the beer-happy, rounder figures of previous eras. At the same time, however, they retain the image of steady family men, willing to miss important games to ensure they’re in attendance for the birth of a child, as was the case with vice-captain Adam Gilchrist.
Gone are the great characters of past years, the men whom I grew up imitating each day in the backyard. There was David Boon, a tubby little batsman whose affinity for runs on the field was famously matched by an even greater one for beer after the match. More humorously, there was Merv Hughes, a barrel-chested behemoth of a fast bowler, whose thick mustache and working man charms were a steady presence throughout the nineteen-eighties. These were men’s men of a golden era: proudly blue-collar, unassuming “blokes” who you could imagine holding a pair of tongs over the barbie, cracking politically incorrect Sheila jokes, and never mincing their opinions, ill-formed or not.
Throughout the nineties, such characters came to play a less prominent role in the cricket spotlight, both in the antipodes and elsewhere. They were replaced by men, who, much like myself, enjoy a lot of the pleasures our forebears indulged in, augmented however with the health conscious fetish dutifully instilled by school fitness regimes and the fashion sensibilities of our media-saturated lives. The metrosexual in cricket is only the latest in a now-established timeline of upstart cultural rebellions: just as Merv Hughes put paid to the confines of traditional gentility within cricket ranks–the Aussie larrikin poking fun at uptight Englishmen–so did the fearsomely fast intimidators of the West Indian pace line-up and beguiling Sikh spin bowler Bishan Bedi in the 1970s. In so doing, they blazed the trail as public figures, reclaiming cultural ground during the formative years of the post-colonial age.
If any one man can claim responsibility for this most recent evolution of masculinity as reflected in cricket, it is a Bush Administration-denouncing politician, currently in office in Pakistan. Imran Khan, an all-rounder (one equally adept with ball and bat), was the original metrosexual prototype of international cricket, perhaps even professional athletics. He guided Pakistan’s side into maturity during the 80s: a supremely talented and wise cricketing mind, Khan was also blessed with particularly dashing looks–as lusted for in the homes of Middle England as he was throughout his own continent. Previously married to billionaire heiress Jemima Goldsmith, he later toned down his image as an international playboy to lead the Movement for Justice (Tehrik-e-Insaaf) in Pakistan, where he continues to be an outspoken figure in parliament.
Could this be the most rewarding example of cricket as post-colonial globalization turned full circle? More so than watching lily-colored English supporters cheer on their team players–peppered with names like Mahmood, Panesar, and Bopara–or even Irish and Kenyan and Canadian sides with similar sub-continental representation, it is this most recent transformation of cricketing masculinity through Asian leadership that I find most satisfying.
Now all I need is for Australia to field its first Chinese-Australian player wearing the baggy green cap and I’ll die a happy fan. That, and a close world cup final victory over Sri Lanka.
Richard Chee Quee – the first first-class Australian-Chinese cricketer whose mum apparently owned a Chinese restaurant in New South Wales (though sadly, he never made it to the international level.)