It’s just not cricket

Something I did not expect when I left Sydney for Vancouver was how much I’d miss Australian sports. This would surprise more than a few people who know me, since I’ve never been much of what you’d call by any stretch of the imagination a sportsman or sports fan. Sure I’ve played a little bit of backyard cricket and tossed the footy around with some mates and still enjoy doing both, but I’ve never been part of any organised sports team and never been particularly capable of the catching, kicking, throwing, batting or tackling required by most games. Watching games, tests and matches has similarly never been high on my list of priorities. Sure I watched as the Dragons won the Grand Final a couple of years ago, grab a beer and watch NSW and Queensland battle it out for State of Origin, woke up to watch more than a few of Australia’s matches in the FIFA World Cup, but honestly sport has always been more white noise than anything else for me over the years. Cricket or Union on in the background at barbecues, AFL or League on the TVs at the pub, Soccer generally around and about. Really I only paid enough attention to have a rough idea what was going on and be able to hold a conversation with my more athletically minded fellows. Hell, I only went to my first cricket game a few months before I climbed onto the plane to come here. White noise. But goddamn do I miss it.

This became particularly noticeable when the ICC Cricket World Cup came to its (inevitable) conclusion, as Australia beat New Zealand by 7 wickets to claim the trophy. I was working during most of the match, on a long shift crowded with customers getting a bite to eat pre, post and during first a Whitecaps game (soccer), than a Cannucks game (hockey). With my phone not working how it was meant to (the bastard), and the local sports filling the screens at the restaurant where I find gainful employment, I was unable to check the score until I arrived home late in the evening (well, the wee hours of the morning technically). It was probably the most anxious I’d been about a score, count or tally in any sport into which I take an interest in a very long time.

It was also the most I’d spoken about sports in a very long time. In the days immediately before (and the day after), I took every chance I could get to explain the rules, mechanics, scoring, sledging and rivalries of the game with an enthusiasm that would have made several of my mates proud. This was odd because, while I was never one of those people who always needs to inform everyone that “they don’t care about sports,” I’ve never been one for holding extended conversations about the subject. Religion, politics, economics. TV, video games, movies, music. These have always been my preferred topics. Yet there I was the day after the final gleefully explaining overs and runs to a co-worker’s boyfriend so he’d understand what was happening while the highlights played on the television above the bar (as well as the co-worker herself between customers). I’ve barely spoken at all about the shows I’m watching, the games I’m playing or the political situation around here or at home. What I have spoken about is cricket. And rugby. Oh, and beer, but that’s for another post.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m simply trying to fill a void left by moving outside the usual sphere of influence of Aussie sports. It’s hard to overstate the importance of sports in Australian culture. In many ways sports is Australian culture, underpinning both national and local pride and unity. Hell, we love our sports so much we actually care about our women’s teams (and isn’t it just disgusting that we as a general culture still think so lowly of our female athletes that this can be seen as a serious measure of how much a nation cares about athletics). While they don’t receive nearly as much respect, funding and support as they deserve, we still actually give a shit about how the Opals, Matildas, and Hockeyroos are doing, unlike some other countries in my, albeit limited, experience (*cough*). Wearing the Green’an’Gold and representing the Jack’an’Cross* is about the highest honour one can achieve. It saturates every day life, it’s what we talk about, it’s what we watch, it’s what we do. It’s funny how many conversations with Aussies I’ve met over here have devolved into discussions about sports back home. It’s what we have in common. Leaving that, going to another country with different sports on the television, while not jarring, has left a noticeable absence in what I was used to. Instead there’s ice hockey (just called hockey over here apparently).

But it goes beyond just a difference in what sports are on the TV to the talk itself. I’ve found there to be a focus on statistics at a level never reached when talking about Australian sports. We certainly quote possession, test averages, tackles, shots at goal, shots stopped, wickets and anything else that can be counted in any of the sports we care about, but since I arrived I’ve heard numbers spat out about this player or that team at a rate that has stunned me. Seriously, it’s fuckin’ crazy mate. I suspect it might be partly because of the presence of ‘fantasy’ teams (hockey, baseball, basketball, football, whatever) which relies upon those statistics in order for the owner (or whatever they call themselves) to win. The closest comparison I can think of back home is footy tipping, and even then that always struck me as more a collection of guesstimates and evolving biases. I’ll admit that it doesn’t help that when I do hear people discussing plays or strategy I rarely have a goddamn clue what they’re talking about. Regardless it often feels like the games played over here are boiled down to a collection of numbers representing some average effort rather than the effort itself. And there lies the key difference, in my very humble opinion (seriously, I don’t really know shit about this), between how Aussies and Canadians/possibly-North-Americans-in-general discuss sports. In how we discuss effort.

Aussies really do take the whole “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters” idea very seriously. Of course we like to win, results matter, but we also understand that not all our athletes are the best in the world at what they do. Losing to a superior team/athlete in a fair match despite giving it our all is still something to be applauded. Just look at how proud we are of the Socceroos efforts at the past three FIFA World Cups (and outrage at the perceived unfairness of the treatment of the team at the hands of those arseholes at FIFA). Not that we don’t like to win, and constantly losing at something can become a drag (just look at the NSW Blues up until last year, or the Wallabies). But a brutal tall poppy syndrome generally means that we’d rather watch a team give it their all and lose than win without trying. And few things will piss an Australian off than someone who doesn’t think they have to try (just look at the anger towards the Australian Men’s Swimming Team at the London Olympics, James Magnussen became the butt of more than a few jokes). So when we talk about sports, when we talk about the cricket, we talk more specifically about action and effort. Mitchell Johnston’s brutal bouncers, Michael Clarke’s continued play despite an injured Hamstring, Mitch Starc’s left handed variations throwing off batsman too aggressive or too tentative. The usefulness of Haddin’s aggressive sledging and New Zealand’s apparently disconcerting respect and politeness. Yes, we have our own statistics, but it’s more like the empirical evidence used to back up an anecdote rather than the anecdote itself, like what I feel like I hear when people talk sports in Vancouver.

Thing is though I’m not saying that Australian sporting culture is any better or worse. Just different. Not what I’m used to. Like a different language. Given how pervasive sport is in Aussie culture, and given that I’m the sort of person who’s always participated to some small extent in that sporting culture (even if it was just watching and listening), it should be no surprise that the difference would be noticeable.

What does this mean? Well it means that while I enjoy hockey, and I do enjoy hockey (it’s fast-paced, constantly shifting and violent, what’s not to like?), I’ve been unable to develop much of an emotional connection to the game. I don’t much care who wins and who loses. At least not because of any of the people I’ve discussed hockey with. I am a bit partial towards Boston, because I’m a bit of a Celtophile and an old fan of Boston rockers the Dropkick Murphys, but I don’t mention that much since it seems like Boston are some sort of arch-nemesis in Vancouver. Which doesn’t make a whole lotta sense since most of Vancouver seems to take a pretty mercenary attitude towards teams, supporting other teams and only supporting the Cannucks when they’re winning. Yet they seem to maintain a rivalry with everyone except, I don’t know, fucking Winnipeg. Starting to rant now, best stop before I really get started.

Anyway, hockey’s fun to watch. But I just find myself unable to really care what’s going on. It’s unfamiliar. It’s just not cricket.

*God help me that will become slang for the Aussie flag before they decide to change it.

The sports of kings and gentlemen

I did two things for the first time this past weekend. On Saturday I put on a clean shirt and went to watch the horse racing at Randwick*, and on Sunday I went to my first cricket match, Australia vs South Africa at the SCG. While a good time was had at both, the cricket was by far the more interesting thing to watch (and there’s a statement I don’t reckon I’ll be repeating any time soon).

The funny thing about the sport of kings is that for such a classy affair the attendants are remarkably classless. Everyone dresses up in their fashionable finest. For a lot this translates to a nice suit (I rock a slightly dishevelled 30s mobster look, just saying) or designer dress with matching fascinator, for others translates roughly to club-wear (and for the alarming number of old white addicts in attendance whatever they normally wear around the house), the point being that most people put an effort into what they wear and how they look. The problem is that regardless of how much effort everyone puts in to fancy themselves up, there’s not a lot to do except drink. Seriously, most people at the track on race day are only going to be betting on the races at that particular track (not all the races going on simultaneously at other tracks) and placing a bet only takes between a few seconds and a few minutes. A race only takes about thirty seconds, after which you’ve got somewhere between half and a full hour ’til the next one.

"Gonna need more beer." "Yep."
“Gonna need more beer.”

When a bunch of Aussies (and I expect this happens with other countries as well) get together on what looks and feels like an occasion and they have time to fill, they fill it with grog. So you end up with a bunch of guys in expensive blazers slurring about how weird it is that all the horses in the last race were brown (I mean, that’s really fucken weird ain’t it?) and girls stumbling barefoot over the grass, cheering on command and half wondering where the hell they left their bloody stilettos.

I’m not judging, mind you, I’ve been drunk in a suit too often before to judge (let he who is without sin and all that). Everyone was also pretty well behaved with most people at least looking sober beyond the odd knot of noticeably wasted friends, though that’s unsurprising given the very visible police presence and the high cost of alcohol (nine bucks for a bottle of Boags? Tell’im he’s dreaming). I will also reiterate that I had a good time, and mention that my mates and I didn’t actually drink that much (though for me the cost of getting drunk was the main obstacle … seriously, nine fucking dollars for a bottle of beer). I was just struck by how much effort we, the punters, put into trying to give a very dirty affair a veneer of respectability. Horse racing is still the sport of kings only because we keep calling it that instead of admitting that it long ago became the sport of drunken yobs in expensive clothes.

Going to watch the one day cricket match between Australia and South Africa was the far better experience, which actually surprised me a little bit. Y’see there’s a lot of things I’d describe myself as (“ruggedly handsome”, “intellectually gifted”, “short”) but “cricket fan” is not one of those. I’ve long been of the opinion that it’s “fun to play but boring to watch” (though it’s a good thing to have on in the background at a barbecue), an opinion that’s now been changed to “fun to play and watch live, boring to watch on TV.” Part of the reason is because the game seems much faster paced in person than it does on a screen, you can see all the activity on the field and realise just how fast a ball travelling at one hundred and forty-odd kilometres an hour moves. A much bigger part of the reason was the atmosphere created by the crowd.

Even though cricket is faster paced than what a lot of people (myself included) often give it credit for, it’s still not a fast game. There are plenty of moments when not a lot is going on, but the spectators fill the gaps. A group of guys having a laugh with everyone in the immediate vicinity, another group yelling encouragement to pressure the poor bastard in the front row into never putting down his ‘AUSTRALIA’ flag, kids running up and down the aisles to get their miniature bats signed whenever the fielders stepped near the barriers, a few thousand voices oo-ing and ah-ing at a good hit, respectful applause when South Africa made a great catch (along with a chorus of “I’ll pay that, good catch”), a drunken streaker barely making it five metres before the ‘Public Safety’ guys tackled him, and, of course, the sledging, where much fun was had at the expense of SA cricketer Wayne Parnell’s ponytail. One of my favourite moments was when a guy a few rows down began spelling out his name, “Give me a P! Give me an A! Give me a R!” when someone else cut in with “Give me a haircut!”

There was something refreshingly honest about the whole thing, a genuinely good-natured crossing of the classes. Upper drinking stupidly expensive mid-strength beer beside lower (both making fun of the toffs in the members stands while quietly admitting that they’re only a few years through the twelve year waiting list), and a level of multiculturalism that a lot of other sports could learn a lot from. As someone who likes to think they’re a cultural observer, that was something that really stuck out at me. The tribalism was there, as it is with any international sport, but the borders were fluid. Because everyone was there to have a good time.

So that was my weekend. How was yours?

*I feel like I need to add a quick note, since there’s been a lot of debate this year about animal cruelty in racing after two horses died at this year’s Melbourne Cup. I can’t honestly say that I know enough about the treatment of horses in racing to have an opinion about it either way, but I do understand there are a lot of people who feel that attending and watching horse-racing is condoning animal cruelty. I’m not going to insult anyone who holds such an opinion by apologising for any offence caused, but I wanted to acknowledge that this is an issue that is felt strongly by a lot of people.