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Culture : Sticky Wicket for Britain's Cricket Fans


LONDON — Americans just don't get it. But Australians do. So do Indians and Pakistanis and even Sri Lankans. And in this summer of their discontent, that's what's causing the English what they might call "a spot of bother."

"It" is the sport of cricket.

Did we say "sport"? Sorry, old chap, make that "institution."

Generations of Englishmen--yes, women do play but only the men's game gets national attention--have looked on cricket as an essential part of the national identity, a mirror of English ideals and virtues and a precious piece of the rural heritage that every Englishman claims.

Cricket, broadcaster Michael Parkinson says, "is a part of the English pastoral scene. It represents Englishness. It's a unique, very psychological, physical, complex and beautiful game, aesthetically and hugely pleasing."

Cricket holds such pride of place in British life that it has been absorbed into the language. The phrase "It's not cricket" condemns violations of an unwritten code of upright behavior, gentlemanly fair play and team spirit. Bernard Law Montgomery, the World War II British general, spoke of beating Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps as hitting the Germans "for six"--cricket's equivalent of a home run. And a "sticky wicket" connotes a tricky, unpredictable and dangerous situation.

Which is where some English cricket fans believe that their favorite sport now finds itself.

Cricket in England is undergoing a crisis, and there's no end in sight; English cricketers and their fervent supporters are enduring a long period of humiliation.

Last winter, the English national team lost a series of disastrous international matches--"Tests," as they are called--against India, Pakistan and even lowly Sri Lanka.

Now they have lost the six-match biennial Test series with Australia being played here, suffering four defeats and one draw. (Even though England has already lost the series, the remaining match will still be played later this month, according to cricketing custom.)

England has suffered defeats in seven successive international series. It has not beaten Australia, its traditional rival, in 15 matches.

Imagine how American baseball fans would feel if, year after year, teams of Canadians, Japanese, Venezuelans and Cubans beat the best U.S. players that could be assembled.

George Orwell, writing in a gentler time, believed that the English could keep a stiff upper lip about such setbacks. "Cricket," he wrote, "gives expression to a well-marked trait in the English character, the tendency to value 'form' and 'style' more highly than success."


English cricket pundits are not taking the current lack of success that well. Acres of print in the sports pages have been devoted to analyzing the decline of the national game. In other parts of the media, social commentators have been busy making dire pronouncements that its sorry state may mark the end of civilization as the English know it.

It seems symptomatic to some critics, political as well as cricketing, that Prime Minister John Major, perhaps the country's premier fan of the sport, jokes through English defeats at the very time that his standing in opinion polls is at an all-time low.

"There's no doubt that the current run of defeats represents a crisis of serious proportions," cricket writer Richard Williams says, "calling into question the game's standing in national life."

And social historian Martin Jacques comments: "There is no getting away from the fact that there is a connection between sport and nation. It has a palpable effect on national morale."

In short, cricket is to England what American historian Jacques Barzun suggested baseball is to America when he wrote: "Whoever would know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

The two sports do have superficial similarities. For instance, both are bat-and-ball games, in which the ball is hard and leather-covered, the bats traditionally made of wood. But the rules are very different, and so is the pace: Matches can last up to five days, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea.

To be sure, even in England there are denigrators aplenty of the cricket's leisurely pace. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-44, commented that cricket seemed to him like "organized loafing." And a member of the House of Lords once described the game as something "which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity."

Cricket has been played since the 16th Century: The name is thought to stem from the Anglo-Saxon word "cricc," a staff used by shepherds who played an early version in England.

As long ago as 1787, the Marylebone Cricket Club was established in London to draw up rules for the 11-player teams. Today, the club's headquarters at Lord's cricket ground in north central London is also considered the sport's headquarters and spiritual home.

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