What is sport? What is the purpose of sport?
If you search for a simple definition of sport online, you will find something like this as the internet’s consensus thinking: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another for entertainment.”
The Oxford definition is slightly but subtly different: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill especially (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others”.
The Cambridge English dictionary defines sport as: “a game, competition or activity leading physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules for enjoyment”.
Finally Merriam-Webster offers this: “physical activity (as running or an athletic game) engaged in for pleasure or exercise”
Four definitions broadly similar with some subtle differences.
Physical exertion, effort or activity is mentioned by all four definitions and whereas my personal involvement in sport rarely extends beyond it being an activity. At no point could anybody accuse me of exertion. But physicality in some form is part of sport.
Skill is explicitly mentioned by three of four. For the general Oxbridge scholar and also the wider grubby Internet, skill is part of the definition of sport.
Thankfully Merriam-Webster comes to my rescue and allows me to still offer the illusion that I am or have been participating in sport on those long Saturday afternoons of summers past. Mind you, my children viewed it differently.
Eldest child: “where you going dad?
Myself: “Saturday afternoon, sport!”
Eldest child: “oh, okay. I thought you were just going to play cricket.”
Younger daughter: (barely able to make conversation due to laughter): “good one dad!”
Well even that makes no matter Merriam-Webster allows me to engage in sport for pleasure even at the expense of ridicule by my children. Interestingly the idea of pleasure or enjoyment is only mentioned by two of the definitions. In each case presumably, but not explicitly, for the person engaged in the sport. Only one definition mentions entertainment, thereby touching on how one might define entertainment. For instance, one of those interminable Boycott innings, hour upon hour of grim self-denial, whilst indubitably a source of pleasure to Sir Geoff, failed to press the same buttons for the spectators.
But at least there were spectators. Let me just briefly take a wander down memory lane to those halcyon days in the Bells Yew Green 4th XI. Even in our heyday we rarely attracted significant numbers of spectators. A typical Saturday afternoon might maybe six or seven masochists. Usually two would be the parents of our latest fast bowling adolescent debutant. Sometimes not even his parents were that interested. Of the remaining five, one would be roped in to score, another might bring out these check that the tea was indeed arriving before our innings came to an end. Two were handing out pictures of Benny the fox terrier who had absconded a week earlier. The last spectator having realised that he was watching the wrong team, quickly departed.
Returning to our definitions, especially the bit about physical activity, it begins to look bleak for say darts, snooker, chess even. Whilst these pastimes are or can be competitive, I think one would struggle to suggest that the five pace walk to the oche constituted exertion. The same applies to the occasional shift from one buttock to the other, barely enough to raise the heart rate in a game of chess.
Okay, this is all a bit of a roundabout way of getting to the point of what I want to say. I have been watching the Ashes. From behind the sofa obviously, such is the inequality of ability between the two sides. And at the risk of being simply an armchair spectator and pontificating accordingly, I can’t help but feel that the England team is going to be royally stuffed. This pains me, not through any misplaced cricket-as-a-proxy-for-war jingoistic nonsense but simply because it devalues the game. Nobody enjoys watching a whitewash (well, apart from Australians obviously). The 2005 Ashes was the greatest series ever played because it was competitive to the very end. It was fabulously entertaining. It introduced a whole generation of new youngsters to cricket. And that wasn’t simply in England but also in Australia (although they probably needed less introducing to the game than the average English child brought up in schools which have no playing fields or facilities and where cricket is seen as an old man’s pastime. Well, by my kids anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it falls to the Australians to field weaker sides and thereby make more of a game of it all. I think we need somehow to put together a better team. No don’t ask me how – I really am not the person to be putting forward ideas there.
But just a final point. Saturday afternoon cricket at my level (a roundabout amoeba, slightly above bacterium) is a genial, and enjoyable experience. Yes of course you will always get the occasional hothead fast bowler who takes pleasure in maiming the kids in our team. But, these prats aside, it’s a wonderful afternoon. I have hardly ever heard sledging of opponents (maybe we just couldn’t cut come up with any that were funny). But I do wish it did not feature in the international game. I have always felt that sledging is mistakenly seen as an aggressive act, one of hostility. I see it differently. I see sledging by bowlers as being an expression of frustration. It is in essence a way of the bowler saying “I’m not good enough to get you out without trying to distract you.”
Do we really want to play cricket like this? Do we want to watch cricket like this? Steve Waugh used to talk about mental disintegration. His cynical on field enquiries about the health and well-being of Graham Thorpe’s wife and children at the demise of his marriage was repulsive by any standard. To my mind, that is cheating just as much as taking bottle caps to the ball. Still can’t work out why David Warner is still a test cricketer. Same goes for Stephen Smith. They’ve let themselves down. And what really irks me is that if they had been punished appropriately in my view (life ban) they would have deprived me of seeing two fabulous batsmen and their careers. Instead we still have this ridiculous brushing under the carpet, this reluctance to tackle it head-on. And understand this. Australian cricketers are by no means the only offenders. I seem to remember from the dark recesses of time other countries players in similar situations. And I include England. Let’s be clear that.
Cricket is a glorious, fabulous throwback to another time. I wish we produced a better team. I wished we gave the Australians a more competitive series. And, let’s not forget that the definition of sport involves entertainment. It’s a game -remember?