The English “Heavy-Roll”: Chance, Agency, and Spitzer

I write from New York, the Empire State, whose governor was recently deposed in a tawdry scandal involving call girls, lies, and tapes. Even in our current state of deep cynicism and apathy, the Eliot Spitzer scandal shocked and stunned; for a few days, it was all you could read in the papers and watch on the TV. Part of the drama arose from Spitzer’s own dominating and ambitious (some said reckless) personality: as he told a legislator, “Listen, I’m a fucking steamroller, and I’ll roll over you and anybody else!” (He probably didn’t say it as musically as James Taylor did, of course.) He had an immensely complimentary view of his own abilities and power, and he thought he could take on larger, structural forces all on his own (with a few cuss words by his side). And it all came down.

I bring up Spitzer only for the most tangential and obscure reason. Simon Hughes, the best cricket analyst out there, credited Michael Vaughan’s decision to use a steamroller before the English 4th innings as a key part in his team’s victory over the uppity Kiwis this week. Hughes explains the dilemma:

Traditionally this would be considered a risk, since the general belief is that such a crushing weight could irreparably damage the cracks and make the surface even more unreliable. Peter Marron, the Old Trafford groundsman, re-iterated this potential danger. There is no hard evidence to back up this theory, however. Applying a pneumatic drill to the pitch would certainly cause it to break up, but a steamroller?

Vaughan was not cheating; the rules explicitly allow for a batting captain to take advantage of the rolling option. But I think this speaks to the inherent difference and charm behind cricket: the game is not always about athletic ability or precision, but the influence of external factors beyond individual control. It’s a humbling exercise, where individual agency is undercut and luck and fortune emphasized. One minute, Daniel Vettori can rip through a timid batting line-up; the next, he serves dollies and innocuously flighted deliveries. Even Vaughan, who had the option of using machinery, did not have complete control: no one exactly knows how the steamroller would have worked, after all. So much for Eliot Spitzer enjoying this game.

Incidentally, this is also why I’m against the recent push to include an umpire referral process. Gideon Haigh has rightly criticized those who push for more technology in cricket’s adjudication, arguing that the romanticism/realism debate provides nothing helpful as frames for the solution. For one thing, he writes, cricketing traditions — like appealing, for e.g. — constitute a huge chunk of the game’s drama; if you were to ban some in the hope of always getting the “right” decision, you’d get a fairer game, but also a much, much duller one. Moreover, it’s often the supposed realists, who argue that one bad decision can sway entire games and ruin careers, who seem to have lost a bit of their level-headed selves.

For me, however, it’s not about tradition v. innovation, or romanticism v. realism. I’m more interested in chance and play, and watching human beings attempt to assert themselves in a difficult and often unpredictable terrain. As I’ve written elsewhere, cricket is the human drama writ small, and that makes it unique among other sports. Think baseball, soccer, American football, basketball…all their games are respectively played under relatively uniform conditions, where humanity rules the roost, and nature lies dominated. It’s different in cricket, where a pitch’s condition can change the entire course of a game, or an umpire can make a “bad” decision.

So, the question we need to ask is this: how much chance are we willing to tolerate in cricket? How much control do we want, as a television spectator replete with instant replays and Snick-o? I say the more the better, and if you disagree, I’d say you might prefer watching as much European soccer and American football as Lalit Modi apparently does.

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5 thoughts on “The English “Heavy-Roll”: Chance, Agency, and Spitzer

  1. […] discourse of cricket — which argues that the game is, more than any other, about chance and fate, whereas modernists — drunk on human agency — think we can know […]

  2. […] As regular readers know, I’ve long suggested that the value that sets cricket apart is its reliance on fortune and […]

  3. […] is about. I’ve long argued that what makes cricket exceptional is its acknowledgement of chance and fate, and the larger limits of human agency. The umpire is a part of this theme; he is a fallible tragic […]

  4. […] readers know that I have a particular view about what makes cricket special. My case is largely borrowed from Ashis Nandy and his book Tao of Cricket, a phenomenal read every […]

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