Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-apartheid leader from South Africa, delivered a moving and perceptive speech this week at Lord’s, as part of the annual Cowdrey Lecture series. So far, Tutu’s address has earned most attention for its call to boycott Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe’s “pariah” regime. That is as it should be, but a listen to the entire lecture yields many interesting points about the game’s “spirit,” and its face and role in society. I want to talk about a few tidbits, but be sure to listen to the full version (and Andrew Strauss’s reaction) here.
I had always found Tutu’s style of delivery too dramatic; he, like Aamir Sohail, a much less respectable figure, suffers from a curious penchant to emphasize every word. Of course, when one talks about such serious topics as repression, apartheid, race, perhaps such intonation is necessary. When Tutu, for instance, breaks down into a whisper, and speaks about the networks of interdependence that defines humanity, it’s difficult not to feel moved. Imagining a young Tutu, sick with tuberculosis and alone only with fellow patients and, of all things, radio Test commentary, makes for compelling imagination as well. This cricket, I tell you: it’s in all places.
His exuberance, however, is entirely appropriate when he gently makes fun of the stodgy upper-class English society’s reaction to the sport in the 1960s. He praised the West Indians for playing their more spirited version of the game, showing how thrilling this game could be, beyond the dour remarks of “well played” and “proper shot.” When I was younger, I would often feel a tad ashamed to watch Indian crowds in all their manic glory, especially during the late 1990s, when throwing bottles became a fad. Why not sit down, calm yourselves, and clap like those poised English! Now, of course, I’ve overcome my post-colonial blues, and I wouldn’t even mind some more bottle-throwing: I always thought that “pitch invasion” was such a brilliant cricket trope, speaking to the audience wanting to break out onto the field and take back control.
Moreover, as strident as his point about Zimbabwe may be, Tutu is also making some very complicated observations about sport and its political influence. Tutu expands the much-heard “spirit of cricket” into a telling symbol of linked humanity and respect for decency. He first spends much time praising England’s decision to select Basil D’Oliveria and the ensuing controversy that resulted in South Africa’s sporting isolation, and concludes, “You…drummed into us what the world saw as ‘fair play’ and what is not ‘fair play.'”
That’s such a brilliant moment, and for two reasons: first, Tutu reminds us that “spirit” is much more than silly discussions about “sledging” and irrelevant comments. The stakes are much, much higher, and more symbolic. Secondly, and more importantly, Tutu takes a fairly prominent part of colonial discourse — cricket’s “civilizing mission” — and appropriates it on behalf of democracy. Rather than view cricket’s “spirit” as a colonialist teacher-student, master-slave dichotomy, Tutu appropriates this incident, and cricket’s team-oriented nature, as a tribute to human equality and interdependence. Fair play isn’t just being nice to one another, in other words: it’s a fundamental recognition of decency. Tutu has just “taken back” cricket, and wiped away the colonial cobwebs.
Stirring stuff, and for non-cricketers, a bit over-wrought. But I think the basic premise behind the speech — that cricket, like all sports, involves politics — cannot be easily dismissed as so much puffery. And that’s why I support, and always have, his call to boycott Zimbabwe: it’s not just a question of bad finances and corrupt mismanagement, and it’s not a silly, trivial question either (as the South Africa isolation showed). It’s about expelling a member from a family that has stopped playing by the rules; it’s about reminding a regime that it doesn’t play fair, and that just because it has players show up in international matches, it can never truly play cricket.