|Many people talk of knowing where they were the moment they heard that John F. Kennedy had died, or Elvis Presley or Princess Diana. Now I wasn’t around for the first, and the latter two made scant impression on me, but I do recall crystal-clearly the day, the night, I first heard a phrase that has cast an ever uglier shadow over our public discourse this past quarter century. The occasion was the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and we – my brothers, my father and I – were all grouped around the TV in the sitting-room, in the small hours, to watch Carl Lewis win the last of his record-equalling four gold medals. A BBC journalist interviewed the freshly-triumphant Lewis beside the track and said, ‘Carl, you’ve done, won, everything now. What’s next?’ ‘Oh now, ‘ said Lewis, ‘I’d like to be a role model.’
What? I frowned inquiringly at my elders, what’s that? I actually thought it was a job, like being an engineer or a lorry-driver. I didn’t even know how to spell it. ( ‘Role?’ ‘Roll?’). I had this vision of him wheeling a Pirelli tyre down a catwalk. I thought, ‘Bizarre. They’ll pay you for that?’
This is not the place to give RoleModeldom the full, pants down thrashing this pot-holed notion deserves. But thrash it some we must because, when in 1998 Channel 4 took over from a BBC whose sixty-year long coverage of cricket it had successfully portrayed as having become flat, uninspired, and off-puttingly posh, it did so partly on the back of RoleModeldom and its atttendants. It promised a fresher, more relevant, inclusive approach, its then sports chief Mark Sharman emphasising how the multicultural audience for the game meshed perfectly with Channel 4’s remit. All fine and dandy and aspirations that any progressive would subscribe to, aspirations that gelled too with the orthodoxies of those fresh, new New Labour times. But just as Blair quickly proved to be basically a trendy – Cool Britannia and all that – so I feared that Channel 4, a station that had been showing increasingly populist colours, might, for the sake of an overegged notion, throw the baby – still beautiful, just in need of a scrub-up – out with the bathwater. I sniffed some symbol-minded television ahead: Alex Tudor, south Londoner and England’s then black hope, perhaps, pressganged into showcasing his skills amongst Brixton’s garage artists, or in the exercise yard of Feltham Young Offenders’ on the new Saturday morning Cricket Roadshow. Gestures that would not only be cringeworthy but futile.
It is not that the concept is rotten at its core – clearly, there is some truth to the idea that people, especially as they become older and more socially aware, are inspired by others or an activity in whom or which they can see themselves – but the ways in which this neologism has been promulgated have been frequently patronising, dangerous and not as true as all that. The racial condescension is plain for all to see – some folk apparently need models more than others. Indians did and do not need Indian teachers to do well at school, nor did Africans need Africans when I was at school and Brit-Africans regularly vied with Indians for number 1 spot in the education charts, but these days whenever a black youth messes up or is absent in some area the cry goes up for role models as if we are the children of the world. Dangerous because the concept places too high an importance on externals whilst correlating insufficiently with the main reason why most people of any substance sustain an interest – for the thing in-itself and their relationship to it.
This has become one of those chicken and egg businesses. We have so encouraged our youngest to think along role model lines that many now think in this way at hitherto unseen ages. And so a talented eleven year-old mixed-race, part-Ugandan boy I know, the son of a teacher acquaintance from Brent, north London, has already hung up his cricket boots because, he says, cricket is a (Brit) Asian, not a black thing. At worst, the notion encourages group thinking and conformity, a nice fit for this conservative-in-progressive-clothes age.
I had fallen for cricket, in my working-class part of north London, in very different times, the early seventies, around the same time I fell for Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, Anthony Buckeridge’s prep school ‘Jennings’ books, tales of Greek and Roman myths, and the elan-laden French rugby team (not, cricket apart, a black one amongst them). The game came courtesy of those two enablers to the thing-in-itself, those dual routes to access: watching and actually playing. My first fully remembered televisual season was 1975, and its standout image will be etched for just as long as Lewis’s interview: the inaugural World Cup final, Lords’, a muggy morning, and Roy Fredericks, the West Indies’ dashing left-hand blade, clad in a wide-brimmed white sunhat and white shirt open to the torso, hooking Australia’s demon bowler Dennis Lillee gloriously for six in an opening over, only to tread on his own stumps in the process. He departed to the roars of a crowd of every hue gathered on the grass beyond the boundary edge. A little later, that same summer, I remember waking up thrilled in my stomach, the way I always was when it was a cricket day, and turning on the telly to find, to my horror, that a group, protesting over the imprisonment of a man they believed innocent, had vandalised the Headingley Test match pitch, and thus there would be no play that day. Ah, televised cricket, the time-honoured companion to the unemployed and to children, those without the means or the permission to pursue other pleasures.
Ours was an uncommon childhood, I grant you. We laboured, in the school holidays, under a strict academic regime supervised by my father. When he was out, at work, we’d convert our Maths and Latin primers into table tennis bats and a net across the table, or else play cricket in the hallway and outside. Our home backed onto a number of gardens most of them overgrown so you couldn’t play football in them, but a long stony strip ran alongside, just wide and flat enough to accomodate a bit of turn from the off for this apprentice spinner.
Cricket, then, was part of our route into normalcy, into mainstream Britishness, into the world outside our strange doors. We’d play it across the road on a neighbouring sidestreet or in the park, along and with other boys, and even at state junior school, with a tennis ball and the white wicket painted on the wall. We’d talk about Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, and know about showjumping and Harvey Smith (big on the box in those days), and play this game too. The big local park – Finsbury – always had a big people’s game going on in the summer – these were the days when urbanites, not so many, but some really did play cricket in the summer and football the rest of the time. Bizarre isn’t it, now, to imagine cricket as a way into the urban mainstream? It’s about as central as the no longer televised show-jumping these days. Now, be it the recent African arrivals clustered in their pubs to cheer on the African-friendly Arsenal and Chelsea, or the Eastern European immigrant I saw yesterday in his red England soccer strip – football is the only way in.
It seemed, if anything, more multicultural than British football then. That World Cup seemed to bring all bits of the globe – really, the British Commonwealth – to town, each with their own flavour of the game, and was followed the year after, by West Indies’ celebrated 1976 tour. (England’s South African born captain Tony Greig said he would make them grovel. He didn’t). There were various overseas stars in most of the county sides, and numerous non-white faces in those crowds of the seventies to mid eighties – especially when the West Indies were over, especially at the Oval, south London – black Britain’s heartland – far more than I’d see on my occasional, someway wary trips to Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane. Those black folk at the cricket were, looking back, of a certain age, – men for the most part, not youngsters, no doubt many born elsewhere, and this allied with the serious racial pressure of those times – the NF, the sus laws, the riots – may have given them the confidence and the defiant mindset to make those days, those grounds their own as they did, with their klaxons and whistles and curries and general othercountry vibe. There were others who seemed cowed or threatened then, as much off the field as on it.
Class has always cast its shadow over this English-born and Empire-disseminated game. As Mike Marquesee notes in his ‘Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise’: ‘Cricket was the first team game in which the upper classes took part. They patronized football and other traditional festive games, but they played cricket… Cricket brought together all the classes on the village green, but it did so in hierachical fashion’. Hierachy has left its mark all over, in the old race and shade-stratified clubs of the subcontinent and the Caribbean, and at ‘home’ – in the old amateur-professional distinction, in the public-school prattle and pro-apartheid sporting-links lean of many of the game’s stalwarts through the eighties, in the Lords test’s enduring status as part of the ‘Season’ and the fact that, until now, a number of players have been knighted for the ‘lordly’ pursuit of batting, but none for the manual labour that is bowling. There was also a country background, a rus then urbs element, a game that grew out of the leisures of the English landed classes at the moment the nation entered its Industrial Revolution. Many of the sport’s early patrons, such as Lord Sheffield, were landowners, and the Champion players often workers on their estates. You get a whiff of this in former Tory Prime Minister John Major’s famous 1994 yearning for an (old) England of ‘village greens, warm beer and cricket’ (a sentiment that would, interestingly, have touched some chords some with any early Caribbean migrants who heard it, for that cricket-minded first generation were predominantly country folk), and a whiff of it all in the animus from some of English cricket’s quarters towards that dominant West Indies team. There was clearly something in the support and style of that side – its Rasta wristband-wearers and ferocious pace attack, its unapologetically masculine virtues – that did not agree and with the pastoralists and their version of the game.
The sport also appeared multicultural to me in another, non-racial way. I loved the fact that the pitch, the playing surface was different from venue to venue, as were the weather conditions, that the pitch actually changed character over the course of a three or five day game, and that all thismattered, affected the outcome. It seemed a richer game than football where teams pretty much played the way they always did across the world and conditions didn’t matter, and more real, more in tune with nature and science – just as the world felt more real to me in summer when you could smell the cut grass and people and have that langurous, sensual feeling all over. This was a game that incorporated change over time, that understood dx over dt. Which is to say that although you could look at this black-immigrant boy and say he got into cricket at its multicultural, mainstream moment and chose to support the West Indies who, don’t you know, were successful; a politically-maturing boy, moreover, who could see in the game, in that era of anti-apartheid and a politically-flecked black team, a site of action that led him to dig up his cricket-famed public school’s pitch when the white South African team came visiting, and it all sounds a straightforwardy, rolemodelly, inspired-by type-story, and it is all true (apart from the top dog aspect for I am underdog man – must be the deep British in me), yet it’s less true than the fact that white shirts on dark skin topped off with maroon caps was an aesthetic, near-fetishistic delight to this boy, a side of him he became increasingly aware of as he soon after developed a taste for film noir with their men in fedoras and dames with cigarette holders, just as the shapes a batsman’s body makes when he strokes the ball and the lines those shots make through the circle that is the field of play later evolved into a love of dancing and the shapes of the human body in motion, and of geometry’s curves and angles; just as his opting for the con game that is spin was echoed in his hankering for the life of grift and street cunning you saw in films like ‘The Sting’ and shows like ‘Sargeant Bilko’; and most of all because this avid reader and wannabe writer welcomed Time, be it in its short form, as the fast bowler returned to his mark, before hurtling back again, and the bareheaded batsman tried to calm the thoughts in his head and the churn in his stomach, or though all the fluctuations, varying mental pressures and situations of the Test match. Enough time to give you evidence for and the capacity to be moved by the characters of the protagonists. This was a sport that more than any other had narrative, a novel-like relationship with time. And, in its rhythmic, hypnotic beats, a musicality too. If it were a music – well, the soothing strains of classical could certainly put up a case, but you’d have to go for dub.
Time, like reading, is not for everyone. Perhaps it is most of all for Hindus who, if you subscribe to the take recently put forward by United Nations Under Secretary and cricket nut Shashi Tharoor on Test Match Special, have such an affinity for the game because their religion is big on eternity – but even this no longer prevents sparse Test Match crowds in India. It has become less even for me, I confess, as I’ve got older, and least so for young western boys, as the world has got busier, freer, quicker. Speak to some young about their aversion, their indifference to cricket, and it is not role models that crops up, but time. Boxer Amir Khan, cousin of England bowler Sajid Mahmood, when asked about his opinion of cricket, said, ‘I don’t have the patience,’ a view echoed among my nephews and the children of my friends. Fielding is especially trying, but even batting…’We went to one game,’ noted one ten year-old to me, ‘and, you know, the first ten minutes, they didn’t run.” To use a expression in current black parlance, applied to all time-intensive activities, ‘Long!’
It strikes me that what Channel 4 was most seriously up against was widespread changes in our relationship to time , and hence to many’s perception of this thing. Granted, in the black-Brit part of its anticipated multicultural audience at least, there was a class issue too – a political shift amongst British-Caribbeans between a first generation migrant community that was essentially Anglophile, and who saw in cricket an arena to assert pride and dignity, and a 2nd and 3rd UK-born generation that was less Anglophile but properly English working-class, ‘street’, in both environment and ideology, who saw the game through English eyes in a decade when the game had all but slipped from urban vernacular, from its streets and schools ( Brit-Asian communities were more suburban, so less affected) – but more widely, there was time. It’s almost as if we needed to relearn how to watch and appreciate this game. English Cricket, characteristically, did not help itself through the eighties and early nineties when the team that, slow overrates aside, best embodied this quicker sense of time, and modernity more widely – the West Indies with their speed merchants and general dynamism, their liberation from the class issues that remained in the English game, a team that like their musical and street-cool counterparts were more popular, more trend-setting amongst white Britons than many realised – faced the repeated sniping that they did. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that the one English player to truly catch the public imagination in those years, the brash Ian Botham, was best mates with the West Indies’ star – attitude-stacked Viv Richards. In the end, those stuffier quarters got what they wanted – a ban on musical instruments at grounds that contributed to a diminuition in those black throngs by the turn of the nineties. As it turned out, a few years later when, in between Blair’s and Channel 4’s triumph, a bunch of ululating Africans gathered outside Kensington palace after the death of Diana to lead the country in a very demonstrative, unBritish type of mourning, the powers had bet on the wrong England.
This is role-model-lite, if you like. Lacking the kind of fresh formats or fully endorsed personalities – preferably British – that chimed with modern aspirations, with the directions the country was moving in, the appeal of the game waned. A contrast can be made with baseball here. Nine -innings baseball too suffered its ‘boring’, ‘old-fashioned’ moment in the States in the eighties, increasingly under threat as it was from quicker games such as basketball that had taken much of its urban audience. But baseball responded by embracing its modern personalities – its Dwight Goodings, its Darryl Strawberrys, and the game successfully regrouped, its audience fattened by the new hispanic immigrants moving to New York and other big cities.
When it came Channel 4, in that English starless, pre Twenty-Twenty, pre-earstudded Flintoff era, did what it could and what it did did not turn out as crudely as I’d feared. In bouffant-haired former player Mark Nicholas they had a lead presenter – smooth, authoritative, not too Ra-Ra – at the personable end of public schooldom. Crucially, he was an enthusiast for the thing-in-itself – his commentary paid full due to the game’s aesthetic appeal while the Saturday roadshows he hosted focussed on skills sessions involving local budding youngsters. His colleague Simon Hughes, in his OB spyhole, carried the illumination process further, with his forensic graphics-aided rewinds of passages of play. He’d show you, for example, how a bowler ended a batsman’s life by ‘working’ him over a number of particularly placed balls. The viewer was given a sense of how time and pressure worked in this game – that it might not be thrills-a minute football, but contained its periods of situational intensity. Other use of technology – Channel 4’s deployment of on field microphones (initiated by Sky TV, to be fair) drew attention to aspects like the verbal abuse, the sledging , between opponents that the previous broadcaster, for some overly-protective reason, had ignored. In short, stuff for the connoisseurs and the casuals.
Inclusivity was there, also, but not crowbarred. When the roadshow arrived in a more Asian part of the country , you’d see more Asian youngsters in the roadshows. When the West Indies toured in 2000, it was the cue for a ‘Caribbean Summer’ and the sounds and smells once again, at grounds (yea, even at Lords) of drums and bass and curried foodsm And if this was partly Channel 4 -induced, and some of the bands quaintly old school, at least this time you felt there was no ambivalence, no Tebbit-like tests or unwelcome in the air. The change in tone across the media to stadium diversity, to the Brit-Asians who these days throng the grounds in the blue and green of their mother countries is marked, and Channel 4 played its part.
None of this, to be sure, could save cricket in Black-Brit land ( final confirmation of which came at a recent Lords reception to launch the Brian Lara exhibition there where my late thirty-something self was, the odd celebrity-hopeful hottie aside, the youngest black person there). In the end, for all its multicultural past, and part-multicultural present, it took an old-fashioned domestic dispute to lift English cricket to a height it had not seen for a very long time. Channel 4’s time at the helm concluded with the epic 2005 series between the Anglo cousins – England and Australia, for the Ashes. Its coverage gave it, on the rubber’s climactic final day, its highest ever audience share of 23% – 7.4 million, an beyond that, thousands famously stretched outside an already full Old Trafford, and serenaded a triumphant England in Trafalgar Square. Who can definitively say what led to all this? The moss-gathering media coverage that summer? Patriotism? An unquenchable thirst for big public occasions in the post- Diana’s death era? No doubt there were plenty of sheep, those who wanted to be in on any in-thing once it’s in. But I like to think that much of it was due to the thing-in-itself. That people had a chance to see the games and some were seduced by what they saw. We’ll never know because, ridiculously and kind-of karmically, live cricket, courtesy of a still-myopic cricket England’s choices and a New Labour whose demotion of the game from its ‘Crown Jewel’ status showed you all the contemporary relevance they thought it had, was now leaving free TV for the first in my lifetime. And, in a flash, any hope of sustaining the momentum was gone. Behind me, on the telly, some ‘London Olympic Special’ is going on. One Tim Lamb who, as it happens, was head honcho in cricket England once upon a time, has just asked Lord Coe how he can justify cannibalising the money earmarked for grass roots sport to fund the London games, and Coe is droning out the standard line. The biggest help for grass roots sports, he’s saying, will be the role model Olympic champions that the Games will provide. No, Seb, believe me. Gold medals come and go. Most are forgotten about a few weeks later – they mainly attract the kind of superficials who’ll go somewhere else when that medallist and that activity is no longer in the news (English hockey, archery, anyone?). Give us access to the thing, don’t forget the necessary spring cleans, and you will attract the audience and the partcipants your thing deserves.