Thursday, 17 July 2014

"WAR IS PEACE"; OR, JIMMY, JADEJA AND THE BIG THREE




Well, well, well, well, well, well, well. Jimmy and Jadeja, eh? EH!?!

But before we get back to live commentary of ‘The Trent Bridge Push and Shove Kerfuffle’ that has brought two great nations to the brink of war, let’s get the shipping forecast: “…And finally, Viking, North Utsire, Cromarty, Teacup: there are severe storm warnings”.

Anyway, as we back politely away from the abject futility of trying to get to the bottom of what happened – mainly because any independent governing body or officials thereof have now given up any pretence of being able to arbitrate the sport – let’s just note the sensual, nay sexual effusion of all this. In a soporific Test match enlivened only by some sprightly nine-ten-jackery, Jimmy first larruped several reverse-sweeps off Jadeja, treating him like a rolling net bowler; later, Jadeja blocked for 37 balls then decided to treat Jimmy-y like a spinner, skipping down the track to plonk him over the top. It’s all a bit 5-year-old boy play-punching the girl he fancies, no?  

Nevertheless, it has all come as something of a surprise, this handbaggery, given that only a few weeks earlier the ICC rubber-stamped its own restructuring into what’s effectively a private members club lorded over by India, in the big, diamond-encrusted chair in the middle, in conjunction with England, in the large-ish gilded chair alongside, and Australia, in the slightly smaller (+17cm for cricketing success; –22cm for lack of Barmy Army to bring dollar to other nations) green-and gold chair on the other side of that. A cosy troika (and also perhaps the worst thing that has happened to cricket).

And yet Jadeja and Anderson are now embroiled in a brannigan, a brouhaha, a stoush. ‘Sgoinon?


Not even a cynic (guilty, m’lud) would suggest – regardless of whether this is a genuine spat or not – that after said Tedium at Trent Bridge was played out to pockets of empty white seats, a bit of spice cannot harm things at the ticket office. Not me. But some have. (Not me.)

The charade of war between collusive powers whose conflict is designed to distract their constituents from the hierarchical, monopolistic rule they exercise – it’s 1984 all over again. Specifically, it’s the dissident Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a forbidden three-part political treatise slipped into the middle of the novel.

Let’s have a read, see what we learn.


Part One: “Ignorance is strength”

The thrust of the opening segment is to outline the internal stratification of the three great global powers: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. It is identitical in all three:

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. […] The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives – is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. Thus throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again.

In one version of our analogy, the High would be the Big Three. The Middle is the other great cricket nations: South Africa, Pakistan, West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Finally, the Low would be the remaining pair of what are laughably (if not euphemistically and with a trace of innuendo) called “ICC full members” (Bang and Zim), as well as all the Associate and Affiliate nations. The carve-up of world cricket isn’t an exact analogy – for one, in cricket, the pretence of genuine hostility isn’t so much for the benefit of a subjugated internal populace as for the eternal hegemony of the Big 3 over other great nations – but Orwell knew that, whether it’s India, ICC, MCC or whoever, little will have changed:

[No] advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.

Here’s how the recent convulsion at the top table of cricket happened, and what was novel about it:

The new movements which appeared in the middle years of the century, Ingsoc in Oceania, Neo-Bolshevism in Eurasia, Death-Worship, as it is commonly called, in Eastasia, had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality. These new movements, of course, grew out of the old ones and tended to keep their names and pay lip-service to their ideology. But the purpose of all of them was to arrest progress and freeze history at a chosen moment. The familiar pendulum swing was to happen once more, and then stop. As usual, the High were to be turned out by the Middle, who would then become the High; but this time, by conscious strategy, the High would be able to maintain their position permanently.

By conscious strategy. Henceforth, the lapping waves of history would be replaced by a frozen sea.

The cyclical movement of history was now intelligible, or appeared to be so; and if it was intelligible, then it was alterable. But the principal, underlying cause was that, as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, human equality had become technically possible […] Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels. Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted.


Of course, another version of our analogy would be that India, Australia and England correspond to the three powers of Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania (the other cricketing nations would be “the disputed territories”), each of which is internally stratified as outlined (and to have two versions of the same analogy in play at the same time is exemplary doublethink. And of course, it isn’t). So, looking for cricket’s parallels to the hierarchical structure of Ingsoc, Big Brother would perhaps be English cricket as an idea (only ideas really inspire men to terror), encompassing everything from the Spirit of Cricket, Lord’s, the MCC and suchlike, to Team England (again an idea, but one including the beaming supporters invested in it all). The Inner Party would be the ECB executive, while the Outer Party would correspond to the players and the county administrators. The Proles would be cricket supporters en masse.

Anyway, the new ideology, aiming at permanent domination, demanded a new ruling class, Orwell tells us: 

The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.

Giles, Wally, N.

But what would be their plan?

The new High group, unlike all its forerunners, did not act upon instinct but knew what was needed to safeguard its position. It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly.


Whence the ICC’s Finance and Governance ‘Position Paper’ and its rubber-stamping in Malaysia, just as with Ingsoc the Party expropriates all private property (viz. the Big Three take effective ownership of all countries’ international calendars) and permanent equality is established.

But the problems of perpetuating a hierarchical society go deeper than this. There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern. These causes do not operate singly, and as a rule all four of them are present in some degree. A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently. Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.

The first threat has been removed by hyper-armament and permanent war [see below], while the second is only “theoretical”. The existing dangers are that strong and discontented middle group – the painful long-game of the Not-So-Big Five aligning itself against the Big Three, either denying their best players the cachet of international cricket or perhaps creating their own parallel to IPL, tapping into the Indian population via online pay sites – and a lurch toward magnanimity and holistic husbandry of the game by the Big Three (and, of course, England and Australia might well be our discontented middle group).  

The problem, that is to say, is educational. It is a problem of continuously moulding the consciousness both of the directing group and of the larger executive group that lies immediately below it. The consciousness of the masses needs only to be influenced in a negative way.

And after a few passages outlining the stratifications and potential movement between the social strata…

Between the two branches of the Party there is a certain amount of interchange, but only so much as will ensure that weaklings are excluded from the Inner Party and that ambitious members of the Outer Party are made harmless by allowing them to rise. Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. The most gifted among them, who might possibly become nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated.

…the way in which power is passed down is discussed:

A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors. The Party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself. Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same. All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.

It is part-brainwashing, part-terror. Even the ambitious cricketers in the Outer Party – which Orwell calls the “hands” to the Inner Party’s “brain” – such as KP are rigorously monitored. 


The Inner Party, too. The individuals may come and go, but the structure must be preserved at all costs. No deviations, no dissent.

A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected. Nothing that he does is indifferent. His friendships, his relaxations, his behaviour towards his wife and children, the expression of his face when he is alone, the words he mutters in sleep, even the characteristic movements of his body, are all jealously scrutinized. Not only any actual misdemeanour, but any eccentricity, however small, any change of habits, any nervous mannerism that could possibly be the symptom of an inner struggle, is certain to be detected. He has no freedom of choice in any direction whatever. On the other hand his actions are not regulated by law or by any clearly formulated code of behaviour. […] The endless purges, arrests, tortures, imprisonments, and vaporizations are not inflicted as punishment for crimes which have actually been committed, but are merely the wiping-out of persons who might perhaps commit a crime at some time in the future. A Party member is required to have not only the right opinions, but the right instincts. Many of the beliefs and attitudes demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be stated without laying bare the contradictions inherent in Ingsoc.

Thus, clear-the-air meetings might take place, the results of which are used against the participants. And what about the grey functionaries shuffling papers, scanning Michael Carberry interviews, signing non-disclosure agreements, controlling official history?

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.

Crimestop, blackwhite, doublethink – everything ensures the correct postures and attitudes.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.

And among those heretical lines is a yen to puncture the officially documented history and get back to the facts:

By far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one's mind, or even one's policy, is a confession of weakness. If, for example, Eurasia or Eastasia (whichever it may be) is the enemy today, then that country must always have been the enemy. And if the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love.

And so Test cricket is ‘saved’, at the probable cost of its permanent domination by three countries; at the cost of any expansion of the game; at the cost of any wider representativity on decision-making bodies. Protect the game by killing the game: classic doublethink.


Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Paul Downton. It is depressing, suffocating, a collective madness:

In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane. One clear illustration of this is the fact that war hysteria increases in intensity as one rises in the social scale.

And what, then, of this war hysteria, and its function?


Part Two: “Freedom is Slavery”

As is well known, this part of Goldstein’s proscribed tract doesn’t make it into 1984. 


Part Three: “War is Peace”

Once the nature of the internal stratification has been explained (Part One), Part Three is designed to show how these societies relate to each other. What is the nature of the “war” between the Big Three – Ashes, Border-Gavaskar, Pataudi?

In one combination or another, these three super-states are permanently at war […] War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference. This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or the prevailing attitude towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous. On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries

So, India cannot annex England and Australia, for instance, and the fear of the BCCI withdrawing from the ICC was just scaremongering…? They may have the population, and the eyes for the advertisers, but they can’t go it alone – is that what the point is?

To understand the nature of the present war – for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war – one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive. None of the three super-states could be definitively conquered, even by the other two in combination. They are too evenly matched, and their natural defenses are too formidable. […] Secondly, there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about. With the establishment of self-contained economies, in which production and consumption are geared to one another, the scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death.


So, it’s war for the prolongation of a war without purpose. Now, how might that analogy work with cricket’s powers keeping the wealth of the game in their hands on the basis of historical contingency (the size of India’s population, the fact that cricket was first played between England and Australia)?

The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. […] In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked on as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. […] The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.

And all the rivalry – which in cricket does reach down to the ‘proles’ who watch it, with their overheated partisanship, their mood indexed to results – what is its function?

War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way. In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. […] Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist. […] It is precisely in the Inner Party that war hysteria and hatred of the enemy are strongest. In his capacity as an administrator, it is often necessary for a member of the Inner Party to know that this or that item of war news is untruthful, and he may often be aware that the entire war is spurious and is either not happening or is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones: but such knowledge is easily neutralized by the technique of doublethink. Meanwhile no Inner Party member wavers for an instant in his mystical belief that the war is real, and that it is bound to end victoriously, with Oceania the undisputed master of the entire world.

Although the analogy is imprecise – the ICC, as India, England and Australia’s tool, is aiming for monetary inequality, whereas the super-states of 1984 are geared toward power for power’s sake – Orwell nevertheless adumbrates the nature of the control that the national boards (and the international mechanism of the ICC) hope to exercise over their own populations, both cricketers and spectators alike:

The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

Take heed, West Indies. Listen up, Pakistan. Hear ye, South Africa. War is peace. 



BULLFIGHTING AND THE LEAVE-ALONE

 

A short essay for ESPNcricinfo comparing the batsman's leave-alone with the bullfighter's pass. There is a longer version – comparing the structure of the bullfight with a day's play – due in The Nightwatchman next April, since that is the time when the thrilling leave, the dangerous projectile that is the ball brushing past the flanks of the batsman...  

Corrida of Uncertainty 



 

PAUL COLLINGWOOD: TALKING CRICKET


What's not to love about Paul Collingwood? The only Englishman ever to lift an ICC trophy was a real player's player, happiest in a scrap – think Cardiff 2009, or that hundred against South Africa at Edgbaston – and never asking teammates to do anything he wouldn't do himself, as when he jumped in to defend Simon Jones from a verbal assault from Matty Hayden in 2005. 

He bade farewell to England after the Sprinkler Ashes win, and has since gone on to skipper Durham to the County Championship. I caught up with him prior to Durham's T20 game at Trent Bridge a few weeks to chat about fielding for ESPNcricinfo. 

Colly on fielding


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

UNVITAL STATISTICS




In his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, Steve Waugh said that “fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. True enough, you might reason, but for how much longer? 

In recent columns for ESPNcricinfo, both Daryll Cullinan and Rob Steen argued for a thorough overhaul and renovation of fielding statistics, with the former concluding, in almost antithetical fashion to Waugh, that “it can no longer be ignored that fielding needs a massive statistical boost. If fielding stats are brought in, cricketers will also attach far greater importance to the discipline because of the recognition rewards”. 

It is undeniable that Cullinan’s viewpoint represents the way the world is going – abstract quantitative measurement is the fundamental reality of a society geared toward profit, and managerialist performance targets have insinuated themselves into all spheres of modern life, from school grades to hospital waiting times, with systems often creeking under the strain of meeting prescriptive and externally imposed ‘efficiency’ goals – and while batting and bowling are readily given individualised statistics, is this inevitable, necessary or even desirable when it comes to fielding, the one area of the game that isn’t an isolated individual undertaking? 

Perhaps, rather than being a simple matter of right and wrong, there is an ‘ideological’ divergence here. Waugh’s position represents a sort of collectivist, socialist view, along the lines of Karl Marx’s dictum: “from each according to his capability, to each according to his needs”. Cullinan’s view might be called ‘liberal individualist’, assuming – in line with the view that ‘rational self-interest’ provides the ‘hidden hand’ bringing macro-order to a market-based society – that individual reward is the only way to incentivise the raising of standards. “Batting and bowling have individual rankings,” he muses, “why can’t fielding have the same? The game and spectator experience can only be enhanced”. Only? 

Quite apart from this being an awfully pessimistic take on human motivation, it should be pointed out that the great recent fielding innovations – the relay chase, the relay throw, the rugby-style slide-and-offload, the two-man catch – have already happened without individual incentives, through players exploring their own limits for the service of the team. It’s not only that “recognition rewards” haven’t proven necessary to raise standards; it’s that they can easily interfere with a team’s motivation – creating a conflict between team and individual goals – and thus insidiously affect good fielding. 

Although a much more holistic team undertaking than cricket, football has nonetheless recently seen an upsurge in statistical data. Companies like OPTA measure all sorts of supposedly individual contributions to the collective cause – tackles made, number of key passes, shooting accuracy – these ‘facts’ being extrapolated from their multi-sided context and endowed with dubious significance, as with a concert review that praises the crispness of the cymbal striking without reference to the overall sound. Is a high number of tackles a sign of diligence, physical flexibility, or colleagues' profligacy in possession? 

Aside from effacing the complex causes behind those facets of the game upon which it purportedly casts light, the statistical approach may, through a cockeyed focus on product (‘metric’) rather than process (‘good football’), start to create ‘feedback’. A data analyst tells the head coach, “we need to up our key passes by 23% to give us a statistically more probable chance to win their remaining games”, leading to poor decision-making on the ball. A striker starts to aim down the middle in order to increase this shooting accuracy figure, despite doing so giving him a statistically smaller chance of scoring than would aiming for the corners and missing a higher proportion of his shots. In short, means (shooting accuracy) become ends, much as Max Weber predicted of the ‘Rational-Bureaucratic Society’. 

It’s not hard to imagine a similar form of feedback affecting decision-making in cricket. Already, as a direct result of statistical measures extrapolated from context (i.e. whether they aid winning), both batting and bowling possess such conflicts of interest between team and individual goals – commonly known as ‘red-inking’ and ‘pole-hunting’. 

As for fielding, such performance metrics could easily interfere with the split-second decision-making connecting fielder and midfielder’s modus operandi. That selfless dive for the ball that you have 5% chance of stopping, yet know that the act of diving itself delays and thus prevents the run (cricket’s equivalent of football’s off-the-ball run), may increasingly – though subtly, and perhaps subconsciously (learned behaviour always eventually becomes automatic) – be seen as a risk of a ‘bad mark’ and could inhibit people taking on the improbable and unlikely. This highlights the paradoxical notion that better fielders may have worse stats because, in attempting more ambitious plays, they make more errors. It also therefore highlights the difficulty of objectively determining what constitutes errors, fumbles and suchlike.    




Steen quotes the philosophy of Mumbai Indians’ fielding coach, Jonty Rhodes: “I am not marking them on the balls that were dropped or the balls that were missed. I am watching for the balls that they haven’t made an effort for”. Yet there is also a ‘selfish’ dive, when you have zero percent chance both of stopping the ball and preventing the run (although a higher chance of injury), yet are keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, much as with a set batsman who goes for an unnecessarily aggressive option in a stuttering run-chase in order to ‘show’ how selfless he is, when in fact he’d have best served the team’s interests by toughing it out.

Of course, whether or not this transpires would depend, to a certain extent, on what’s at stake: are performance metrics are a mere TV gimmick or might they be factored into decisions about your place in the team or even your next contract? Responsibility for performance is desirable, but as soon as you start to measure individualised contributions to a collaborative undertaking – a sort of sporting version of ‘Taylorism’, the scientific management of labour – and use those measurements to evaluate players, then you are introducing intra-team competition where co-operation should prevail. 

Indeed, Taylorism used micro-level rivalry to undermine worker solidarity, and fielding metrics will no doubt breed a similar insularity: “I’ve done my bit, spreadsheet says so”. The effect is corrosive. Cullinan proposes measuring fumbles, but you’d soon have fielders angling to get themselves to flatter parts of the outfield: “Skipper, I’ll do third man. I don’t mind, honestly…” It is counter-productive. Striving for a collective exhibition is replaced by personal inhibition

Steen signs off by saying it’s “not about naming and shaming, but acclaiming”, yet the same issues arise even with an ostensibly positive skill like direct hits. There’s already a vast spectrum of difficulty here – factoring in angle to the target and the body position time affords the fielder – and great cognitive skill in that split-second, death-overs risk/reward calculation of whether a shy at the stumps is worthwhile, depending on the danger a batsman poses (either how set he is, or potential destructiveness). You don’t want players subconsciously incentivised into ponderousness and deliberation. 

Yet the fundamental problem with individualised fielding stats is that the game of cricket – all team sport – is about intangible, unquantifiable relations and human traits, chief among which is generosity. Looking out for your mates. Putting everything you have in the pot before you measure it, which is the true meaning of “from each according to his capabilities…” A team will appreciate an awkward fielder’s commitment and budget for his shortcomings, whereas proposals like those of Cullinan sketches out a pre-emptively defensive mindset: “Well, this is what I contributed. I did my bit”. 

Generosity of spirit is manifested in myriad ways: helping a bowler through a tough period with the ball; staying upbeat at 450 for 3; supporting a skipper who’s just dropped two catches; not reacting histrionically when dismissed by a ball that misbehaves out of the desire for everyone to understand that you’ve been unlucky. These are all ‘jobs’ that need doing, that are largely unseen and certainly elude quantification – “affective labour”, as it’s sometimes called, like child-rearing – but that may translate to runs, wickets and victories further down the line. Not everything valuable can be measured. 

It’s easy to see from other walks of life how, by submitting fielding to the harsh and not fully illuminating spotlight of individualised metrics (thus compounding the intrinsic loneliness of batting and bowling), the engendering of greater insularity and ‘rational self-interest’ – particularly as T20 itinerancy and freelancing erode the team cultures forged through hours of what Ed Smith calls the “small acts of kindness” – may also contribute to the growing list of cricketers afflicted by mental health problems. Stress is our modern illness – along with corruption, the predominant cricketing narrative of the age, an age of swelling backroom teams, micromanagement, and ‘soft’ surveillance – and it’s illogical to bemoan the increasing psychological strain that players find themselves at the same time as advocating having their every fielding move computed. 

All cricketers know that winning a tight game in the field together is the ultimate. It provides that fleeting communion – not illusory, despite what Steve Archibald said, even if fluctuating – and liberating ego-loss so often denied by our human condition: individual bodies, interior voice, internalised worries. The selfless, ‘swarm’ activity of fielding offers an escape from that, promising the joy of collective achievement beyond measure. Nothing would burst that bubble – fray that social fabric – faster than a fielding spreadsheet.



Saturday, 31 May 2014

SHANKAR PART 7: WICKED-PEDIA AND THE AFTERMATH




Lest this somewhat back-and-forth presentation of the unknown tale of Adrian Shankar’s final week as a professional cricketer has confused the chronology, let’s have a quick recap of the build-up to the final, unequivocal collapse of his fantasy – Adrian’s Gotterdammerung – when the story was broken on ESPNcricinfo on Thursday May 27.

As the endgame of those last days at New Road played out, we have seen that Shankar engaged in various online actions in an absurd attempt to plaster over the widening cracks in his story. First, his Twitter page became restricted access. Then a website appeared, purporting to cover the entirely fabricated Mercantile T20 tournament in Sri Lanka, the success in which won him his deal at Worcestershire. Soon afterward, there was a thread on a Sri Lankan fans’ forum offering apparently independent accounts of these wholly invented rebel T20 leagues, even adding a line to the Wikipedia entry for the defunct ICL. Around the same time, his Cambridge University CC profile was amended, removing news of him having been one of the youngest-ever captains (the story that corroborated his falsified age claims). Russian dolls of bullshit to explain bullshit.

Once the story broke, so did a tidal wave of ridicule and recrimination.

Worcestershire’s initial reaction was to make a press release announcing that “the contract and registration of Adrian Shankar with Worcestershire County Cricket Club has today been terminated by mutual consent. [We] will be making no further comment at this time”.

The day after his sacking, a further press release announced that West Mercia Police were investigating the circumstances surrounding his registration. Eventually, they decided against pressing charges. Worcestershire CCC chief executive, David Leatherdale, confirmed that, with Shankar having no previous criminal convictions, it became a simple employment issue with the club, even though there was an incentive for the club to engage him that wouldn’t have been there had he told them his correct age. With the presentation of falsified documents – a photocopy of his passport in this case – not exactly being hen’s-teeth rare, Shankar would have received only a conditional discharge or, at worst, a small fine. And with finite police resources, it simply wasn’t worth their while pursuing the matter any further.

ESPNcricinfo’s report, posted around 9pm on that Thursday evening (just 16 days after signing him), was hastily taken down for a couple of hours early on the morning of Friday 28 May while a few mainly cosmetic changes were made to the wording (doubtless at the behest of in-house lawyers rather than from Team Shankar, who was still flat out extinguishing the virtual fires engulfing the tattered shell of his dignity, his alter ego Yperera continuously amending a Wikipedia page that had become something of a sardonic free-for-all). The text has been subsequently modified to its current version, but the initial changes included the excision of the following two paragraphs:

Do you remember Ali Dia? He appeared very briefly for Southampton in the 1996-97 Premier League season after convincing the team’s manager, Graeme Souness, that he was the cousin of former FIFA player of the year, the Liberian George Weah. 

It turned out that Dia’s story wasn't true. Not only that, but he wasn't very good at football. Brought on as a 33rd minute substitute, Dia was subsequently substituted himself 20 minutes later. He never played again. Well, now cricket has its own version.

Also removed was the rhetorical question, apropos the age discrepancies, “Might he have been a youthful prodigy?” as well as the statement: “Shankar, however, has had a good try at re-writing history”. There’s also the line: “Whatever the truth in any of those claims, Shankar isn’t very good at cricket”. And the final paragraph was also taken down:

Shankar’s motivation is also unclear. He graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Law in 2004, so, under normal circumstances, might have been considered to have had the world at his feet. Instead of pursuing a worthwhile career, however, he’s become bogged down in an increasingly unwieldy series of lies.

It was those increasingly unwieldy lies that sparked the lampooning on his Wikipedia page, with ever more outlandish biographical claims not too much of a departure from the reality he had endeavoured to feed Worcestershire. 


Then the hashtag #shankarfacts appeared on Twitter, the creation of Devanshu Mehta, who later blogged about his creation.

There was the obligatory Parody Twitter account, too, accomplishing much the same satiric objective. 


As has been suggested previously, it is evident that Shankar’s real talent was as a one-man PR machine (although, in 2010 he confessed in a vox pop to the Independent that “I don’t buy that many books”; too busy studying International Relations), as further corroborated in a below-the-line post by Mike Selvey on the County Cricket Live blog on May 28, 2011. 


In the winter of 2010-11, as he sought a county deal, Shankar had been trying to generate interest on message boards, sending brochure-style resumes of his career, all excuses and puff, to fans that might then do his bidding. Here is a private message from ‘a Lancs fan’ to another forum user: 

“Player is Adrian Shankar - was in the middle of a 3 year contract with us last year but tragically lost his father and asked to be released from his deal half way through the summer. His family are in the south and he wanted to be closer to them. He had a few offers from other teams (Gloucester, Glamorgan, Middlesex) but said he was thinking of quitting the game. However somewhere along the line he has decided to play again and has just featured in an inter city T20 tournament in Sri Lanka, featuring all the best SL players not in their World Cup squad. He opened the batting and won player of tournament, averaging over 50 with a strike rate over 100 which is fairly incredible. 

He was always seen by Lancs as a future Championship batsman, but I think his personal issues have changed his attitude and now he just tries to belt the ball. Has lightning fast hands and is an excellent player of spin. Impressive to do so well in those conditions with the searing heat and turning pitches. He has now been offered an overseas slot in the Sri Lanka Premier League T20 in August and is being scouted by the Punjab IPL franchise for 2012. 

On the back of all this he has been approached by Gloucester, Glamorgan, Worcester and Hampshire for the English T20. Very good fielder and useful off spinner as well. Not sure what he will do but he is looking like a pretty good T20 prospect now, only 25 with a bright future. Lancs fans were lukewarm towards him because of his casual demeanour but I know that Mal Loye and VVS Laxman both thought he was a future star. Very popular in the dressing room as well, supposed to be a lovely lad. Lancs have actually enquired whether he would be interested in going back. I know that Mark Robinson spoke to him at the end of last season to see if he would consider playing at Sussex.”

As with the Sri Lankan message board, here was a series of characters being conjured into existence to trumpet and coo his merits. Once the game was up, and knowing from his deleted Twitter account that he spoke some Portuguese, also that his mother was Brazilian, Serendipity posted at the end of that aforementioned thread the verse used as the epigraph to this seven-part series. The cat was out of the bag.


Not only was Serendipity fairly sure sangapump, lavigne and t24 would grasp its relevance. It was also apt that it had been penned by Fernando Pessoa, the poet who gave the world the concept of the heteronym: similar to a pseudonym, only with more intense, almost independent characters or poetic voices, although whether or not the three aforementioned wise interlocutors, let alone the aspirant county cricketer (or IPL phenomenon), were fully autonomous psychic entities is for others to decide.     

For all that he was an inordinate and compulsive feigner – and very probably a feigner of pain on the third morning of his County Championship debut, when he absented himself from some first-session Grievous Bodily Harmison – you would be hard pressed (and perhaps so too would he) to claim that Adrian Shankar was a great poet, notwithstanding his eloquent if excruciatingly self-deprecating blog for erstwhile sponsors Mongoose.

In his story ‘The Secret Miracle’, the great Argentine short story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote of his protagonist: “Like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished; yet he asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.” Well, maybe Shankar took the plunge at Worcestershire believing that, one day, his ability would catch up with his PR, that his body would finally develop the marginal increases in co-ordination, that he could somehow will it into existence. Yet during that innings in the shadow of Worcester cathedral he must have known the game was up, that Division One of the County Championship was no country for 29-year-old men.

* * *

What he planned some day to do…

The flair for the well confectioned sentence evident in the Mongoose blog resurfaced just nine months after sloping away from professional cricket – enough time, indeed, for a whole new life to gestate. On February 29, a review of the Mayfair restaurant 5 Pollen St scribbled by Shankar for society website Quintessentially – who else? – appeared that is not only unbearably sycophantic, but which again displays the hallmark grandiosity and self-importance, the entitlement, the haughtiness, the sense that “he or she is ‘special’ or unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)” of the pathological narcissist. Dripping with it.  


Here is the full text, in all its undoubted, indiluted glory (and please do savour those first two well-marinated sentences after the italicized sell-text):  

Sitting down with Quintessentially Editor Harry Hughes and Diego Bivero-Volpe – dashing connoisseur of the London restaurant scene – writer and sometimes-gastronome Adrian Shankar muses on a bright new offering in the heart of Mayfair. 

Perhaps it would be an uncomfortable experience for some, placed opposite the intimidating figure of the Editor-in-Chief of Quintessentially. But not for me.  Now ensconced in the stylish confines of this Italian eatery - a new restaurant located on an a rather aloof side street in Mayfair - I had been instantly put at ease by the staff. 

The atmosphere dripped with effortless elegance and charm, and my gaze was transfixed on the carefully selected artwork, broken only when the head barman delivered our drinks, combining such energy and delicacy of movement that one felt as if Winter had turned to Spring. 

As the Editor-in-Chief regaled us with anecdotes and tales of yore, we sampled a beetroot ravioli starter. The restaurant hummed with conversation, but there was no doubt that attention now focused on the looming entrance of the signature dish – The Seabass – now sprawled in front of us with delicate élan, as if it had been stripped from the oceans by Poseidon himself. 

Brimming with charisma and foppish hair, the very distinguished figure of Mr Diego Bivero-Volpe has injected the establishment with a verve and style that befits the dashing new player on the scene.  Please note: for those seeking a more intimate experience, he has placed a private room towards the back of the restaurant (here, four men were seen negotiating subtleties long into the afternoon). 

After I refused the recommendation of a passion fruit fondant, the proprietor raised a suspicious eyebrow towards me, as if I had besmirched his honour, stolen his horse, and galloped off into the sunset with his fair maiden in tow. It was hard to imagine that anything could have outdone the lucid and sagacious conversation of the Editor-in-Chief – surely the title of Chief has never been so richly deserved – but the dining experience managed to do just that.  I retreated to the shops of Regent St, simply so I could purchase a hat and return, ready to doff it towards the staff as a mark of respect. AS

Whether the editorial brief specifically requested he bring chivalric affectation to the review will never be known, but the exchange with the proprietor recounted in the final paragraph would not look out of place in Don Quijote.

What he planned some day to do, this “writer and sometime gastronome”…

In the two years since the foregoing text was published, Adrian has focused his attention on making a documentary about one of the most upstanding of all sportsmen, the iconic Brazilian footballer, Socrates, a languid, chain-smoking playmaker (among others) who captained the insurpassably glamorous Brazil team of the 1982 World Cup – along with the 54 Hungarians and 74 Dutch, arguably the greatest team not to have won the tournament – and, even more impressively, was prime mover in a political experiment called “Corinthian Democracy” at his São Paulo-based club of the same name. The production company is Liberdade Films – one of whose producers, incidentally, is his former Mongoose boss Marcus Codrington-Fernandez – and perhaps this second career will bring him some freedom: freedom, that is, from the gnawing uncertainties and off-beam certainties that pushed him to such ludicrous lengths.

Speaking of which, the Wikipedia page, the Twitter parody, the Luke Sutton blog, even parts of this text are all well and good, but we are not here to ridicule (the brief and delirious window for which has long since passed), only to comprehend what has been, for cricket, if not sui generis then a relatively unusual story. And we should try and keep a sense of proportion, right? I mean, it’s hardly crime of the century, even though his response at the time might have been sailing a little too close to the wind, turning up in the garden of a journalist and telling him that he had put his family in danger.

He is just a man whose imaginings got the better of him, a sort of modern, mundane Don Quixote, a man whose idle daydreams were slowly whipped up into a fluffy delirium. Many nations are ruled by such men. Many religions are founded by such men.

Undoubtedly, the medicalised idiom of the previous couple of posts gives everything a hard edge, but then there’s surely a qualitative difference between madness and mental illness: the former swirls around everyone; the latter is the congealing of that flightiness sweeping us all along through the sunshine and shadow of our days here on planet earth. None of us is quite as hermetically sealed and secure as we are inclined to think in that adaptive trick of the mind upon the mind that helps keep us relatively stable. Our private selves are formed at the confluence of myriad events and memories and emotions – seeking love, seeking status in a messy world – and can always be knocked off course by a major blow from the outside (a death, burglary, bankruptcy; promotion, seduction), a subtle transition inside, or perhaps even a temporarily altered state: a fever, a daydream, a hallucination, a reverie, a flotation tank. We are porous and precarious, every one of us, as F Scott Fitzgerald knew only too well:

“Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick – the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”

Is all this mitigation for his actions? No. Is it to say that the future – maybe the documentary, Socrates: Footballer, Revolutionary, Enemy of the State – holds the opportunity for redemption? Yes.

Clearly, Mr Shankar has talent – by most measures, getting into Oxbridge in the first place is testament to that. There are mutual acquaintances of ours – men he played a lot of cricket with at Cambridge and with whom I have played subsequently in the leagues – that still vouch for him as essentially a decent bloke; men of sound judgement who are still loyal to, and protective of him. They bemoan the fact that it has been presented as though he were no good whatsoever – which isn’t true. It isn’t true – by most measures a century in Second XI cricket and Minor Counties cricket is a good level of ability. It is not, however, a good enough level of ability to warrant a two-year county deal at 29-years-old. You were never, ever going to pull it off. 

By most measures, inventing cricket tournaments to help you achieve your dream is a couple of steps beyond the norm. And by most measures, restraining orders and cautions from the police are an indication that you’ve become fixated, lost perspective, that the place in which you have sunk your pullulating passion – the idea of Being-Cricketer – has become a trap. As I say, the time for mockery has long passed and if there are details here that look on derisively agog at events, its tone is shaped largely by Shankar’s refusal to accept responsibility for how things went. Indeed, given his reaction when he was first exposed, I suppose there is a danger that anyone who punctures the self-image could become a target, a vent for the rage in this passage cited in Sam Vaknin’s Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited:

“When the habitual narcissistic gratifications that come from being adored, given special treatment, and admiring the self are threatened, the results may be depression, hypochondriasis, anxiety, shame, self-destructiveness, or rage directed toward any other person who can be blamed for the troubled situation. The child can learn to avoid these painful emotional states by acquiring a narcissistic mode of information processing.”

Yes, the hard medicalised idiom. But what else to explain the slippage from normal fantasy to abnormal phantasy. Perhaps there has been some poetic licence here, for to quote the Quijote:

“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

I don’t have too many biographical details to flesh out the theory, so the latter is fairly skeletal in terms of evidence mobilised. Nor am I inclined to chase the details: a man has the right to a fresh start. But I do have this tidbit, which may or may not be revealing. Brian Carpenter’s comment beneath the legsidefilth blog about meeting Shankar’s father at Lord’s when England played India there in 2007 might be illustrative of someone seemingly obsessed with achievement. And NPD can crystallise through a surfeit of attention or a deficit of the same, from being told that their talents were unlimited, or never being told they had any talent at all. According to Carpenter, Mr Sambasivan Shankar, an A&E Consultant at Bedford Hospital, was much more interested in talking about Alastair Cook and his exceptional talents than about his own son.


Or there is the datum of Adrian’s entirely unempathetic (and entirely fabricated) pronouncement to his fellow Lancashire Second XI players at the back end of 2009 regarding a new contract offer, as reported by George Dobell:

“[T]owards the end of the 2009 season, other young players at Lancashire reported issues with Shankar. He had been bragging in the pub that he'd been offered a two-year contract extension. And, ridiculously, he claimed that he wasn't going to sign it as he wanted to keep his options open. As a result, another promising youngster who was doing rather better but who had been offered only a one-year deal, went to see John Stanworth (the Lancashire Academy coach) to complain about the inequitable treatment. Even when it transpired that the club had made no such offer to Shankar, still Lancashire didn't act.”

A loss of perspective, a self divorced from the usual checks and balances of reality, floating free as a bubble in his own increasingly delusional and desperate version of the world. And yet, as was suggested, the human self – the psyche – is nomadic, eminently capable of regeneration. Where once he was imprisoned by the idea of Being-Cricketer, perhaps Adrian can enter a becoming-other that lifts the burden of whatever baggage had propelled him into such an absurd cul-de-sac in which the delicate foundations of his fantasy would be exposed and sundered. The first thing to do would be to let go, to free yourself of those past entanglements, to accept and laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all.

A “wandering minstrel”, Adrian’s nomadism might follow his artistic leanings, although what eventually becomes of all that remains to be seen. Whatever, our lusophone filmmaker undoubtedly showed certain attributes of Fernando Pessoa’s poet at Worcester, so perhaps, to finish this yarn, we ought to look at the rest of that short verse, ‘Autopsychography’ (the writing of one’s own psyche), for clues – all the while bearing in mind that there can never be an exact translation of the original, just as there can never be a definitive writing of Adrian’s story:

The poet is a faker.
So completely does he feign
That he ends up feigning as pain,
The pain that he really feels.

And those who read what once he wrote
Feel clearly in the pain they read
Neither of the pains that he felt,
Only a pain they cannot sense.

And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.

---

O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.

E os que lêem o que escreve,
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve,
Mas só que éles não têm.

E assim nas calhas de roda
Gira, a entreter a razão
Ésse comboio de corda
Que se chama o coração