Last Thursday, having hotfoot it up the M1 from Lord’s after being omitted from the final XI for the decisive Third Test against South Africa, Graham Onions took career-best figures of 9 for 67 for Durham at Trent Bridge, laying waste to the Nottinghamshire innings. The touchstone of his two-spelled act of destruction was the manner in which he exploited any uncertainty in the batsman’s mind and/or imprecision in their footwork. After a night’s sleep to allow it to sink into that maelstrom of connective activity that is our unconscious, the performance not only seemed reminiscent of the remorseless probings of GD McGrath but also evoked a few key insights of Franco-Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida.
These days, certainly in Anglophone circles, Derrida is remembered for a few unhelpful slogans (“il n y’a pas de hors-texte”: there is nothing outside the text) and professional controversies (The Cambridge Affair: the vetoing of an honorary degree awarded him by the august pedagogic institution) or else derided as the father of something called “litero-philosophy”. He was never too concerned about the latter charge, for the upheaval he did to the philosophical institution – and no-one likes a heretic – derived from one simple observation that they were unable to shake off: that philosophy, no matter how high-minded its intentions, was inescapably linguistic in its medium. Its truths would have to negotiate those treacherous waters of metaphor, ambiguity, aporia (logical impasse), polysemism (multiple meanings of the same word, or “signifier”) and all the other ways in which language problematizes the calm, stable world of Platonic Ideas. What he proceeded to show – in an at times super-recondite idiom that did as much to antagonise as his actual postulates – was that language, le texte, was a field of contestation, a rally and a rallying point, always potentially open to new contexts, new iterations.
It was from these insights that he developed the philosophical strategy known as “deconstruction”, a method of textual dismemberment (and reconstitution) which, going via this notion that linguistic meaning is extremely slippery and elusive, suggests that its interpretation or comprehension, particularly by philosophers, rested on something he called “the metaphysics of presence” – the idea that perfect (‘common’) sense is fully available to users of language at all times. One facet of that metaphysics of presence, Derrida claimed, was the routine privileging throughout the history of philosophy of speech over writing (among other violently hierarchical conceptual oppositions). Speech is thought to be more authentic, more present, more meaningful; writing derived, debased and deliberately ambiguous. Plato, who wasn’t shy of using a metaphor, would have excluded poets from his Republic.
The concept Derrida devised to convey this slipperiness with which meaning arises from words – written or spoken – was differance, an anomalously spelt noun deriving from the French verb for both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’ (différer). For, not only is the meaning of words or signs – which are simply arbitrary, though conventional, combinations of graphic marks (there is no inherent reason why ‘c-a-t’ should refer to those slinky feline animals, which is presumably why the French use ‘c-h-a-t’ and the Spanish ‘g-a-t-o’) – a function of their difference with respect to others (we know that it is ‘c-a-t’ rather than ‘b-a-t’ or ‘h-a-t’ that denotes the wee beasties), but their sense also derives from the chains of words of which they are part, their linguistic environment, syntax – always deferred, held over, open. In this manner, differance was also ingenious in that it not only envelops the two axes of meaning, but also shows how writing is at times ‘superior’ to speech as a vehicle for sense, since it is only when written down that you can see the concept’s difference from ‘difference’ (the French for ‘difference’).
Now, it seems to me that a lot of cricketing punditry is just as prone as philosophical truth-seeking to the “metaphysics of presence”, often failing to grasp (or remember, more accurately) how wickets are often part of a process, a sequence, and thus how no single ball can be totally ‘comprehended’ outside of the chain of which it is a part. The effect of each ball is, precisely, différant.
Take, for instance, a ball that pops off a length and/or goes through the top. It is only meaningful because of its difference from both the rest of the sequence and the expected reaction off the wicket (the equivalent of a word being used in an unexpected context; its capacity for variation and recontextualization). If all balls ‘misbehaved’ in this way, you may not entirely cope, but you’d have a better chance of adjusting, of ‘comprehending’. This ball jumps out, literally and metaphorically. It also reverberates along the chain. Its meaning is deferred, never fully present: in the post and in the post-.
It is thus precisely these meaning effects that underlie the notion of a bowler ‘planting the seed of doubt’. For pace bowlers, a good early bouncer can tamper with a batsman’s footwork for a long time to come, so that, if he were, say, to be caught at gully leaning back on a drive, the ‘meaning’ (the cause) of the dismissal must be located as much in the early bouncer as the wicket-taking delivery itself. It sounds obvious enough, but, as I say, it is often forgotten by pundits too quick to criticise poor batting from a position in the commentary box – a position in which, free of the need to survive, the effects of the previous balls melt away (it is even more the case in the press box, where a good deal of the game goes unwatched).
But this aspect of bowling is also forgotten by bowlers themselves who are often too impatient, too keen to run through their variations, unaware of the uncertainlty they are creating, unable to ‘read’ the (text of a) batsman. Take Imran Tahir, a leg-spinner struggling to find his feet in Test cricket, as much because he keeps reverting to the mercurial ‘bomber mentality’ of the tape-ball cricket played in the streets of
Lahore where the short window of opportunity privileges the explosive over the
methodical. Spinning the ball both ways creates a set of problems for the
fielding captain as to the best way to arrange the fielders, whence the concept
of a stock ball. Yet too often Tahir rushes for the googly or flipper to
batsman already unsure of which way it is spinning, allowing them the chance to
get off strike, to escape.
At any rate, the planting of the seed – again, the reverberation of meaning horizontally along the “syntagmatic axis” – is also the object of an on-field narration, chirp, that gives a broadcast linguistic form to the doubts caused precisely by the difference of a given delivery (its meaning vertically, on the “paradigmatic axis”). Shane Warne was unparalleled at this.
Yet the uncertainty doesn’t necessarily have to emerge from a deliberate delivery, a googly or bouncer or sudden inswinger. It can be the slightest ‘misbehaviour’ of the pitch, real or imagined. Onions himself, with characteristic understatement, alluded to it after the day’s play: “It’s funny because the lads said to me that it’s generally keeping quite low and I bowled a ball to Riki Wessels [in the first over] that seamed away and bounced a little bit and I was thinking that’s good signs for a fast bowler”.
Two balls after the steepler past Wessels’s shoulder, Hales was trapped lbw, the ball scurrying along the ground like a spider making a dash from under the pouffe to the TV cabinet. Did it send reverberations through the dressing room and along the chain of meaning (the spell)? It’s hard to say for sure, but the accuracy and movement both ways (the difference) certainly contributed to the dismissal of Michael Lumb, undone by a ball that thudded into front pad with a good stride while trying to cover the away movement seen in the previous half-dozen deliveries. Little he could have done. Shortly afterward, the right-handed Adam Voges was bowled by a ball that seamed away to hit the top of off stump, trying not to thrust his pad at the ball. Again, pretty helpless. Chris Read, so often Notts’ saviour, was then utterly discombobulated and poked at a short, wide ball to edge behind for a golden duck.
Cricket’s sages say that you must play the game ball-by-ball, that you must ‘stay in the bubble’ – but that is only partly true and, more to the point, not always advisable, either. It is bordering on negligence not to conduct a continual assessment of both how the pitch is playing – which, after all is a living organism undergoing decay, a “Monocotyledon surface” – and of the sequence of deliveries, looking for clues as to how the bowler is trying to dismiss you, adapting according to the specific environmental dangers: a risk assessment. Yes, you must fully concentrate on this ball when the bowler is running in, but between balls, in the cracks through which meaning slips, in the game’s ‘lowlights’, one must calculate a whole method. Not playing by instinct, so much as by intuition.
Last Thursday, Graham Onions bowled like a deconstructionist philosopher – not a symptomatic reading of a text, but truly a forensic examination of the Notts batsmen’s technique.