The Oval Cricket Ground has always suffered by comparison to Lords, its more illustrious London counterpart. But the Oval is where it all began. The first Test match on English soil was played here in 1880, with the legendary WG Grace scoring a century on debut. The Oval was less kind to Sir Donald. In 1948, Bradman, in what must surely be the most spectacular non-event in the history of sport, was bowled for a duck in his last innings to fall just four runs short of a statistical milestone no mortal will ever threaten. Indian fans of my generation will recall a famous victory at the Oval in 1971, the first on English soil, and Sunny Gavaskar’s epic 221 in 1979, arguably the greatest fourth innings knock in the history of the game. Most famously, on August 29th 1882, England, chasing only 85 to win, slumped from 51 for 2 to 78 all out. The next morning The Sporting Times published its famous mock obituary and the legend of the Ashes was born.
Now fast forward to August 2013, and a different type of history was made at the Oval, ironically almost to the day on the anniversary of the creation of the Ashes. In Homer’s Illiad (the uncensored version) Achilles urinates on Hector’s corpse after slaying the Trojan prince outside the gates of Troy. It is entirely possible that Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson or Kevin Peterson, feeling godlike after their recent conquest, were inspired by the demigod Achilles. Regardless, part of their drunken celebrations last week included micturating on the Oval pitch on the final evening of the contest. Teammate Graeme Swann’s defense was that “it was midnight, a private celebration in the middle of the pitch and the ground was dark.” In other words, pissing on history was fine because nobody was watching – or at least so they thought. I suppose in much the same way as not walking after edging a ball to slip was OK because the umpire wasn’t looking. It’s a slippery slope.
The attitude of England’s conquistadors is symptomatic of all that I find distasteful about modern cricket. It is becoming increasingly aggressive, nasty, pugilistic, and rather joyless. For me cricket, particularly Test cricket, was all about style, grace, sportsmanship and respect for tradition. It always made me feel special that I was among the select few who “got it”. This English team has reduced the game to the type of hooliganism and boorishness one normally associates with football; John Terry would be at home in this team. Over the years, one has become used to the English cricketing establishment taking a somewhat condescending attitude – deservedly so – toward the development of cricket in the Indian sub-continent. The English are, after all, supposed to the custodians of all that is great and good about the noble sport. No longer. I find the conduct of this team even more offensive than the spot fixers. Poor Mohammad Amir was 17, uneducated, clearly manipulated and seems genuinely contrite, none of which is true for England’s glamorous heroes.
Among the more interesting books I read as a student was Chaos by James Gleick. Chaos theory is a relatively obscure branch of mathematics that attempts to make sense of non-linearity or “randomness”. While those were the days when the mind was agile and I could actually make sense of Lorenz attractors and Mandelbrot sets, the key insight that has stayed with me is a healthy respect for the unforeseen consequences of all that happens in the universe. Take the Coen brothers classic The Big Lebowski, for example, which starts with the Chinaman peeing on The Dude’s rug. As for the Oval, the head groundsman Lee Fortis is still evaluating the chemical impact of this toxic liquid desecration of his pitch; this could be a sticky wicket forever. But for me personally, the reaction is rather more visceral. When England go Down Under later this year, I will be rooting for the Aussies. Congratulations England, you won the Ashes, but you just lost a fan. I’m pissed off.