A few years ago, I read a piece that claimed that the NBA built its audience share through a policy based on creating individual stars in a team game – something that complemented the growing industry of sports stars being used in advertising and marketing. “Be like Mike” only worked if we knew who Mike was – and we only knew who Mike was if television told us. So the camera got in close for reaction shots and we felt the joy and pain of the two impostors. It wasn’t always like this – an ostensibly simple photographic portrait can positively steam with testosterone, doing the job of, yes, a thousand words, but television isn’t about to retreat to the boundary, nor avert its gaze and emoting is what we expect of our heroes.
Test cricket, played over five days and in series of three to five matches, is particularly suited to psychological as well as physical competition – perhaps only Grands Tours in cycling allow so concentrated an opportunity to explore Stephen Waugh’s famous “mental disintegration”. In consequence, players look to dominate in their body language, in their decision-making and in their off-field (horrible phrase but it’s the right one) mind games. However, is ladling on more and more machismo for the camera always the right way to go? The First Ashes Test gave three reasons to suggest otherwise.
As an aside, I write from the perspective of an Englishman. It has been claimed, with some plausibility, that one of the reasons fascism never took off in England is that when faced with overt the macho posturing so critical to fascism’s allure, the Englishman finds it neither attractive nor intimidating: instead he minds it funny. That most English of writers, PG Wodehouse, recognised this in his only sustained venture into satire, Sir Roderick Spode, the thinly disguised Blackshirt leader Sir Oswald Mosley.
Two cricketers offer contrasting stories. For years, Shane Watson worked out in the gym, built the muscles that he proudly displayed whenever a camera hove into sight and failed to get on to the paddock with any regularity. Ian Bell had none of Watto’s muscles – his mien was that of a schoolboy trying too hard to be a man – something that did not escape the gaze of SK Warne and Bell’s performances fell short of his potential. What happened next is interesting. Watson stayed away from the gym, sacrificing some of that gun definition for flexibility and decided to give up trying to bat like Hayden and bowl like Lee, settling into batting like Stephen Waugh and bowling like Damien Fleming. In consequence, he barely misses a game these days accumulating runs through a limited range of shots and bowling with crafty deception and the quicker ball held up the sleeve as a variation. Ian Bell took Watto’s locker in the Cricketers’ Gym and acquired a bit of muscle-mass that has given him a presence on the field that is bolstering his self-belief. He looks comfortable in his skin these days, knowing that the jaw need not always jut, the chest not be permanently puffed out, that looking right is subservient to playing right. In their own ways, Watson and Bell have arrived at the same point – a happy balance, where machismo posturing can be done by directing a glance to the scoreboard.
On a pitch which prompted almost universal consensus that bowling a full length offered the best chance of taking wickets, why did we see so few full deliveries and, yet again, so few yorkers? I suggest that this is the result of quicker bowlers’ need to project their machismo at all times. If a paceman wants to bang it in short, captains will post a sweeper on the off-side and one, even two, men out for the pull shot. And the bowler is happy to bang the ball in short, getting it above waist height and showing how macho they are. But when does a captain ever post a sweeper for the drive? I mean a very straight long-on who can supplement mid-on and mid-off in the way that the sweeper supplements cover point. Never. That’s because a sustained attack of full deliveries runs the risk of the ball being driven right back past the bowler – just too much of an affront to be contemplated. This from the same men happy to use the same tactic and field square of the wicket. Machismo gets in the way of smart cricket.
Finally, England got out of jail after posting a first innings total of 260, at least 140 below par on a road of a pitch. How did they underachieve so much? Too many batsmen were too keen to “make a statement” with attacking intent and project a little machismo to the opposition. To win, or even to draw, Test matches in Australia demands above all else occupation of the crease – if you can’t bat at least seven sessions, you’re going to lose. Learning from Brad Haddin’s remarkable innings played against type, second time round Cook, Strauss and Trott came out to block the good balls and hit the bad ones and sod the machismo. It worked.
Reining in the machismo often does.
Article by Gary Naylor