Foul winds and fair play.
The rugby season is over at last – for all of a couple of months. But the challenger series for the America’s Cup is already beating to windward. And our professional cricketers, in whatever light and odour, have finally agreed to toss up and take guard. No matter what the season, for us New Zealanders sport rules. You could say that sport has now moved from unofficial religion to mindless obsession.
That’s not to assert that sport in itself is a bad thing. Far from it. But we need to differentiate between sport as an all-purpose displacement activity and sport as a healthy interest. The former seems to us epitomised by America’s Cup fervour, fuelled by a cloying cocktail of ersatz nationalism and Paul Holmes’ bland homebrew. It is bizarre to think that ordinary people should be so transfixed by a contest in which the rich boys joust against each other with their bank accounts: the ostentatious in full pursuit of the unwatchable. Even in one-day cricket, with its increasingly sensationalist spin and pyjamaed fools, something dramatic happens – sixes are still hit into the stand and stumps knocked comprehensively out of the ground.
Cricket has traditionally been the code that represents the best in sport, and for all the sledging, dissent and corruption currently associated with it, some of the old-fashioned virtues can still prevail. These include the occasional need for the individual to sacrifice their wicket for the good of the team; applauding a smartly taken catch, a gritty century, or an unplayable delivery – whichever side produces it; and coping stoically with disappointment over a poor knock or a missed run-out, both back in the pavilion and out on the field.
But there is another side to cricket – and to most other sports – which should never be overlooked. That is the aesthetic side. When Martin Crowe, for example, scored a century, it was a thing of beauty. Similarly when Tana Umaga makes a break and cuts through the opposition. Or when Irene van Dyk rises above the goal defence to drop the ball adroitly through the hoop. Brian Turner, New Zealand hockey rep, cyclist, mountaineer, angler and poet, has always been aware of this aesthetic dimension. In his recently published memoir, Somebodies and Nobodies, he writes that
while sport can be, and sometimes is, all that its detractors claim, it is also artistic, challenging and demanding, both intellectually and physically. Grace, poise, elegance, courage, drama, melodrama, farce, skill, application, concentration, co-operation, co-ordination … sport contains or requires all of these things.
In fact, the proximity of sport to art – and particularly literature – is closer than many might think. In October, correspondents in the New Zealand Listener toyed with possible local writers’ XVs, with Baxter or Lloyd Jones at full-back, for instance, and rival front rows of Janet Frame, Alan Duff and Keri Hulme facing Owen Marshall, Tony Simpson and Albert Wendt. We offer instead the one-to-one analogy: seeing in the perfectionism and reinvention of Richard Hadlee a parallel to the long, versatile career of Allen Curnow; or in the public affection inspired by Bernice Mene a reflection of Lauris Edmond’s devoted teams of readers; or in the golden glow surrounding Jeff Wilson, the golden deeds of Catherine Chidgey.
However, we wouldn’t want to push the analogy so far as to make writers, like certain sportspeople, famous merely for being famous. This, for all his talent and good nature, has been somewhat the fate of Jonah Lomu. Too often, the media commandeer a promising performer on the strength of one or two outstanding displays. They then make an instant personality, from whom too much is expected. Such “stars” join TV presenters in a cult of the celebrity that ends up on the covers of Women’s Day or the Women’s Weekly. As a result, the public becomes more interested in whom they’re dating or whom they’ve ditched than in their sporting prowess.
So, it’s time to get back to basics. As we move into another sporting summer, what we should hope for – whether at the Basin Reserve, Mt Smart Stadium or in the Hauraki Gulf – is more art and less hype.
Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts