Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:24 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:24 | SYDNEY

The sporting national interest


Graeme Dobell

22 December 2008 09:27

Summer heat has arrived and the cricket is on. Time to consider sport, national character and foreign policy.

Sport is a useful metaphor for the way a country acts, but can take you only so far. US gridiron seems a perfect fit with the American way of war – heavy and high tech. The problem is that, with a slight widening of the lens, you encounter basketball and ice hockey. Basketball would suggest US policy is free form and high scoring. Ice hockey, by contrast, speaks of a country well able to do anarchic violence.

The British spent centuries as the off-shore balancer, ensuring no nation on the continent dominated Europe. Thus, the two sports Britain took to the world both consider a draw to be a fair outcome. It helps to assume an American accent when considering the cultures of cricket and soccer: ‘You play cricket for five days and nobody wins? No goals – nil-nil – and that’s the end of a game of football?’

The answer is that a nation which spent centuries peering at the shifting power balance across the Channel is quite happy to achieve results where no other nation wins. Perhaps chess – another sport that accepts agreed draws and stalemate — helped the Russians navigate through the long Cold War to a gentle end.

Cricket often throws up more reflections on Australia’s character than politics. That may reflect what many Australians really value. Consider Peter Roebuck comparison of South Africa and Australia, where he identifies the common features as farming, fire, hunting and burnt meat. The transplanted Pom then goes on to observe: ‘Australia is an insecure democratic nation with a curious devotion to order whose loudness can be put down to a desperate desire to avoid melancholy.’ Remember, this is supposed to be about cricket.

Something of the same insight is offered by the BBC’s Sydney correspondent, Nick Bryant, who ventures that Shane Warne – master of leather tweaking and phone texting – ‘satisfies the need for anti-authoritarian anti-heroes, even if Austalian can be unexpectedly officious and authoritarian…Warne meets the need for a truly national sporting icon in a country where, in the winter months at least, sport is fractured along social and regional lines.’

Methinks the Poms somewhat overdo the convict stain analysis of the Oz character (a viewpoint that seemed to skew Churchill’s view of Australia).  Nevertheless, the tension between the larrikin and the ref is one dimension of Oz.

And certainly, culture and class are woven through sport. The great Canberra Raider Laurie Daley expressed just about all that had to be said about the difference between the two codes of rugby in the wide brown land: ‘Rugby League is a simple game played by simple people. Rugby Union is a complex game played by wankers.’ Enough said; game over!

Just as gridiron can’t encapsulate American character and policy, so cricket doesn’t do full justice to what animates Australia. Australian rules footy mixes bone crunching with ballet-like moments of sublime athleticism. Ruby League gives you the dour and tough character of Oz, mixed with moments of poetry. As Ray Warren exlaimed after a try that zig-zagged through a dozen players: ‘That’s not a try. That’s a miracle!’

The Australian world view, as expressed by cricket and various forms of football, seems disposed to sign up to teams – the long history of alliances with Britain and now America. In trade diplomacy, Australia pulled off the trick of declaring itself the permanent captain of the Cairns Group. None of this multilateral rotating chairman nonsense when Oz creates the team.

The comfort with clearly-defined teams can feed assumptions of rivalry, an us-against-them world view. The Howard Government seemed more comfortable with alliance hierarchy than the more free-form sports involved in regionalism. When doing regionalism in the South Pacific, Australia often seems to wear an invisible captain’s cap, and express some exasperation if the other players don’t assume the right positions.

Australia’s greatest moment as a regionalist occurred with the creation of APEC. And that burst of creativity coincided with the end of the Cold War, when the alliance/team mindset was suddenly up for a rethink.

In bringing sport to diplomacy, Australia has the advantage of applying different sports to different neighbours. In the South Pacific, clearly we need a robust outlook, well able to cop the odd biff, whether from a tough Highlander or a muscular Fijian. Rugby diplomacy is the answer. As demonstrated by the recent Rugby League World Cup, this is one area where you can talk about some equivalence between Oz and the islands.

In Asia, regionalism demands patience sometimes ahead of goals. Soccer diplomacy, it is. Frank Lowy’s contribution to Australian international policy goes beyond this Institute. His revival of Australian soccer (or is that football?) gives a new dimension to people-to-people contact in Asia.

The Indian Ocean? Easy! After all, India has long argued that cricket is really an Indian sport that just happened to be invented by the British. No wonder the Indian High Commissioner to Canberra suggests a five day summit – conducted during the lunch and drinks intervals of a Test.

The struggle for cricket supremacy between India, South Africa and Australia gives a common starting point for a lot of 21st century interactions. And perhaps, by besting the Australian cricket team,  South Africa and India are giving some hints about changes in the order of things.

Photo by Flickr user S. Jagadish, used under a Creative Commons license.