The Myth of Tradition


In his seminal work, the Invention of Tradition, historian Eric Hobsbawn outlines how many of the traditions held dear in the United Kingdom are actually invented. Things that were relatively recent occurrences are portrayed as having existed since before we can remember, often as an obstacle to further development. Invented Tradition is particularly prevalent in modern concepts of nationalism, whereby the state seeks to construct an identity by claiming the exact opposite – that the nation, its systems of government, and it cultural identity are rooted in a history so ‘natural’ that they cannot be questioned.[1]

Cricket, as a game, is one that holds its traditions dear[2]. And nowhere has this been clearer than in the recent discussions about the move to day/night test matches in Australia. In this debate there has been two sets of discussions going on: the functional and the historical.

The functional debate has been about the effectiveness of the current pink ball – its visibility and safety, its hardness, and its durability on the rough wickets of the Australian summer. This discourse has been where the players have largely operated. The questions have been practical in nature, possibly reflecting the players desire to not get in trouble with the authorities, all with the implied understanding that this shift to day/night test cricket is an inevitable effect of the growing importance and size of broadcast rights.

There has been an interesting secondary debate. This debate has focused on a historical understanding of cricket, emphasising that this shift to day/night test cricket, and the use of a slightly different (possibly inferior) ball represents a change too dramatic. This position is aptly put by Fox Sports journalist Christy Doran below.

If you’re a bit of a cricket tragic like me you probably see this discussion as a bit odd.[3] The idea that test cricket is some pristine unspoilt marvel that has never changed is quite a fascinating one. In reality, cricket has changed dramatically over the years. 8 ball overs, 4 ball overs, covered and uncovered pitches, overarm and underarm bowlers, bat size and make, protection and unprotected batsmen, helmets, boundary ropes, 3rd umpire, timed and untimed tests etc.  This is a game that does not have a standard approach to ball manufacturing, producing balls across countries that behave remarkably differently.

The list of changes made to cricket as a game are so many and substantial that one wonders if WG Grace would recognise the game as it is played today. Some have been for safety, some have been for entertainment purposes. And some have been made in service of the almighty dollar. The game, like the nations that encompass its participants, and the equipment it is played with, is an evolving entity, as anything that has such diversity and scale of participation is likely to be.

Those seeking to stop this change by harking back to the history of test cricket are seeking to preserve cricket as it exists in their mind. This is not possible because in reality this concept of cricket as a pristine, unchanged game born in the depths of history exists only as myth.

Complaining about the function of the pink ball is proper. It is undoubted that further work will need to go into the ball to improve its robustness and visibility. But to complain that the tradition of the game is being threatened?

Well. That’s just a myth.

[1] Hobsbawn uses many examples. My favourite is that of the tartan Kilt, a proud symbol of Scottish Nationalism, which was actually invented by an English tailor in the 18th century. The wearing of the tartan kilt became popular in the 19th century basically cos rich Scots romanticised poor Scots and the idea of the ‘noble savage’.

[2] Think of concepts like ‘the gentlemen’s game’ and ‘the spirit of cricket’.

[3] And please note this is the one time we have agreed with Malcolm Conn. If it happens again we promise to get our head checked.

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