Alex Massie

On Clausewitz and the Art of Cricket

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Earlier this summer, at the end of a conversation on other matters, the (excellent) American blogger Kevin Drum asked for more cricket-blogging. I'm happy to oblige! He said he finds the game "endlessly fascinating" if also puzzling. "I'm pretty much agog" he wrote "at the idea that you have a sport that frequently ends in a draw even though it takes five days to play."

This is a common observation and an aspect of cricket that mystifies many people, by no means all of them American. But of the three most common results - a win, a loss and a draw - it is not an overstatement to say that the draw is the most important. Because it is the draw, or more accurately the possibility of the draw, that gives the game its texture and much of its near-endless variety.

One could get all fancy and say that just as the episodes that constitute an individual's life can't satisfactorily be neatly divided into columns marked "win" and "loss", so cricket's nuances reflect the stuff of which life is made. But, for the moment at least, let's just stick to sport.

Most games have a single requirement for victory: score more points than the opposition (baseball, rugby, American football, soccer, basketball etc) or complete the course more swiftly than your opponents (athletics, swimming, horse racing, Formula One etc). Cricket is unusual in requiring a double mandate for victory. Not only do you need to score more runs than the opposition, you must also take all 20 wickets. (Yes, this simplifies things a bit, but...) That places a heavier burden of proof upon the better side and consequently sometimes, even often, allows the weaker side to escape. Like Scots law, cricket has three verdicts: Guilty, Not Guilty and Not Proven. This, I suggest, makes it more interesting.

At the highest level, the best cricket is a series of five matches, each played over five days. As Norm says, the passage of time is of the essence. That is, a 25 day campaign allows one to appreciate the shifts and turns in fortune, with all their accompanying thrills and terrors, in ways impossible in other, abbreviated, formats of the game.

There's another way of looking at it. Consider Gideon Haigh's summary of this summer's Ashes series:

No power on earth should have prevented Australia winning the First Test at Sophia Gardens. That Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson did has seemed increasingly absurd. Ricky Ponting’s critics are mainly opportunistic and captious, but his underuse of Ben Hilfenhaus, overuse of Marcus North and misuse of Mitchell Johnson on the last day are all decisions he has probably quietly revisited.

Johnson’s blow-out on the first day of the Second Test at Lord’s, meanwhile, must be one of the curliest conundrums to have faced an Australian captain. To bowl or not to bowl? With injury to Nathan Hauritz, Ponting had not so much a bowling attack as a defence, and actually did not do a bad job of marshalling it. But by the end of the second day, Australia had fallen too far behind to make a game of it, valiantly though they fought.

In fact, if there are grounds for optimism from Australia’s performances this summer, it is that they fought consistently, even if it was mainly their own inadequacies making this necessary. Their second innings at Lord’s, Edgbaston and the Oval evinced a character probably out of proportion with the available talent; England’s rout at Headingley was the equivalent of a massacre, a suicide pact and a mass desertion combined. Individually, too, the Australian players will probably receive higher marks than their team, and the anomaly of the team’s statistical dominance should act as a challenge to them, while also acting as a standing reproach to every statto.

Clearly, cricket is not, even when contested between England and Australia (or Pakistan and India) quite a matter of life and death. But the point remains: an outsider looking at cricket for the first time might be advised to try and view an Ashes series as though it was something akin to the great campaigns of the Napoleonic wars.  

That is, the captains are the rival generals (and no sport places as great a burden upon captacincy as cricket), their players their respective subordinates entrusted with vital missions and, actually, weapons themselves. And, like a long military campaign fought over several battles, the tide may ebb and flow. Some weapons may be better suited to certain conditions; one side's advantage in one area is offset by its deficiencies elsewhere. Strategy comes before tactics, but tactics matter too.

This summer's series, as Haigh suggests, offers a useful primer. England escaped with an improbable draw at Cardiff that was, in a cricketing sense and to shift the military metaphor to more modern times, comparable to Dunkirk. Near certain defeat was, just, avoided and by being avoided a rout was transformed into a curious kind of victory. Psychologically anyway. Spines were stiffened; hope still lived.

Without wanting to strain the analogy too far, the Battle of Britain came next and, rather against the odds but imbued with a fresh spirit, England won the second test at Lords. Ultimate victory was still a far-off prospect, but the Australian aura of invincibility had been cracked. An inconclusive, weather-ruined, draw in Birmingham was followed by the rout in Leeds as Australia struck back to level the series. That left the final test, at the Oval as a winner-takes-all series decider. Rather like, if I may be permitted to indulge this flight of fancy still further, the Battle for Russia.

The point is that a closely-contested test series is an epic. I've never been entirely convinced by Orwell's oft-quoted quip that sport is "war minus the shooting", not least because the experience of watching sport is actually more akin to the swirling emotions one might feel when reading Tolstoy or Stendhal.

Then again, Carl von Clausewitz may have been a cricketer manqué. (Is it a coincidence that Mike Brearley's classic is titled The Art of Captaincy? I suspect not.) Opening On War just now I came across, completely by chance and immediately (I swear this is true), this passage from The Nature of Battle Today and it's almost as if the great theorist is writing about test cricket:

Our assumptions about tactics and strategy being what they are, it will be self-evident that a change in the nature of tactics will automatically react on strategy. If tactical phenomena differ completely from one case to another, strategic ones must also differ, if they are to remain constant and rational...

What usually happens in a major battle today? The troops move calmly into position in great masses deployed in line and length. Only a relatively small proportion is involved, and it is left to conduct a firefight for several hours, interrupted now and then by minor blows - charges, bayonet assaults and cavalry attacks - which cause the fighting to sway to some extent to and fro. Gradually the units engaged are burned out, and when nothing is left but cinders, they are withdrawn and others take their place.

So the battle slowly smolders away, like damp gunpowder. Darkness brings it to a halt: no one can see, and  no one cares to trust himself to chance. The time has come to reckon up how much in the way of serviceable troops is left on either side - troops, that is, which are not yet burned out like dead volcanoes. One estimates how much ground has been won or lost, as well as the degree of security in one's rear. The results, along with personal impressions of the bravery and cowardice, intelligence and stupidity that one thinks one has observed in one's own troops and the enemy's, are then combined in an overall impression on which a decision is based: either to quit the field or renew the fight in the morning.

This description does not claim to be a full picture of a modern battle - it is merely meant to give a broad impression. It applies equally to attacker and defender. Specific features, such as the particular objective or the nature of the terrain, may be added without changing the general impression.

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It does so in a condensed, peaceful form and triumph and failure on the cricket field are ultimately trivial but the game moves us just as great art moves us. To pretend otherwise is, it strikes me, silly. That is, sure it's only a game but it's also not just a game.

In other words, it is life. And like war, and life, that sometimes end in stalemate. Which means a draw. There are winning draws and losing draws and plain old dull draws. But without them, or the possibility of them, everything else is too neat, too simple and, in the end, too unsatisfactory.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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