Playing the Part

Peter Siddle’s bowling style would seem to reveal much about the man. His charge to the crease, efficient action and batsman-bothering follow through are those of the quintessentially Australian fast bowler, heir to Hogg and Hughes, more than Lindwall and McGrath. He lidded Gautam Gambhir with his first ball in Test cricket and has a habit of performing on big days – his birthday hat trick in Brisbane, his five-for on the first day of this Ashes series and his demolition of England at Headingley four years before. As a kid, he was a champion woodchopper and the enormous Southern Cross tattoo on his back furthers the Ocker Aussie image. He lacks the swing of Starc, the pace of Pattinson or the class of Cummins, but is more consistently successful than any of them, through discipline and aggression.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. You wouldn’t guess from Siddle’s fist-pumping, testosterone-fuelled celebrations, for example, that he’s a teetotal vegetarian. Undoubtedly a few Aussie greats dropped their tinnies and neglected the barbie when he announced it. Dennis Lillee announced that Siddle would be unable to stay fit on the diet. But Siddle has been at his best since he adopted the diet, and has also had fewer of the injuries that blighted the early part of his professional career. This disparity between on-field persona and private reality – and their interrelationship in terms of cricketing performance – is fascinating.

Many sportsmen have been diagnosed with “white-line fever” over the years. Ray Price, the Zimbabwean spinner, was often described as having the attitude of a quick bowler and on retiring recently said “I just wish I had been a bit quicker, so I could have knocked a few guys’ blocks off”. Dale Steyn, when questioned in a recent interview on the contrast between his genial off-field self and aggression in the middle, said his attitude was an attempt to “play the part”. “People come to watch you and people want to see that stuff”, he said. Like Siddle, Steyn acts as a fast bowler should, as Ray Price wished he could.

Steyn makes a fascinating point when he refers to “[playing] the part”. What he refers to is the inherent artifice of cricket, and sport in general, the façade created by the players. How much are they aware of their role as entertainers? Moreover, how do you reconcile this desire – and need – to entertain with the requirement to win? CLR James asked if there was beauty in the game, and “is it mere entertainment or is it an art?” He decided that cricket could be classed as art if we appreciated it as an aesthetic spectacle. The problem, however, is that the result becomes secondary. After all, there is no such thing as an ugly win in art.

This is a problem for both players and teams. Someone like Shahid Afridi always entertains, but performs, in the sense of results, sporadically. His appeal is unique, but the Pakistani fans who adore him are also frustrated by their team’s failures. A less obvious case is that of Jonathan Trott, who, in  a bit to increase the tempo of his innings, has ended up with technical flaws that reduce the overall number of runs he scores. Would England fans prefer his turgid, efficient style, or a more flamboyant, less productive method?

Much of this depends on their medium of consumption. Those watching at the ground or on television may prefer entertainment and quality, those merely looking online or calculating their team’s points might prefer the outcome. Either way, the player must consider their role as entertainer. As Steyn says, people come with preconceptions. Some players, like Peter Siddle, meet them on the field, whilst behaving very differently off it. Sportsmen become actors, performers, without which the technical side of the game would be left alone, the realm of the true technician only.  Part of cricket has to be playing your role, to create a spectacle beyond the numbers and result.

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