Wherever sport is played, politics will be there. I do not mean it as a cynical thought - as if the “purity” of the former were always polluted by the “dirtiness” of the latter - so much as a comment on one of the more fascinating realities of our social life.
Think of some of the links we could draw from past events: sport becomes a stage for political struggle - US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the Black Panther salute at the ’68 Olympics; sport mirrors political transformation - newly elected President Nelson Mandela presents Francois Pinar, captain of the new South Africa, with the Rugby World Cup in 1995; sport reflects entrenched political conflict - Russia spills Hungarian blood in the famous water polo match of 1956, the same year Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest; sport creates political unity - victory for France in the 1998 Football World Cup became a reason to celebrate the nation’s cultural diversity.
So the next big sporting story may also say something about the political times in which it occurs. There is, of course, no bigger story in Australian sport than the racial, ethical and officiating controversies of the Indian cricket tour. Does it help us better understand the political world in which we live? Here are three ways it may do so.
First, the controversy tells us of changing power relations in the world. An historical comparison illustrates the point. The most intense “political” moment in Australian cricket was the Bodyline series of 1932-33 which created a diplomatic crisis between England and Australia. Seventy-five years later, Indian captain Anil Kumble invoked the “spirit” of Bodyline to criticise Australian sportsmanship during the 2008 Sydney Test. In a linguistic parallel too delicious to ignore, links were quickly made between old and new - welcome to the Bollyline crisis.
Yet in most respects Bodyline and Bollyline are worlds apart, as different as the colonial world of the 1930s to the postcolonial world of today. While cricket is a game of empire - where we can still barrack for the colonially constructed “West Indies” and whose legacy is (unlike many aspects of imperial rule) universally celebrated - the balance of power in the modern game is a direct reflection of power shifts in a globalised world.
Bodyline reflected a conventional colonial antagonism between a political master and its feisty subject. At a time when Australian foreign policy was still conducted via the British home office, the sporting arena was one place to assert a sort of symbolic independence.
Today, political power has been transformed: Great Britain is a declining power and Australia - in most respects a functional republic - faces the challenge of new partnerships. India and China, emerging superpowers of the 21st century, are central relationships to nurture in this regard. And as in politics, so also in cricket.
While the colonial power of an Ashes win will never die, the future of Australian cricket lies in the riches and opportunities of a postcolonial world where India generates up to 70 per cent of cricket revenue and where the South Asian diaspora hold the key to an expanding international game. Bollyline follows the contours of a new political reality as well as a sporting one.
Second, the controversy illustrates what some international relations theorists call the “complex interdependence” of a globalised world. In other words, sport is part of an interconnected web of political, economic and cultural interests.
What Brad Hogg may have said to Sourav Ganguly in Sydney will affect music sales for Brett Lee in Mumbai. What Harbhajan Singh may have said to Andrew Symonds out in the middle will affect revenue for junior cricket clinics out in the suburbs. As an example, the present controversy shows how the interconnections of globalisation have threatened local vestiges of media power.
Kerry Packer’s revolution in the late 1970s gave Channel Nine almost total media power over audiences watching Australian cricket, and this at a time of Nine’s general cultural dominance. The Packer revolution, in turn, changed the way audiences appreciated international cricket. Aspects of the modern game that we now take for granted - colour uniforms and white balls, Tri-series one-day contests, world cups in all forms of the game, faster run rates in Tests, Twenty-20 - all owe a significant debt to the original World Series Cricket and the changes it brought.
Yet today, with its overall ratings in decline, foreign ownership bringing structural change, and the onslaught of pay-TV and digital media, Nine seems to be fighting for its life. Nine needs the certainty of cricket more than ever before. While the power of media over cricket audiences is no less significant, it is now much more contested. The media debate on the controversies surrounding the present Indian tour is diverse. Media interests now have as much stake in Indian cricket as they once did in the Australian game. To the anxiety of some and the relief of others, domestic control factors have given way to a competitive and interdependent global reality.
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