Monday, October 27, 2008

The Standard

In the early 1970's, following the lead of that moral avatar Richard Nixon, most of the developed economies of the "free" world decided to quit pegging their issued notes to the gold standard. The Communist bloc regarded all this with wry apprehension. This decision happened to coincide with the blushing vaseline-lensed dawn of easy credit. All of a sudden the bills you held in your hand were not actually worth what was printed on them (ie what your government held in its reserves) but what complete and mostly unnacountable strangers haggled between themselves in the smoky confines of the bourse. I am old enough to remember the OPEC crisis of 1973 when the Arab nations took the only other way out after the humiliations of the Yom Kippur war, but even their Soviet-inspired perfidy pales in comparison with the utter stupidity and greed of western markets who have held governments to account for their spending on the one hand (at the expense, of course, of the most vulnerable), while leveraging themselves into a very tight seat indeed in what may become the greatest roller coaster ride since that honey of 1914-45.

The venality and greed of the post-war generation is, of course, pretty much a given on this site. That is not my point. My point goes back to the gold standard, to what beet-faced poets like myself skirt around like sharks around a rusty anchor. That guarantee there was a mother ship in these waters and there will be again. That underwriter of all parliaments and all royal houses, the guarantee that we will rise tomorrow and not all be speaking different tongues. Guarantor of Shelley's great fear when he woke up that fateful post-war morning all carpet-mouthed in the dungeon of his liberty.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to millstones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them. 1

You see, without more than paper promises that those in a position to make a difference will do so in the common interest, we will remain a market place and not a culture. A civilisation requires some sort of underpinning. Debts are all very well as long as they don't outlive their usefulness.

Which brings me back to the gold standard.

In the mid-1960's, when the world's economies were still dubiously pinned to gold, the English marched with their feet away from cricket and toward football as the national sporting obsession. Within a year or two, Britain had decimalised its currency, joined the European common market, dropped the gold standard, and introduced a truncated version of first-class cricket that could produce a result within a day. The doomsayers doomsayed and the kiddies...well, some grew up and some grew into those bull-necked wizards in the corporate boxes holding up every passage of play in every Test cricket arena in the country.

And some, of course, have always loved football the way I love cricket, can eulogise for hours on the deft touch, the lyrical dance of someone long dead just like I can. But then football was bought like everything else, once the "gold standard" of local representation was steadily vetted.

I am not English, but I lived there through the end of the Thatcher years when Millwall supporters could have governed the country (if they had not been so indebted to their bookies and the crown), and when test cricket stadiums stood empty as though the very word cricket meant "bomb".

I despaired of the future of the game then, because I had left behind an equally desultory island with a barely beating cricketing heart.

But within a matter of three or four years something miraculous happened in world sport - cricket began to pack stadiums like it hadn't since carpet became vogue. In Australia, England, Jamaica, Johannesburg, people were queueing up again to see this strange game, and nor were they disappointed. Since 1993/4 crowds all over the planet have been graced by some of the most exhilarating, tightly-contested international sport ever played.

I am here talking of Test cricket, that eternal drone some overseas visitors have commented on when gracing our summer shores. Because there are now in fact three formats of the game played at international level - the five day Test format played between 2 squads of 11 players selected by their respective country's board of control, a one day game consisting of 50 6-ball overs per side in which the highest scorer of runs always wins, and the newest version of 20-20 cricket where the uninitiated can more than half the previous formula.

As I am spelling all this out, I feel like Frasier Crane explaining Radiohead to a young girl in a lift. Cricket is not that foreign anymore. Just ask Allen Stanford, the Texas millionaire behind the 20-20 Stanford Cup in the Carribean. The game was a religion down there until about 10 years ago. Suddenly the lure of Basketball and more nefarious activities robbed cricket of one of the world's most enduring and successful sporting federations. Allen Stanford saw something worth reviving and has gone about it with all the verve and aplomb of a man who has discovered the old world at his doorstep. In other words, like a wealthy, warm-hearted American of the old school. The type who picked up Bradman's tab in the midst of the last Depression.

I am getting somewhere, my American cousins.....

In a small administrative Punjabi capital last week, by the name of Mohali, the Australian test cricket team suffered one of its greatest defeats since the 1920's. There were celebrations all over India, the financial home of cricket these days, as Australia and India have been standing toe-to-toe for the best part of a decade now. And yet for all five days of this beguiling Test match the stadium was at most half-full. The previous Test match in Bangalore was better attended, but not much better. Which isn't to downplay the quality of those attending, another matter entirely, especially at an event as strangely intimate as Test cricket. But perhaps it is no coincidence Fleet street lies under the shadow of the bells, because journalists are always listening out for some bell tolling for someone. This month it happens to be the global monetary system and Test cricket. Both have been assailed by greed, self-interest, naked ambition, and nationalism, all the usual symptoms of decline (or revival), it all depends on the editor.

In Test cricket, like in no other international sporting event I can think of, you have the lone figure (the batsman) pitted against eleven of his opposing country's most talented representatives. He has a batting partner at the other end of the pitch, but that pitch is 22 English yards long, and that's a long long way when you have just walked in with, say four chatty Indian fielders crouched in a ring just far enough away they don't cast a shadow across the pitch.

If you are interested and uninitiated, I refer you to the YouTube footage of the famous Kolkata 2001 test match to the immediate right of you right about now.

It can quickly become an incendiary clatter of tumbling Australian/Indian wickets (the nearest thing our two nations have ever come to war), or a strangely intimate affair, almost as though millions of people were peering in to a slowly unraveling family reunion. That is the beauty of test cricket, and the germ of its own demise. It really needs no apologists (and I hope I have not come across as that), and I doubt it will ever see any serious attempt at a re-packaging of its "product". Because there is often none (other than the copious tv revenue and the sheer exhilaration of the best pitted against the best), even after five days of grueling competition. That is test cricket's enduring, lyrical statement in the face of the sneers of radical-chic, punk, yobbo, yuppie. Sometimes you must search for a result, yes, even in a sporting fixture.

Five days is a long time, granted. But there are few things that can equal the rush of following the first two days of a test match as you deliver pizzas, paint a house, hold the hand of your dying mother, then stroll bug-eyed into the stadium twenty minutes after the start of play on day three, the long, silent march of that lonely figure toward his destiny before you can stop someone cheering long enough to tell you who just passed by.

1. IV and V from "The Mask of Anarchy" by Percy Bysshe Shelley


Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason said...

Today the value of the Gold held is the US is worth $210,585,164,529.42 at today's prices.