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We are basically watching Bradman
This is my third letter, which suggests I’ve stuck with this three times longer than anything I’ve started before. It also means that it’s working. The idea here is that I want to write more, and, by having an audience, I’m more likely to do it. Then, by writing for the most forgiving audience on the planet (my friends), with no ambition beyond just writing, I get to lower the stakes and turn in pieces barely half-baked. That’s great for me and bad for you. Even if more people start to read this, I’ll still be writing for you (you lucky few!), and the work will still be underdone.
So, to spare your inbox, you can expect these notes about once a week, on the weekend, but not more than that. Thanks for playing along at home, and thanks for your forgiveness. Now I ask for your forgiveness one more time: here’s a note about cricket.
Something I’ve been thinking about
If nations are imagined communities, they are imagined into reality at least in part by shared mythologies. These narratives deserve the designation “mythic” not only because they are often apocryphal, but also because their affect on national identity is simultaneously overstated and oversized.
In the US, the myth of The Wild West, of westward expansion, of manifest destiny, has little to do with the day-to-day self-conception of a landscape gardener in Queens or a single mother in Portland. And yet that mythos has everything to do with US foreign policy since 2001. Mythic personalities like Hearst or Ford or Lincoln or Custer don’t consciously determine the daily decisions of individuals, but they do determine the collage of impressions that dominate communal self-understanding. They dominate the narratives Americans tell each other about their common self (narratives that are told, always, with the interests of the teller lingering in the background).
In Australia, figures like Samson and his donkey (or Whitlam on the steps, or Ned Kelly and his armour) play a similar role. They go missing when you ask any Australian to tell you why they did something qua individuals, but they are always there when the country reaches to explain, or understand, or (even) reify itself.
If you are, or were, an Australian boy with adequate hand-eye coordination, one figure in particular is pressed upon you.
Don Bradman played cricket well. Here is the second line of his Wikipedia page:
Bradman's career Test batting average of 99.94 has been cited as the greatest achievement by any sportsman in any major sport. (My emphasis.)
I’ll spare you the biography. If you don’t know it already, the Wikipedia page does a better job than I ever could. Here is what you need to know now: to score 99 once in international cricket is a remarkable thing. To average 99 makes a mockery of the superlatives in our language. To see what I mean, have a look at this out-of-date graph (ignore the bottom half):
Bradman went into his final test match averaging 101.39. In the first innings, something happened that has become a pillar of Australian folklore. Bradman was bowled, second ball, for a duck. He made no score, and his average dropped to 99.94.
Each side bats twice in Test cricket, so Bradman had one more chance to raise his average back above 100. But when the English went in for their second innings, the Australians bowlers obliterated them, such that England’s two scores did not exceed Australia’s one. There was no need for Badman to bat again, and he retired tantalisingly short of an average of 100.
What you need to understand about Bradman is not that that he was good, but that he was godlike. Watching Bradman play was not like watching Federer or Williams or Curry or Messi. These figures only ever ascended to the place of the demigods. Federer, at his best, may have had no Achilles’ heel, but he did not stand with Zeus. He stood among men, and, after a few short years of supremacy, was joined by peers.
Bradman was not. When he retired in 1948 he was alone, and he has been alone ever since. It is as if all others in professional sport have found themselves approaching the limits of human ability; Bradman, not respecting the gods, simply joined them.
Those of you who have not spent hours obsessing over this bizarre, boring, thrilling, enthralling sport; those you who have not spent (wasted?) 5 whole days glued to the television or the radio as a Test unfolds; well, you must find this all a bit overwrought.
But you don’t need to care for sport, or this sport, to learn this: something is happening now, today, that is once again testing the upper limits of human greatness. I should say: someone is happening. (Like Bulkington – straight up leaps his apotheosis!)
A bit over year ago, Steve Smith was banned from cricket in disgrace. He, as captain of the Australian Test side, had turned a blind eye as two of his players egregiously tampered with the ball. The young Cameron Bancroft, under direction from the (shall we say) less-upstanding figure of Australian cricket, David Warner, was caught scratching the surface of the ball with a piece of sandpaper.
Ball tampering is a major sin in cricket. For aerodynamic reasons that I don’t fully understand, the changing state of the ball is a central feature of the game (in fact, one great joy of the game is that no-one fully understands it). You’re allowed to shine the ball, smoothing one side in the hope of creating wing-like effects, but you can’t rough the other other side – that is strictly verboten. And yet it is also one of the most common sins: as well as Warner and Bancroft, high profile English, South African, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani players have been caught doing it. But none ever sinned so blatantly, or so arrogantly, as Warner and Bancroft, and none ever faced a punishment even approaching the severity of theirs.
Warner was banned for a year for masterminding the whole thing. Bancroft, the naive protege, went down for three months for going along with it. And Smith, farthest from the action but in the seat of ultimate responsibility, was stripped of his captaincy and banned, too, for a year. He cried at the press conference, and Australia, a nation built on stoic white masculinity and an adulation of sporting players, watched the man at the pinnacle of Australian sport weep in disgrace.
Steve Smith, crying.
You received this letter on Saturday, the 4th day of the third Test of The Ashes. Steve Smith returned to the side on day 1 of this five Test series. He was no longer captain; just there to bat.
In his first innings back in international cricket, Smith scored 144. In the second, he felt short: 142. That innings was interrupted when he was hit in the helmet by a ball moving at 92.4 mph.
5 years ago, the 20 year old Australian batsman Phil Hughes was killed by a similar ball. He had been in the national side and was a friend to both Smith and Warner. I’d like you to think about this for a moment. I’d like to you think about how that would change how Australian sportspeople think about head injuries, and about how it might affect the Australian public. Imagine, say, I dunno, Russell Wilson receiving a fatal injury on live television. When Smith was hit, the English players, who had not experienced the death of one of their teammates, responded to Smith’s concussion with, perhaps, insufficient concern.
So, concussed, Smith missed the second Test match. Instead of playing, he watched from the sidelines as England’s Ben Stokes produced one fo the greatest innings of all time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
This last fact is important because Stokes’ performance – truly among the most courageous, impressive, brilliant acts in the history of sport – will not be the most courageous, impressive, brilliant act of this cricket series.
Let me go back in time once more. Steve Smith was brought into the national team not as a batsman, but mainly as a bowler. His batting was thought to be handy but not great. And in fact, he wasn’t great. He was fine. That fact is revealed in a statistic that should make any Englishman’s skin crawl. Smith has played 6 Ashes series now. Here are his averages from each of those series: 32, 38, 41, 56, 137, and now 145.
Today, when he got out for his lowest score of the series, a measly 82, he was doing so swinging for the boundary, trying to bring Australia’s innings to an end (so as to give his bowlers more time to attack England). His others scores this series: 142, 144, 211. In fact, this seems to be England’s only way of getting him out – waiting until Smith is less interested in protecting his wicket than putting his team in winning position.
Watching Steve Smith play in this Ashes test match, the commentator Jim Maxwell was driven to observe that “we are basically watching Bradman.”
He meant, obviously, that Smith’s statistics are beginning to escape the peloton: beginning to creep upwards to the land of Bradman. But they aren’t there yet.
We are basically watching Bradman because no one has so clearly been alone at the pinnacle of the sport since Bradman. Three years ago Smith stood alongside Williamson and Root and Kohli. Now he is alone.
I can’t finish this note without mentioning Both Flesh and Not, DFW’s piece on Federer. Both Flesh and Not was first published in the New York Times as Federer as Religious Experience. If DFW can talk about religion and sport in the same breath, so will I (and I hope you take this piece in a similar spirit):
This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.
The truth is, watching Smith is not like watching Federer. Smith fidgets. He scratches. He never stops moving. He does not have Federer’s grace. He does not have his lightness, or his beauty. He pays little attention to the stylistic practices of the sport. Federer, who moved (moves!) elfishly across the court, promised us that greatness was a function of beauty.
Smith inverts this relationship. His greatness does not arise from his beauty; his beauty arises from his greatness. Consider this shot:
Use whatever knowledge you have of cricket to ask: how does one end up in this position?
To do it, you must first face a bowler sending the ball down a 22 yard pitch nearing 90mph. Then you must walk sideways across the pitch – a cardinal sin for most batsman. You must see, in the roughly 0.5 seconds between the release of the ball and its arrival, that the ball is still far, far too wide, too far from you to play. You must ignore another core rule of batting: never reach, never play the ball away from your body. You must be so deeply confident, so profoundly beyond respecting the bowler –let alone the advice of every coach you ever had – that you continue reaching out so far beyond the off stump that you begin to fall, and, falling, you must remain so non-plussed that you do not stop yourself from slapping a ball delivered by a world-class bowler with the middle of your bat, as though it were easy, with such disdain that the ball itself seems to want to escape the ground, embarrassed by the mismatch between god and man. This cricket shot is beautiful like the God of the Old Testament: uncaring, terrible, alone.
In their notes on Bradman, cricket writers wrote of a man wandering across his stumps, wandering across the pitch, flicking balls toward the leg-side as though he had all the time in the world. He had graduated beyond the advice of coaches. When Bodyline came in (that’s another post) he evolved his style overnight. We are beginning to know what it was like to see that. We are basically watching Bradman.