Cricket viewed from the Tower of Babel

Harbhajan SinghChristians, like other people who have sacred books, commonly look for guidance on questions of everyday life. But it is notoriously difficult to find illumination about current issues. Take, for example, the ruckus after the second cricket test between India and Australia.

That is partly because we instinctively look first for direct and unequivocal statements. Thou shalt not steal, for example. Such statements let us know who is to blame for what. But it is usually hard to apply these statements helpfully to modern events like test matches.

Perhaps, though, deeper illumination is to be found in stories than in instructions, condemnations and exhortations. Stories do not offer instant judgments but different and provoking ways of looking at situations.

If you want to reflect on the conflict between the Indian and Australian teams, for example, you could do worse than detour past the Tower of Babel. It is one of a cycle of stories that tell how God's love always intervenes to rescue humanity from the destructive consequences of its bloody-mindedness.

The Tower of Babel is an image of the capacity of technology to disturb deep human values. In the story the discovery of bricks and mortar has made possible the construction of towers and the shaping of cities. New technology and a shared language inspire a concerted effort to build a tower that will reach to heaven — God's world. God responds to this vaulting ambition by confusing the people's languages.

At first sight, this story seems to say that a controlling God punishes human beings for their cheeky pride in technology and human progress. But in context it is more subtle. Although these early stories in the Book of Genesis represent God as intervening from outside, their deeper concern is to show the inner dynamics of human action. God is about relationships, and the stories return human beings to relationships.

The point of this story is that new technology focuses human beings narrowly on domination and on power. They see human fulfilment in these terms. The new technologies and the consequent change in economic relationships inspire great concerted projects. But the narrow focus on domination and technical expertise destroys the conditions that allow people to cooperate. They need to rediscover the priority of relationships, and particularly the relationship with God that relativises instrumental goals.

That brings us back to the recent test match. The Tower of Babel discourages us from asking who is to blame for what happened. It encourages us to ask instead whether in cricket, too, technological changes have distorted human relationships and so put test cricket at risk. We might think particularly of changes in media.

The capacity of sport to provide popular and relatively cheap content to the electronic media, with the consequent increased funding for sport, has modern test cricketers to work as full-time professionals. As a result their play has become their work, and they spend their lives mastering it. Games serve as places where they express their domination of their craft both in their technique and in establishing mental ascendancy over their opponents.

The development of camera technology, too, allows players, commentators and viewers to see the mistakes both of players and umpires. What might be passed over quickly in a game can constantly be recalled and brooded over.

These changes in technology encourage a narrow focus on domination of technique, of opponents and of umpires. But they also undercut the conditions which test matches have required in order to be played. To play matches that extend for the whole day over five days demands a network of relations that embody respect for the opposition players, the recognition that there are more important things in life than cricket, and acknowledgment of the authority of umpires and acceptance of their fallibility. If this pattern of relationships is weakened, the opportunity to play test cricket will be threatened.

But the Tower of Babel is more than a grumpy old man's lament. In its wider scriptural context it says that God will invite always human beings, including cricketers and business people, to return to deeper values and to pay attention to relationships. And that the common language they form in reconciliation will eventually lead to later strife. Just like the resolution of the charge against Harbhajan Singh that concluded this cricket war.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.



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Existing comments

Thanks Andy, for taking us deeper, as always. The social, economic and political relationships which enabled the development of a game which gentlemen - who were not being paid to do so - could play over a period of five days, are also worth reflecting on. But I still love test cricket!
Sandie Cornish | 31 January 2008

Thank you Andrew for a great commentary. Would there be any value in sending it to the players, umpires, journalists and television networks that want to make so much of this 'story' and so little of what really matters in the long run?
Rosemary Keenan | 31 January 2008

'It's just not cricket!' used to be an expression oft heard when it was perceived that something unfair had occurred. Thanks for reminding us of the enduring human values that need to underpin all sports: respect for ourselves and for our opponents; a sense of fair play that has more to do with the spirit of the game than the letter of the law and finally an acceptance of the fallibility of all human beings - players, umpires, commentators and us as the viewers.
Ern Azzopardi | 31 January 2008

Excellent piece Andy.
James M | 01 February 2008

Thanks for the thoughtful article. But how did technology get into the Singh case? I thought he was sledging in racist terms & the dispute was over how verified the charge was when it was only on the Australians' evidence.

I think you are a bit hard on "technology". The most rapid take up in technology right now is social networking technology which brings people together. It's a virtual community sure. But its virtualness is based on actual communities.
Michael Kelly | 01 February 2008

Thanks for the helpful questions, Michael. At risk of repeating myself, it may be helpful to state more fully my take on cricket, which in the article was an example of the uses of Scripture.

I wrote a first draft just after Harbhajan Singh's suspension when it looked as if the tour might be called off. I was struck by the fact that this crisis had been caused by the coincidence of a number of things that taken alone would be fairly normal - bad umpiring decisions, sledging, not walking, claiming doubtful catches, reporting something that would ordinarily be dealt with internally, a victory/loss in the last overs, and the decision on Harbhajan Sing that turned, as you say, on a judgment about whose word could be trusted.

Most of these would once have been seen as single events and quickly moved on from. What has made a difference is the capacity to make people at a distance visually present to the game through television, and in such a way that the past can be again made present through replays and be judged. These technological advances make it easier for grievances to accumulate and fester. The relationships between players are put under pressure.

At the same time, the change in economic relationships that new technology creates - the money that goes into cricket from the media and the consequent full-time professionalism of players - makes it easier for players to see cricket as the whole of life and not as a game.
I don't want to blame technology for this - technology, with the associated change in economic relationships, is the occasion not the cause of this break down in relationships. It is superficial too, simply to blame the way in which we use technology. It is more the way we come to re-imagine our lives in the light of new. There seems to be a pattern of narrowing of human vision when new technologies are introduced.

I don't see all this as something to despair about. People can learn to incorporate new technology into their lives and to profit from their mistakes.

The development of social networking technology is interesting, and I haven't seen enough of its uses and effects to make any judgment on whether it, too, will fall under the curse of Babel.

Perhaps, too, I am still too much of pen and paper person to expect a helpful judgment from. What I would expect, though, is that if and as the hold of these social networking technologies deepens, it will also lead to a change in economic relationships, and this will put pressure on the perception of what's important. I imagine we might want ask whether the opportunity the technology opens to gather information about people and to hone advertising to their individual tastes may instrumentalise the deeper desire for connection that makes people want to network. The virtual community would then lose its necessary virtue.
Andrew Hamilton | 01 February 2008

thoughtful and insightful article, as always - thank Andy.
Nic Vidot | 01 February 2008


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