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Year of the scapegoat

‘Pavillon now OPEN. Surving FOOD and DRIN’. This sign, propped up outside Spencer Street Station, was attracting a lot of passing attention the other morning. For one thing, the alternative to looking at it was falling over it because it loomed up through the bustling crowd very quickly, and right in the middle of the causeway leading from the station’s tawdry depths. And then, of course, there was its oddity.

Easy to laugh though, I thought, catching myself smiling, as were many normally gloomy commuters. Here, no doubt, were people for whom English was their second, perhaps even third language, trying to make a go with their little café (or their huge pavilion—you couldn’t be sure) in a foreign land and a difficult tongue. Easy to scapegoat the stumbling English of such honest tryers.

Scapegoating was on my mind, I have to admit. (Isn’t it the year of the scapegoat? No? Maybe just the goat.) At the height of the summer, Australian cricketer Darren Lehmann expressed his anger at losing his wicket with a terse, racist and sexist outburst which was within the hearing of the Sri Lankan dressing room, and which greatly and very reasonably offended the Sri Lankan players. Lehmann’s utterance was inexcusable, violent and indefensible. He was carpeted by the match referee, Clive Lloyd, severely rebuked, fined, ordered to attend counselling and called upon to apologise. Already full of remorse, Lehmann apologised in writing and verbally and then to each of the Sri Lankan squad individually. The Sri Lankans thanked him and pronounced the matter closed. Clive Lloyd was satisfied and the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) considered that due process had taken its course in this serious matter.

At this point, the Australian head of the International Cricket Council (ICC), Malcolm Speed, intervened. He said Lehmann’s transgression was of such magnitude and seriousness that it should attract more stringent punishment. He pronounced it a ‘Level 3’ breach of the rules governing players’ conduct, the penalty for which could be a fine, banning from a stipulated number of matches, or both. Lehmann was tried—again by Clive Lloyd—and banned for five matches.

In his great essay, ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’, George Orwell concedes that Wodehouse should never have done what he did and that certain degrees and kinds of recrimination were in order. Cassandra’s massive attack on Wodehouse, however, in which he brands him among other things a traitor fit for the rope, was in Orwell’s view excessive, to put it mildly. Typically, Orwell wonders what it was that could have driven Cassandra to such an extraordinarily hyperbolic response and concludes:

... Wodehouse made an ideal whipping boy. For it was generally felt that the rich were treacherous, and Wodehouse—as Cassandra vigorously pointed out in his broadcast—was a rich man. But he was the kind of rich man who could be attacked with impunity and without risking any damage to the structure of society. To denounce Wodehouse was not like denouncing, say, Beaverbrook ... Consequently, Wodehouse’s indiscretion gave a good propaganda opening. It was a chance to ‘expose’ a wealthy parasite without drawing attention to any of the parasites that really mattered.

Darren Lehmann’s outburst was much more than an ‘indiscretion’. But few, if any, of the journalists who would later applaud his second ‘trial’ and heavier punishment, seem to have perceived undue lenience in the first swift, unequivocal reaction of the match referee followed by Lehmann’s own painfully elaborate succession of verbal, individual and written apologies. Speed’s intervention—on the grounds that Lehmann had not been punished appropriately or enough—was opportunistic.

Lehmann is a wonderful cricketer but he is still, for various reasons to do with untimely injury and the depth of available batting talent over the past decade, a somewhat marginal player in the squad. He still has to ‘cement his place’, as the scribes say, in the Test team at least. Personally, he is not especially articulate. His balding, ample appearance does not suggest charisma. His nickname is ‘Boof’, not because he’s a dill, which he assuredly isn’t (especially in ‘cricket brain’ terms), but because he’s uncomplicated, easygoing, conciliatory and accepting. If you’re looking to make an example, a big splashing international ‘case’, of someone in the Australian squad, Lehmann’s your man because the backlash will almost certainly be negligible. Quite unlike what it would be, for instance, if you pursued Gilchrist or Hayden or McGrath—who are, respectively, wholesome, Christian and steely-no-bloody-nonsense, and all entirely brilliant. Or even Warney, who is often a target but equally often spread-eagles detractors by sheer panache.

In The Sunday Times of 26 February 1984, Robert Mugabe is quoted thus: ‘Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.’ If Malcolm Speed had been disposed to attack Mugabe by immediately refusing to lend credence to his monstrous regime through the game of cricket on which the ruthless dictator obviously places such international and moral store, he would have been buying himself a real fight for a crucial cause. To denounce Lehmann was not like denouncing Mugabe and his nation of gentlemen. Sandbagging Lehmann with the full force of the ICC Law Book was a placatory, safe wave in the direction of the black cricketing nations, while leaving untouched the monster who really matters. 

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.



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