11 August 2009

Observing England’s cricket team in the face of defeat

The late great Erving Goffman’s studies of the minutiae of everyday life inspired thousands of researchers from the 1960s onwards and his books reached a much wider audience than most academics can ever dream of.

But, with the notable exception of two of his graduate students (Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff) who founded conversation analysis, few other sociologists ever managed to emulate the perceptiveness of Goffman's observations about the workings of everyday social interaction.

When he was a visiting professor at Manchester University in the early 1970s, someone asked him how he managed to come up with so many astute observations. His reply was along the lines of:

“By not looking at the people everyone is focused on in any particular situation but by concentrating on watching the behavior of the ones that no one else is looking at.”

I had a go at following his advice at Headingley on Sunday during the dying moments of the test match against Australia, and have some rather worrying observations to report about the England cricket team.

While everyone in the crowd was watching tail end batsmen Broad and Swann showing the main batsmen how they should have dealt with the Australian bowling, I turned my binoculars away from the pitch towards the balcony where the rest of the England team were sitting, fully expecting to see a collection of depressed and dejected faces.

Given their dismal failures over the previous two days, what surprised me was to see so much chatting, grinning and laughing going on. From a distance, the atmosphere among them looked far more casual, jovial and relaxed than seemed appropriate in such dire circumstances.

But what really shocked me was their apparent lack of interest in or support for the temporary successes of their colleagues out on the pitch: when the crowd cheered and applauded, the rest of the team could hardly be bothered to join in.

What, I wondered, does that tell us about the team spirit of the current England squad?

Then, not long after Australia had won the match, we went for a walk around the back of the stadium, and stumbled across some supporting evidence for a comment in Derek Pringle’s report on the match in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, where he said:

‘A positive report on Andrew Flintoff would obviously be a good start but the process should have begun the moment they lost their last wicket yesterday, 33 balls after lunch, but didn’t. Instead of marching out onto the field to shake the Australians’ hands in public, all but the departing batsmen remained inside the dressing-room area leaving Strauss, their captain, to face the boos when he attended the post-match presentation’ [my italics].

It wasn’t just that the rest of the team had stayed hidden inside the pavilion, as Pringle noted, but they'd made an instant and hasty retreat. By the time we reached the players’ car park less than an hour after the game finished, the stewards told us that most of England team (except for Prior who was still massaging his ego by signing a few autographs) had already driven off – not in a team bus, but individually in their own cars.

Again, the same question arises: what does this tell us about England’s team spirit, let alone their management’s view of the urgent need for an extended team meeting?

Instead of biting that particular bullet there and then, England’s cricket leadership has apparently instructed the failures to go back to their counties and prepare for victory – which strikes me as worryingly reminiscent of former Liberal Party leader David Steel’s instruction to his members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

England cricket fans can only hope for a bit more luck than the Liberals had in 1987, as recent performances suggest that 'luck' is the only chance left for regaining the Ashes.

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