Will Self: It’s no wonder sport fans are angry so often, they’re the victims of a massive con

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

You’ll be aware by now that of all the frenzied crowds that trouble my uneasy sleep, sporting ones bother me the most. I mean to say, to be crushed to death by a mob that is rampaging because tyranny flies at its backs has a certain justness but to be stomped on by people driven berserk by a ball game would be a pitiful end. Sporting events by their nature embody the worst excesses of late capitalism: the spectators are mere passive consumers of the commodified prowess of the athletes and the seasonal character of the spectacles mimics the cyclic time that this new peasantry is trapped in, while the masters of money and power forge ahead. No wonder sports fans are so often pissed off: they’re the victims of a massive con.

When I stopped going to sporting events, the crowd at the Arsenal still strongly resembled an L S Lowry painting: rank upon rank of mufflered and capped men, raising their Bovril cups to their chapped lips with the monstrous synchrony of a group mind. Around this time – the early 1970s – I also went to Wimbledon a couple of times. This was a different sort of crowd – blazered and frocked, bourgeois – and the Centre Court also had a sort of hushed intimacy: the net stretched decoratively across the carpet of grass, the tiered seating somehow G Plan.

Nevertheless, here was the same disturbing unanimity, the eyes sliding back and forth like those of automata, the counterpoint of players’ grunts and spectators’ groans suggesting – even to my pubescent mind – participation in some mass act of sexual congress. (I may have been reading Brave New World at the time.)

Still, at least tennis had the virtue of a certain individualism – single combat, armed with catgut, wood and rubber – and I think I went on watching it on TV until at least the middle of that decade. Plonking myself down in front of the set some 35 years later, I was heartened to discover that little seemed to have changed with the Wimbledon crowd: there were a few more handmade signs and some garish tam-o’-shanters that I didn’t recall from the days when Ilie Nastase flipped his wig but otherwise it was business as usual. (Andy Murray was even drinking what was unmistakably Robinsons Barley Water.) Yes, you guessed it, the Championship bid by the down-home boy from Dunblane had lured me out of my sporting retirement.

True, I wasn’t court-side but the way the BBC chose to cover the Wimbledon crowd was surely indicative of this aspect of the zeitgeist: the distraught relationship between the particular and the many. Murray’s authenticity as a sporting hero derives as much from his intractability when it comes to the usual skill transfer of celebrity as it does from his prowess. As yet, there’s been no smelly water line or pseudo-styled sunglasses – his product placements at least superficially appear to be out of necessity and he even (for which I could’ve kissed him) appeared to pooh-pooh the idea of a knighthood when old buttock-face had him straight round No 10 the day after his win. I suspect that lurking behind this is a deeper level of crowd consciousness, because if modernity teaches us anything, it’s that the seeming omnipotentiality of the notorious – so you’re a cabinet minister: why not chance your arm at ballroom dancing? – rests on a correlative loss of true expertise. If you can be anything, how can your ability at one thing be credible?

Murray is a personification of the most physical possible impact between the anomie of the individual and the madness of the crowd; he is thus a hero twice over. No wonder, as the camera nosed about the arena, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Salmond-with-saltire almost sucking each other off, such was their desire to repose in the crotch of the champion.

Murray, meanwhile, submitted to the bizarre court-side interview – a ritual I cannot remember from the 1970s and one in which the well-known faces in the crowd, picked out by the camera, are integrated into the mass to reinforce the hoary new delusion that they’re just like us, really.

You may have detected a certain soft, emollient tone in this week’s column – but have no fear, readers, remember: Murray the Minted is a sports “ambassador” for none other than RBS. It’s given the feisty wee chap thousands of our pounds to play big pingpong, so mind, we own the fucker. Now, new balls to kick, please!

Andy Murray's authenticity as a sporting hero comes as much from his intractability as from his prowess. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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The triumph of Misbah-ul-Haq, the quiet grafter

How Misbah redeemed Pakistani cricket.

It was an incongruous sight: the entire Pakistani cricket team doing press-ups on the revered pitch at Lord’s, led by its captain, Misbah-ul-Haq. This unusual celebration marked not merely a Test match victory over England on Sunday but something greater: the rehabilitation of Pakistani cricket.

Seven years earlier, the Sri Lankan team bus was en route to the cricket stadium in Lahore for the third day of a Test match against Pakistan when it was attacked by Islamist militants. Gunfire killed six police officers and a driver; several Sri Lankan cricketers were also injured. That was the last Test match played in Pakistan, which, despite protestations, opponents consider too dangerous to visit.

A year later, Pakistan toured England for a Test series. The News of the World alleged that in the final match at Lord’s three Pakistani cricketers had conspired to bowl no-balls in exchange for money. All three received bans of five years or more for corruption. The entire squad was lampooned; police had to shield its members from abuse as they arrived home.

Misbah was on the periphery of all of this. Aged 36 at the time, he was dropped from the squad before the English tour and seemed unlikely to play international cricket again. But the turbulence engulfing Pakistani cricket forced the selectors to reassess. Not only was Misbah recalled but he was made captain. “You have to ask yourself,” he later said: “‘Have I been the captain because they supported me, or because they had no alternatives?’”

Pakistani cricket prizes and mythologises teenage talent plucked from obscurity and brought into the international side. During his decade as captain, Imran Khan picked 11 teenagers to make their debuts, often simply on the basis of being wowed by their performance in the nets. Misbah shows that another way is possible. He grew up in Mianwali, a city that was so remote that: “The culture there wasn’t such that you thought about playing for Pakistan.”

At the behest of his parents, he devoted his early twenties not to his promising batting but to gaining an MBA. Only at 24 did he make his first-class debut, strikingly late in an age when professional sportsmen are expected to dedicate all their energy to the game from their teenage years.

Pakistani cricket has always been “a little blip of chaos to the straight lines of order”, Osman Samiuddin writes in The Unquiet Ones. Misbah has created order out of chaos. He is unflappable and methodical, both as a captain and as a batsman. His mood seems impervious to results. More than anything, he is resilient.

He has led Pakistan to 21 Test victories – seven more than any other captain. He has done this with a bowling attack ravaged by the 2010 corruption scandal and without playing a single match at home. Because of security concerns, Pakistan now play in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes in front of fewer than a hundred supporters.

Misbah has developed a team that marries professionalism with the self-expression and flair for which his country’s cricket is renowned. And he has scored runs – lots of them. Over his 43 Tests as captain, he has averaged at 56.68. Few have been so empowered by responsibility, or as selfless. He often fields at short leg, the most dangerous position in the game and one usually reserved for the team’s junior player.

Misbah has retained his capacity to surprise. As a batsman, he has a reputation for stoic defence. Yet, in November 2014 he reached a century against Australia in just 56 balls, equalling the previous record for the fastest ever Test innings, held by Viv Richards. The tuk-tuk had become a Ferrari.

Late in 2015, Misbah tried to retire. He was 41 and had helped to keep Pakistani cricket alive during some of its darkest days. But the selectors pressured him to stay on, arguing that the team would need him during its arduous tours to England and Australia.

They were right. His crowning glory was still to come. The team arrived in England following weeks of training with the national army in Abbottabad. “The army people are not getting much salaries, but for this flag and for the Pakistani nation, they want to sacrifice their lives,” Misbah said. “That’s a big motivation for all of us. Everyone is really putting effort in for that flag and the nation.”

Now 42, almost a decade older than any cricketer in England’s side, Misbah fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition by playing in a Test match at Lord’s. In Pakistan’s first innings, he scored a century and celebrated with push-ups on the outfield, in homage to the army’s fitness regime and those who had had the temerity to mock his age.

When Pakistan secured victory a little after 6pm on the fourth evening of the game, the entire team imitated the captain’s push-ups, then saluted the national flag. The applause for them reverberated far beyond St John’s Wood.

“It’s been a remarkable turnaround after the 2010 incident,” Misbah-ul-Haq said, ever undemonstrative.

He would never say as much, but he has done more than anyone else to lead Pakistan back to glory. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt