Gentle men and players

Observations on cricket

It's a conundrum - on the opening Thursday of any given Test match at Lords, there will be almost no women (no, no, this in itself is not a conundrum); there will be no children at all; and though the day isn't the coolbag free-for-all it once was, alcohol is readily available, in no way dependent on the state of play, throughout the day.

Thus, the factors militating against delinquency at a football match - women and children - are absent, while the factors working towards it - booze - are out in force. Why, then, is there so little trouble at cricket matches? And by "so little" I mean "none at all".

The pride that football takes in having "stamped out racism" is laughable in the face of cricket, which would never be so indelicate as to even mention race, although Test opponents - the Windies, Pakistan - are more obvious targets than the opponents footie fans get aerated about. Such as Real Madrid.

Lords is, of course, at the extreme end of this courtesy-spectrum, its arcane ticket allocations making it unusual for large groups of fan-associates to gather in the same stand, and MCC's one-in-one-out membership policy creating just the statistical environment needed to get a load of fans who are incredibly old. This makes the experience a bit theme-parky - like village cricket at which international teams happen to have turned up - and the Barmy Army absents itself because it is nothing like barmy enough.

Nevertheless, there is also zero crime at the Oval and, yup, everywhere else. The forensic psychologist Philippa Lowe, once of the prison service, now retired, comments: "What is the average age of the fan? The average age of men in prison is 25. If the audience is older, the impact of alcohol will also be reduced. It is a disinhibitor and depressant, but will amplify existing characteristics, so it will spark aggression in the young, who are inclined to violence anyway."

But is there anything in the game itself that creates a self-selecting audience of compliant citizens?

"Yes. Delinquents are impulsive, and cricket, having complicated scoring, requires concentration. They also need instant rewards, having little appetite for delayed gratification. Cricket matches go on for days. I can't see that playing well with a delinquent audience."

What about the complication of cricket's narrative? Football tells you a short, blunt story about tribalism. Maybe you just need more brains to watch cricket.

A supplementary theory is that fans tend to emulate players. Part of the experience of being a fan is the abnegation of the self as you become the player of your fancy. Football players are always swearing and cheating. Cricketers rarely do that. "What about ball tampering?" you ask. "And the funny business where that fella doesn't bend his arm properly?" These are two instances, in two years, from across the world. In football, two or three players will cheat by pretending to fall over in every game. Consider the ratio of that. Note also the effect this mathematical consideration has on your mood. You're pretty calm, huh? Now imagine the gentle noise of natural materials thwacking against each other. Fancy a fight, now? Of course not.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state