British Sports Can't Escape Class War

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LONDON -- If sports and their followers reflect the societies that produce them, how is one to judge the case of Billy the Trumpet?

Billy the Trumpet -- real name: Billy Cooper -- is a qualified horn-player and the official musician of a group of cricket zealots known as the Barmy Army who travel the globe as fans to wherever the English team joins battle with its competitors, from the Caribbean to Australia.

But, when he was banned from playing at a high-profile match in England last week, Mr. Cooper also became embroiled in a skirmish from another war -- the class war -- that haunts the land as society shifts from self-effacement into a newer, more raucous era when, the old guard would argue, enjoyment cannot be achieved without a rowdy accompaniment of noise.

"In the traditionalist view, Test cricket should be watched in total silence by crowds who know their forelock-tugging place in the scheme of things," the left-leaning Guardian newspaper said in an editorial. While fans and players have come to appreciate Mr. Cooper's riffs, the newspaper said, his banishment is just one more sign of "patrician disdain toward the paying public."

The organizers of the match at Nottingham's Trent Bridge said the ban covered all musical instruments. "It's one of those things fundamental to what we offer," said Lisa Pursehouse, the chief executive. "There are lots of people who enjoy watching cricket without musical instruments."

The silencing of Mr. Cooper was all the more noticeable since he was excluded from the first in a mammoth biennial series of five-day cricket matches against Australia called The Ashes, the oldest of England's cricketing rivalries.

The name derives from its trophy -- a minute terra-cotta urn said, possibly apocryphally, to contain the incinerated remains of an item of cricket pitch equipment from the late 19th century.

For those not steeped in cricketing lore -- indeed, for some raised to the thwack of leather ball on willow bat -- the game requires abstruse discourse on terms and vocabulary that range in incomprehensibility from silly mid on to deep square leg to googlies.

Indeed, the very idea of a sport played over five days that may not even produce a clear-cut outcome could be the most elusive concept of all.

Yet, said the sportswriter Barney Ronay, also in The Guardian, test matches (as opposed to shorter forms of the game played in a single day or a matter of mere hours) survive as "a glorious fluke, a hangover from less adrenal times, threatened continually by louder, shorter, more explosive attractions, but still gloriously unchanged."

This year's series seemed indeed to have started at a particularly propitious moment. Earlier this month, the British and Irish Lions rugby union team beat Australia. Just one day later at Wimbledon, Andy Murray became the first Briton since Fred Perry 77 years ago to secure the men's singles championship. In France, Chris Froome, a British rider, led the Tour de France cycle race.

But there were finer shadings.

While much was made of Mr. Murray's victory, for instance, little initial attention was paid to the fact that another Briton, Virginia Wade, had won the women's singles in 1977 -- an omission that underlined the importance of not letting the inconvenience of history get in the way of a juicy sound-bite.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron called Mr. Murray "the first British player to win Wimbledon in 77 years," excluding Ms. Wade from the pantheon and prompting storms of cyberborne outrage that her triumph had been airbrushed out of history.

His gaffe in Parliament deepened a sense of persistent casual chauvinism that had surfaced when the BBC was obliged to apologize for the musings of a radio commentator about the physical appearance of this year's women's champion, Marion Bartoli of France.

But was there an element of jingoism in his disparagement? France and England may be neighbors, but that has never made them friends. And almost by definition, top international sport feeds on nationalism, channeling passions that once inspired wars.

When Mr. Murray triumphed at Wimbledon, Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister sitting just behind Prime Minister Cameron in the celebrity seats, unfurled a blue-and-white Scottish saltire flag.

Mr. Murray's passport may proclaim him to be British, Mr. Salmond seemed to be reminding anyone watching him, but the tennis player was raised in Dunblane, Scotland. That made him a homegrown supermascot for Mr. Salmond's campaign to secure a "yes" vote in a referendum on Scottish independence next year.

Photographers quickly captured the image of Mr. Cameron, an opponent of Scottish independence, swathed in his enemy's banner, "photo-bombed," as the headlines put it.

While Mr. Cameron called the victory "a fantastic day for Andy Murray, for British tennis and for Britain," Mr. Salmond chose a different spin: "Andy is a fantastic, magnificent Scottish sportsman." Mr. Murray, he said, was "the king of Scotland."

However its borders are defined, this is a land whose players have demonstrated an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Success, indeed, was long treated as somehow dubious, as if striving for the top spot betrayed unwholesome ambition. Winning the game came second to playing it. And so the honors on the rugby pitch and the tennis court raised the question of whether the cricketers would follow suit.

The answer did not emerge quickly. Over five hot days from Wednesday to Sunday, the first test of The Ashes series unfolded in nerve-jangling, nail-biting slow-motion, the prognoses for both sides lurching between heady success and sour defeat as the game evolved through two long innings for each side before the narrowest of English victories -- even without Billy the Trumpet.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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