It was that most enlightened of world leaders, George W Bush Jr., who uttered that sentence that would be repeated ad nauseum: Either you are with us or you’re against us.
By us, of course, he meant the US, and the patent absurdity of this black-and-white view of the world should have been immediately obvious. History, even though it is written by the victors, teaches us that things are rarely so cut and dried. It is in the shades of grey that the richness and complexity of life reveals itself most fully.
The week past provided multiple reminders of the danger, and futility, of this binary way of thinking. One day, here was Lionel Messi, vanquished, crying, retired. Another, there was Cristiano Ronaldo, limping off in a final, also in tears but eventually victorious. The Messi v Ronaldo comparison stopped being a sensible debate a long time ago. The Messi faithful seem to believe it is nothing short of their duty to make laborious arguments to decry Ronaldo – he’s a wimp, a cry baby, a show pony, they insist. The Ronaldo brigade gleefully point to Messi’s lack of success with his national team, and now also have the taxman’s objections to use as a stick.
When it comes to supporting a team in a traditional rivalry – India v Pakistan, Lancashire v Yorkshire, Mumbai v Delhi in cricket, to just kiss the tip of the iceberg – this kind of animosity makes some twisted sense. After all, one team’s gain is the other’s loss. But when it comes to Messi v Ronaldo, this is hardly the case, as this is no zero sum game. They were not even playing in the same competition recently.
The rational fanatic, and admittedly this is an oxymoron, opts to choose sides, and this has little or no effect on Messi or Ronaldo. But, in the process, the fan, admittedly a lover of the sport these men play, is so blinded by allegiance to one that he, or she, cannot appreciate the greatness of the other. In the process, the ability to enjoy the game, to get something out of watching it, falls by the wayside.
To be sure, watching sport as a detached neutral, as journalists are meant to be, does not come close to rooting for your team, letting your blood boil, yelling at the television screen and wearing your team’s colours with pride when you step out. To be neutral is like eating curd rice without pickle, playing poker without stakes, or drinking non-alcoholic beer. It’s just not the same. But, the other extreme, being part of a frenzy that is whipped up more and more in these days of social media and instant gratification, of having to hate the opponent to prove love for the fighter in your corner, is just as empty and hollow.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir might bowl a peach of a delivery to detonate Alistair Cook’s off stump, that left-arm beauty of a ball that comes in with the angle, shapes away just enough to straighten and beat the outside edge, opening the batsman up like a can of Heinz’s finest baked beans. Expect all hell to break loose then.
Already, several English cricketers have expressed their dismay that Amir has had a second chance in the game. The retired and vocal Graeme Swann set the ball rolling, saying nothing short of a life ban was acceptable. The sent-to-pasture-but-desperate-to-stay-in-the-limelight Kevin Pietersen chimed in, saying, “People always deserve a second chance in life but sport is different.” That’s an astonishing supposition in itself, given that murderers and rapists walk out of prison having done their time. While Amir did betray his sport, his crime was bowling no-balls for an illegal consideration – hardly the same thing.
When Amir returns to Lord’s to do his thing, life for him would have come full circle. The hoity-toity in the members’ stand, with their bacon-and-egg ties, may be typically restrained, or dozing as they are sometimes wont to, but you can be sure there will be those in the Brexit crowd who will give it to Amir with both barrels.
In a very personal way, this is a redemption song. The teenager who strayed was apprehended, jailed and finally rehabilitated. But, this is less about Amir as it is about cricket. It is the game that is richer for showing that someone who can find the confluence between truly repenting and earning a second chance is welcome once more.