Friday 30 March 2018

So you've been publically shamed... By, er, me...

One Saturday afternoon in the long-off winter of 1979, an object of some interest arrived at the Gover Cricket School in Wandsworth. It was the aluminium ComBat, as recently used by Dennis Lillee in the Test match between Australia and England at the SCG: used and then hurled "fully forty yards" across the outfield when the umpires made him swap to a conventional blade after Mike Brearley, the England captain, complained that the ComBat had damaged the ball.

I'd seen the report on the news, Lillee, completing his futuristic cowboy look with a white helmet and perspex face guard (an object itself almost as alien then as a NASA space suit), struck one through mid off and then engaged in some finger-pointing with Brearley and the umpires before underarming the ComBat high into the air and out of view. It was in all of the papers, too, but they said that Lillee wasn't going to be banned or anything like that. The laws of the game didn't specify what a bat should be made of, so why couldn't he use an aluminium one...?

Alf Gover's school was housed in an old industrial shed, and when a ball struck one of the steel crossbeams that supported the roof it was like being inside a great bell. The air itself seemed to vibrate. The ComBat was a deeply strange thing. Aside from its colour and texture, like that of the flat side of a kitchen knife, it was thin even by the standards of the day, and the back had barely any spine, so it looked almost the same on both sides. When it made contact with the ball here in Alf's shed, it sounded unearthly, like one of those effects when cartoon characters hit one another with frying pans.

Reading up on the ComBat this week, the only real censure Lillee faced came from the Wisden Almanack, which Pootered: "The incident served only to blacken Lillee's reputation and damage the image of the game as well as, eventually, the Australian authorities because of their reluctance to take effective disciplinary action." The players realised right away that it was a stunt. The ComBat had been developed by Graham Monaghan, a friend of Lillee's, with the idea that it would be a cheap product for schools and juniors. When Lillee asked the England players to sign the one he'd thrown across the SCG, Brearley wrote "good luck with the sales".

It was an incident from another time, played out at another speed, and it exists now not as a cautionary tale, but as burnishment to Lillee's legend. Brearley was aghast that his carefully shined ball was flattened by the ComBat. Had AB de Villiers gone to the crease with one in Cape Town, he could have saved Cameron Bancroft a job (and Smith, Warner and Lehmann theirs). The Laws have been amended to ensure that bats are made of willow, yet they still mitigate to a degree against reverse swing, a thing of deadly and useful beauty.

Imagine, say, David Warner hurling his Kaboom forty yards across the field because it wouldn't pass through the bat gauge. The thought that he might not be banned is actually an unthinkable one: he'd be more likely to face criminal charges. This is not simply a function of changing mores and morals. It's clear, from the Ben Stokes case and now the Sandpaper Three (or four, if we count Darren Lehmann), that the essential substance of such issues are being affected by the surrounding culture, specifically social media. The shape of them, their actual outcomes, are distorted in and by real-time.

Stokes is not the first cricketer to get involved in a punch up. David Hookes died in one. Botham hit Chappell, Warner hit Root, Ponting copped a black eye in a bar in Sydney, Andrew Symonds had an altercation at a hotel in Brisbane, and so on. The difference with Stokes was that someone filmed the incident on a camera phone. Everything that followed, followed in the light of the footage. Stokes' suspension was inevitable once it was seen on social media. Regardless of whether or not that was the right course of action, it became the only one open. It left a tortured course ahead for everyone, from the CPS, the police and Stokes, who face a Crown Court trial in which some of the evidence will have been publically available for almost a year, to the ECB, with whom it's possible at last to have some sympathy (although their new thing is suing journalists, so you know, fuck them).

At least the Stokes case is now protected by sub judice. Its social media moment has come and gone. The sandpapering in Cape Town may be the Ur manifestation of the near-future. Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publically Shamed brilliantly framed the phenomenon, the dizzying and unstoppable speed at which events unfold online, the weight of comment acting like ballast, moving the story in different ways. It looks at the divorce between the unreal, virtual world, in which everything is permitted, and the real one, where the subjects of the storm, at first unknowing, cocky, secure, are suddenly, bewilderingly, upended and changed by its momentum. It is no longer comment but part of the story itself, integral to its outcome and demanding its price.

Its unpredictability - which event will it latch onto, which will gain no traction; which transgression is insignificant, which is instant fuel - makes it frightening and alien, too.

The best analogy I can think of is that being on Twitter this week was a bit like driving your car. Inside it, you are both part of the world and sealed safely away. You can say anything you like to the other cars and their occupants because it has no effect, or at least it has a false effect: one that makes you feel omnipotent in your tiny, 2015 Vauxhall Corsa. You are never the one doing anything wrong.

I'm a writer. If I don't write, I don't get paid (and when I do write, I don't always get paid much, but that's a different matter). I aim to be as good as I can be, whether it's a 100 word review or 100,000 words of a book. The 140 characters (or 280 or whatever Twitter is now) is seductive. It offers instant feedback, instant satisfaction. Publishers want writers on it and visible. The problem is that it's a fucking timewaster, and it changes the way that you think. In the recent past, when something like ball-tampering happened my first urge would be to blog about it, which demands a certain kind of piece, a particular consideration. I realise now I blog less in part because that sort of thinking takes a bit of time. Twitter's easier, and it kills the urge to write properly. A post here usually gets about a thousand hits. Over 24 hours after Cape Town, my Tweets had 50,000 impressions.

When James Sutherland's first press conference finished, a cricket writer I respect very much sent me a DM that said: "what the fuck was that?" I was thinking exactly the same. The difference was, I Tweeted something like it too. His piece came out later; it was properly weighted, properly judged, and I envied his wisdom in messaging to satisfy that initial urge to say something. 

Mickey Arthur wrote a piece about his time coaching Australia (one that I found out about on Twitter), and he mentioned Homework-gate, which had led to his own public humiliation and sacking. I realised I couldn't even remember what had happened beyond it maybe having something to do with Shane Watson and papers under hotel doors - or perhaps that was something else entirely...

The other effect of these storms is that they pass so quickly it makes their consequences appear unreal, too. I think in the case of Smith and Warner, these twelve months are going to feel prehistoric, monolithic. Real time is slow time, and virtual time moves away from it at the speed of light.

I love Twitter. I met the people I now play cricket with there, which has enriched my life in all sorts of ways. Lots of great things have happened for me because of it. A week dripping in sanctimony hardly needs any more, but there is cause and effect in everything, even being a wise-ass on Twitter. It's not the effect on anyone else, it's the effect on me and the way it makes me think that I don't really feel as sure of any more.

NB: Now I'm off to Twitter to post this link...