One of my favourite films is Good Will Hunting and one of my favourite scenes is a brilliant speech by Robin Williams.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film is about a mathematical savant, played by Matt Damon, battling deep-rooted issues brought out by therapist Sean, played by Williams (stick with me sports fans).
I was nervous about quoting the speech extensively here, in case you switch off (these are, after all, the sports and not the Culture pages, where my work normally appears) but when writing is as good as this, it earns its place. Plus, I believe sports fans can also enjoy a bit of culture. Even those of you who like kickball.
So; in the film, during a therapy session, Williams says to Damon’s character: “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him, right? Life’s work, political aspirations, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.
“I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends”. But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help.”
Good, isn’t it?
What does this have to do with anything sports related? Well, England’s cricketers are playing in the Asian subcontinent and all the old cliches are being repeated.
“In India, cricket is a religion and Sachin is their god.”
“You can’t turn a corner without coming across an impromptu game of street cricket.”
“The fanaticism of the fans is unmatched anywhere else.”
Well, yes. All that’s true, at least, truer than tales of Delhi Belly and other post-colonial nonsense.
None of these cliches (Sky commentators, I’m looking at you) tell you what it’s really like to stand inside one of those Asian subcontinent grounds, inside, as Williams would say in Good Will Hunting, the Sistine Chapel and experience what it smells like.
So I’ll give it a shot.
In 2010 I was in Bangladesh researching my first play. It just so happened that the director of the play was as much of a cricket fanatic as am I – it was no coincidence that we arrived in Chittagong at the same time as the England team for the first Test.
In Chittagong we wandered towards Zohur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, not so much a happy band of brothers, as a slightly delirious band of theatre makers (we thought it would save paying for a night of accommodation if we slept on the overnight train from Dhaka. It was a nice theory. We didn’t).
Outside the stadium the five of us bought headbands and flags. Even though we are all die-hard England supporters, the paraphernalia bore the distinctive red circle and green background of Bangladesh’s flag. When in Rome and all that.
It took an absolute age to get into the ground. We paid the equivalent of a fiver for our VIP tickets, which gave us access to the sheltered top tier of the stadium, right next to where the Sky cameras were filming the action, but the benefits of such extravagance would only come once we had gained access to the ground.
We had to get past the blokes with big, scary guns first.
You thought the most expensive ticket available might grant easy access? More fool you. It actually takes a lot of bowing and scraping to get anywhere in Bangladesh when you’re faced with someone holding a gun.
Scaling the stone steps up to the top tier, the stifling heat seemed to creep down the staircase, becoming stronger the further towards the sky we climbed. No one blocked our passage, which felt odd after the stringent security on the way in. The sleep deprivation kicked in and we, five grown men, started acting the maggot. Shoving each other, bounding up two steps at a time like giddy kippers, and rounding a corner to bump into Michael Atherton.
Poor Athers. He was met with a group which included a short, somewhat excitable, half-Bangladeshi lad, wearing a Bangladesh flag as a headband, grabbing his hand to shake and exclaiming in a Yorkshire accent: “Mr Atherton, I put you in my all-time top 11 on t’train last night”. Posing for photographs, he was clearly bemused, but perfectly lovely. For a Lancastrian.
When we reached the seats in the top tier the view was beautiful. England were bowling, Steve Finn running inelegantly away from us.
It was one of those stiflingly hot days where it feels like you could take a knife and slice off a section of the air in front of you – that the cricketers were mustering the energy to do more than lay on the ground was a miracle. The Bangladesh fans had been coralled into one tier in the stadium below, to give, we assumed, the impression of a large crowd for the benefit of the cameras.
Excitable crowds of brown chaps cheering every second of the game? Not likely. That’s another post-colonial construct. They looked as soporifically inclined as your average county ground audience – until Tamim Iqbal started lashing England’s bowling attack. Cricket might be a religion in the country, but Test cricket is clearly something many feel they ‘ought’ to do out of duty. It was clear that they want Twenty20.
Up in our luxury (plastic) rooftop seats, where the fans around us were exclusively English, the chief cameraman was filming from underneath an enormous towel, which he peeled off sporadically to shout, in a strong Bangladeshi accent: “Wicket time boys, wicket time,” before disappearing once again under his sun shield of a towel.
I’m out of space and I haven’t scratched the surface. I guess the lesson is this – try as you might describe the experience of watching cricket in Asia, words will always fail.
But believe me, it is one hell of an experience. Like looking at the Sistine Chapel. Or so I’ve heard from Robin Williams.
and another thing...
About a year ago I started, as I somewhat facetiously call it, ‘playing’ Facebook and Twitter.
Yes, they are both a sign of, let’s face it, the death of civilisation – when you have a society where people have hundreds of ‘friends’ and hundreds more ‘followers’ yet people still die alone, it’s not a sign that we’ve reached our apogee as a human race.
I do find both an interesting way to connect with people, a useful tool for contacting folk and a great way to waste time. They have also added to my personal lexicon.
One phrase I have stolen from and taken to using on Facebook and Twitter is ‘just saying’. It tends to be used to make a point that you believe is blindingly obvious, eg: ‘People fighting over religion: the founders of your faith advocated peace. Just saying’.
You get the idea.
Now, I am not particularly qualified to discuss football hooliganism or the violence that appears peripheral to the game. Anyone being assaulted in connection with football – be that fans inside or outside a ground, is appalling, I hope it goes without saying.
However. Me personally? Whenever there’s been a threat of violence in any situation, I always walk away, or find a peaceful way out. Just saying.