The Roar: Sport and politics – Untangling an irrational love affair

“Politics is a blood sport.” So said the politician Aneurin Bevan, whose stubborn persistence and booming Welsh oratory helped him spearhead one of the British government’s most revered accomplishments, the establishment of the publicly funded National Health Service.

He was an ardent socialist, a natural competitor and combative Member of Parliament. He also knew very little about sport, except when it came to his impassioned and patriotic support of the Welsh rugby team; Bevan didn’t do things half-heartedly.

The former MP may well be right in calling politics a blood sport, but it was Bevan too who alleged that “the politics of Westminster are in their infancy compared to those of Welsh rugby”.

Sport and politics have an intricate and well-established relationship; throughout history, one has rarely existed without the other.

It should come as no surprise then that yesterday there were whispers on the grapevine of one particular Australian cricketer considering making the transition from the cricket pitch to the parliamentary chamber.

The concept is a familiar one. Cricket, more than most sports, has churned out a long and distinguished list of sportsmen-turned-politicians – Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Jamaica’s senator Frank Worrell, the former Sri Lankan all-rounder MP Sanath Jayasuriya, and even the UK’s late Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (albeit only with a handful of undistinguished first-class matches).

More recently, there were rumours of former England captain Andrew Strauss eyeing up a Conservative seat in the UK. In Australia, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath are both noted Liberal party supporters, not least because of their propensity to sign cricket bats for their mate, the now Treasurer of Australia Scott Morrison.

However the identity of the target of the recent speculation might be a little shocking. The question arises as to whether Adam Gilchrist, ‘the cricketer who walked’, has the tenacity and, well, ‘staying power’ to hash it out in the blood sport that is politics.

According to BuzzFeed, who broke the story, one Liberal party source has said that Gilchrist has been “known to be [sic] good friend and ally of the Liberal Party. He’s been encouraged to come into the fold”.

Therefore, it won’t be long before MPs Lee, McGrath and Gilchrist are propping up a Liberal government post-Malcolm Turnbull, perhaps 10 years from now.

It’s not that unrealistic a proposition. It’s a dangerous one though.

Sport has an irrational impact on otherwise rational human beings. We revere and idolise sporting stars for performing a trivial skill better than those around them – better than us.

How often at sports presentation ceremonies do you see a corporate suit, often a giant of the financial world in their own right, knock-kneed and starry-eyed in their schoolboy-like adulation of a newly crowned sporting champion?

Sachin Tendulkar is often referred to as a god in India; there’s no doubt he’s worshiped as fervently as any. Even the AFL’s Gary Ablett, he of supreme footballing ability, bore that very nickname – ‘God’.

These are human beings, just like any other, who are subliminally talented in their chosen arena. That doesn’t mean they qualify automatically to be just as talented in another.

Sports commentators have grappled with this dilemma for years. Michael Atherton, Jonathan Agnew and Damian Fleming are a handful who have been as successful behind the mic as they were in front of it. For others, the transition has been less than complementary, despite our irrational expectation that it should be so.

Australia, in particular, has a problem with the phenomenon of the seemingly incorruptible sporting icon. How, the public asked in light of the ongoing Essendon saga, could James Hird be anything other than footy’s golden boy? How could Shane Warne, deliverer of the Ball of the Century, run a charity that was anything but squeaky clean?

Already in the UK there are huge reservations about the date of the upcoming European Union referendum, due to take place just days after England play their last group match in the Euro 2016 championships. Do well, and England fans may be more forgiving of their European counterparts, goes the theory.

“Too much credence is given to rationality in political argument,” one journalist argues.

New South Wales Liberals apparently think “that drafting Gilchrist would be a game-changer with large ethnic groups of Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi people in western Sydney”. No doubt it would, and his celebrity status is a huge attraction to the Liberals.

“He was a great cricketer who has done great things,” one Government MP allegedly said, failing to add “on a cricket pitch”.

Just as injecting heroin into one’s eyeballs delivers an exponentially quick high incomparable to anything remotely legal, the fallout, as with parachuting a candidate ill-equipped for the long run, can be crippling.

By all means, Gilchrist, who incidentally denies the political rumours, would be a fantastic politician. For his sake and ours, however, Gilchrist, should he embark on this venture, warrants the vetting and selection procedure that welcomes any other political hopeful.

“I’m not interested in getting into politics,” Gilchrist said, before adding, “At the moment.”

This comment, perhaps his first move in politics, was as tactfully non-committal and ambiguous as any of those used by the best political practitioners out there.

“Cricket is a game full of forlorn hopes and sudden dramatic changes of fortune,” George Orwell scorned. So is politics. Gilchrist might seamlessly adapt. He might not. Just don’t assume it.

Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com

• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 26 February 2016. To access the original, please click here.

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