`Cricket, with a Plot': Nationalism, Cricket and Diasporic Identities

Article excerpt

The Sri Lankan-Australian dramatist Ernest MacIntyre recently outlined a new play for the Sri Lankan theatre, a national epic staged in the form of `cricket, with a plot'.(1) His model was Brecht's call for a new epic theatre `like a circus, with a plot'. In the revival of post-Independence Sinhala theatre in Sri Lanka, Brechtian models have played a germinative role, as traditional forms of verse storytelling, song and mime were combined with techniques of Brechtian anti-realism to produce a distinctive form. In the climate of chauvinist Sinhala nationalism that led to the current civil war, this renewed Sinhala drama is represented as a unique `national' form, expressive of a brave post-Independence Sri Lanka.

MacIntyre's proposed play recognises that both theatre and cricket have been mobilised in the service of the Sri Lankan state's Sinhala nationalism. He seeks a dramatist `fearless in making visible the historical and social material thick in the air or stored under the turf' to produce a new Sri Lankan epic reminiscent of the Brechtian circus, but performed in the form of `slowed down stylized cricket action' to enact a different national story. The story will be told, in the style of a Brechtian narrator, by a series of cricket commentators, including the Australian television commentator Tony Greig. Instead of Brecht's acrobats and dancers, MacIntyre proposes `somersaulting fieldsmen, striking and running batsmen ... bowlers with pace, bowlers with spin, and a solitary bowler with an action as fascinating as it is strange to the eyes of some white men (called umpires)'. This is of course a reference to the `throwing' or `chucking' charges levelled at the Sri Lankan bowler Muthiah Muralitharan (the only Tamil on the team) during two successive tours to Australia. MacIntyre merges the spectacle of theatre and the spectacle of sport in the performance of a `national' story that also exceeds the plot of the nation: a story that necessarily includes other relations and histories, the interplay between the various peoples of Sri Lanka, and between white and non-white, colonial and postcolonial. By turning cricket into epic, MacIntyre cannily brings on stage the implicit relationship between sport (and especially cricket) and nation, between performance and identity. He also envisages the ways in which spectators of this performance are themselves interpellated as national subjects.

Although it refers to recent cricketing contests between the Australian and Sri Lankan cricket teams, this is not an essay about cricket, but about cricket as a site where questions of nation, identity, desire and agency are played out. It shuttles between there and here, then and now, defeating my attempts to produce a seamless, sequential narrative out of its various parts. As such the essay is also about the positionalities, locations and politics of this diasporic subject. It examines some problems of the performance of identity, and of nation, migration and difference in the context of cricket.

The essay engages three intersecting discussions: firstly, a distinguished tradition of writing on cricket and decolonisation by cultural critics including Manthia Diawara, Ashis Nandy, Arjun Appadurai and, most crucially, C L R James. James's Beyond a Boundary is a classic autobiography of the decolonisation of consciousness and also one of the earliest works to focus, through cricket, on the predicament of the diasporic intellectual.(2) As a text that enabled questions of race, identity and sport to be asked in other colonial contexts, Beyond a Boundary also informs the second set of writings to which I refer, discussions of Australian cricket, racism and orientalism by Michael Roberts, Subhash Jaireth, Colin Tatz, Peter Kell and others. In his recent book Good Sports: Australian Sport and the Myth of the Fair Go, Kell writes:

   Australians have a powerful belief that sport is one of the few social
   Institutions where everyone still gets "a fair go" . …