On the Couch / Powerful Identities Linger for Good, and Not So Good

Back in December 1928, cricket's greatest ever batsman, Don Bradman penned a small self-memo after his unsuccessful international debut:

If it's difficult

I'll do it now

If it's impossible

I'll do it presently

The inscription now hangs over the door to the home dressing room at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

When Senator George Mitchell appears desperate about prospects for bridging Palestinian-Israeli divisions, he resorts to his Ireland experience as proof no conflict is insurmountable. The brilliant Jerusalem conflict-assessor Meron Benvenisti also uses the Irish example, but in reverse - arguing it's simply too late to resolve the conflict here through the two-state solution.

Without any pretense it can show the way, based on a Dublin sports venue and a couple of national anthems, Irish rugby seems inclined more to Mitchell's optimism rather than Meron's pessimism.

Anthems stir powerful emotions. Before an international match, the Irish sing two anthems, one the Republican battle hymn, "Amhran na bhFiann" and the other, "Answering Ireland's Call," composed specially for the rugby team that unites Irishmen from Eire and Northern Ireland in common commitment to their divided island.

But it's less the Irish than the British anthem that's the heart of the matter. Last weekend's England vs. Ireland game in Dublin was the 122nd meeting of these old rivals since on-field hostilities began at The Oval ground in London in 1875. Two years ago the fixture made history as an act of sporting reconciliation, though it needed to come through the perils of being overshadowed by a dispute over the playing of "God Save The Queen" for the first time at Dublin's Croke Park, the traditional home of Gaelic games and also the scene of an infamous massacre by British forces.

Ireland generally play their home rugby and soccer games at Lansdowne Road, but the old stadium had become shabby and needed urgent refurbishing. That produced one of the most momentous decisions in Irish sport. Croke Park lies not far away, a splendid 82,500-seat stadium and one of Europe's finest, but built on and consecrated to the bloody history of early 20th-century Ireland.

Croke Park, however, belongs to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), founded in 1884 amid a surge of nationalist fervor and aimed at promoting hurling and Gaelic football in preference to "foreign" English games. Until five years ago, members of Northern Ireland's police force and the UK armed forces were barred from participating in GAA matches.

The prospect of an English rugby team being greeted by an Irish army band performing "God Save the Queen" was too much for some ardent GAA fans and hardline republicans. For them, Croke Park is doubly-hallowed ground because of what occurred there in November 1920.

In what became known as the first Bloody Sunday, a detachment of "Black and Tan" police auxilaries - intent on extracting revenge for IRA attacks - opened fire on the crowds gathered to watch a GAA match. Fourteen spectators were killed. Critics of the ban, on the other hand, described the GAA diehards as "being locked in a colonial mindset, obsessed with insularity," and not at all reflecting the modern Republic "which is about post-colonialism" and is, in contrast, "inclusive, global and pro-European."

It was no easy decision. Despite ingrained hostilities and residual suspicions, after an agonizing debate the GAA finally agreed to allow soccer and rugby matches to be staged in Croke Park whenever the stadium isn't hosting contests in the traditional Irish sports.

Amid high emotion, that historic match two seasons ago passed off peacefully. This past weekend, not only were there no fireworks, but "God Save The Queen" was a complete non-event, especially since the Irish hung on to a narrow victory that put them in line to capture the coveted Six Nations championship for the first time in decades. Revolution indeed!

'Give the ball to the Jew'

Rugby and national identities conjures up a wonderful moment at the Hebrew University national stadium a couple of decades ago when fledgling Israeli rugby was given a shot in the arm by the visit of a South African team shepherded by the then-legendary boss of Springbok rugby, Dannie Craven, a fervent Afrikaner nationalist. In the stands behind him was a young Jerusalemite, former Jo'burger Colin Horn.

Knowing "Mr. SA Rugby" would be only too aware of how much pride South African Jews drew from the fact that, from the 1930s through the 70s, successive Springbok teams were graced with a single star Jewish player - Morris Zimmerman, Dr. Louis Babrow, Aaron "Okey" Geffen, Wilf Rosenberg, Joe Kaminer, Syd Nomis - he sought to lighten the mood created by a massive trouncing of the Israeli team by yelling out, "Gee die ball vir die Jood" (Give the ball to the Jew). Craven's retort is not recorded.

Of sport and identity

Despite the subsequent South African revolution, identity remains very much an issue in the country's sporting scene, particularly in the two sports in which South Africa excels internationally - rugby and cricket.

While the national rugby team hangs on by its jockstrap to the Springbok emblem, the cricketers have come to be known as the Proteas, but both operate under a controversial quota system that's been in place since 1998. SA cricket authorities were recently reported to be planning to end this controversial selection policy, which obliges the inclusion of a minimum number of non-whites in national teams.

But according to Gerald Majola, the country's chief cricket executive, for all the amazingly successful recent tour of Australia, the thorny quota issue is still very much alive: "Apartheid laws are off our legislative books, but our society remains committed to redressing the imbalances which still exist. Only then can cricket South Africa withdraw targeted transformation."

In fact, quotas have been made more stringent: From under-13 teams through to senior level, the target is a minimum of 50 percent black players on the field. Every national squad of 15 should include a minimum of seven non-white players, and every team that takes the field must have at least four non-white players.

Talented black cricketers are coming through all the time - the latest, J.P. Duminy, was the find of the Australian tour - but because of a disparity in skills there remains a problem of meeting the required target of black cricketers at the highest level. The re-emphasis on quotas is likely also to produce a greater stampede of South Africans playing in English county cricket - there were 28 last season, who'd either retired from the international game or had given up hope of ever playing for their homeland.

In an enlightening article in the "Wisden Cricketer" magazine, Wayne Veysey quotes Graham Ford, an English coach working in South Africa: "When there's a guaranteed county contact and the chance of earning a living out of cricket, it's a no-brainer." Veysey points out it's not just white South Africans who are frustrated.

Ashwell Prince, a top player of mixed race, was among those demanding an end to artificial selection policies while another colored player, Charl Langeveldt, withdrew from last year's tour to India when picked ahead of fellow (white) fast bowler, Andre Nel.

Former super star Springbok/Protea Jonty Rhodes sees both sides of the argument: "I feel for guys who have to deal with the transformation. But how do you balance 30-40 years of inequality? There's no easy solution." Over to you George, Meron.

But, can their wisdom help with the current question on everyone's lips - whither cricket, whither international sport after the brutal attack in Pakistan on the visiting Sri Lankans?

Beyond the obvious conclusion that the future of international cricket in Pakistan is doomed for the foreseeable future, two angry and sad comments from the epicenter of contemporary world cricket provide pertinent insights: "Cricket is front and center, heart and soul of the alternative narrative of Pakistan, the story that isn't about destruction and terror, but rather about all aspects of life in Pakistan worth celebrating," writes Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian, while from India, Dileep Premacchaindran says, "What happened in Lahore has shifted the boundary ropes - the old cliche about cricket being the subcontinent's religion can be buried forever."