The Sporting Scapegoat

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According to the Bible, Ancient Israel had an interesting way of purging themselves of their sins—they’d symbolically heap them all on the head of a goat and expel it into the wilderness. This is where we got the word “scapegoat”.

It seems that the biggest sin we can commit these days as a nation is to be “losers”, and when we do, someone has to pay. Of course, we don’t all think that way. Aussies, paradoxically, are also renowned for their philosophical, even positive, attitude to the setbacks of life. Maybe our press is another matter. It hasn’t taken them long to anoint Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting with the sin of being a loser.

After all, they argue, isn’t he the first captain in over a hundred years to lose on English soil twice? And isn’t he the captain who tarnished an unbeaten record at cricket’s Mecca, Lords, that stood since 1934?

This evidence, apparently, speaks for itself. It’s empirical. It’s simple historical fact. There can be no argument. Apparently, the fact that the dynamic of world cricket is forever changing, and Ponting inherited a team suffering a slow decline ever since the magical Taylor-Waugh eras, is no satisfactory explanation. Neither is the fact that England, while not the greatest side we’ve ever played, has remained comparatively strong for some years now, with bowling stocks the wealth of which they’ve not seen for decades and some talented and technically proficient batsmen.

I, along with many others, don’t believe Ponting is as good a captain as Taylor or Waugh, who both had a fantastic eye for the main chance and knew exactly when to put the pressure on and how to go about it. They also had some extraordinary firepower: the magical Warne, the invincible McGrath, who made some of the best batsmen the world has seen his bunnies—and was even able to predict it before a series began and carry out his predictions to the letter. The cheery executioner Gilchrist, who could turn an entire Test match in half an hour. Hayden, the only opening batsmen I ever saw (apart from Greenidge) who fast bowlers were afraid to bowl to!

Ponting presided over a slow decline as one after another of these legends of the game retired.

No, Waugh and Taylor definitely would not have let England off the hook in that first Test of the Ashes series—even with the firepower Ponting had at his disposal. I, along with many others, felt some anger at the way Ponting allowed that Test to get away. But Ponting is making the best of what he has. There is no doubt that, even if the number of “unfair” dismissals was about equal at the end of that series, the bad ones Australia experienced came at some incredibly crucial moments—moments that turned the series in England’s favour. Even the English press were embarrassed.

Despite the “verdict” of history, the fact is that Ponting has a great win-loss record at a time when history hasn’t been so kind to him. His legacy shouldn’t suffer because a small bunch of people have decided that the historical “evidence” is irrefutable. But legacy—itself an overrated concept—is what everyone takes seriously.

I suppose our collective legacy, as a nation, then, is also important then, isn’t it? Do we treat our public figures well only when they please us, and shabbily the minute they “let us down”? There was an interesting point to the scapegoat story, as told in Leviticus 16:26. The man who released the scapegoat had to “wash his clothes and bathe himself with water”. He wasn’t allowed to come back to camp until he did. Because the scapegoat was supposed to symbolise man making amends with God, and the man who released it had to be symbolically clean from sin. Sinlessness was symbolically possible, but not in reality. Something to contemplate for those who want to send Ricky Ponting into the wilderness.

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