On male role models, and winning

Some wearily predictable tropes were wheeled out around the recent unpleasant FaceBook postings of two Wellington College students: insufficient male role models; teenagers’ ease of access to porn; the evils of social media. Yet, while there is no doubt that social media has given the kind of stuff that might have been scrawled on a toilet wall in my own childhood much greater public prominence, the exposure of the comments has presented an opportunity for boys (and men) to think long and hard about what it means to be a man, without necessarily engaging in a David Cunliffe style mea culpa.

I was going to avoid the topic entirely now that the media have deemed it ‘old news’, feeling that others have expressed what I wanted to say on the matter eloquently and succinctly enough. Then I recalled what I saw a couple of weeks ago at the tail end of a wet and frustrating cricket season, and it got me thinking about one source of the problem.

Junior cricket is most definitely a Serious Business. Junior Two, aged six, is quite content to hit and run and giggle. Junior One, however, plays with helmet, hard ball, proper wooden bat and so on. When out means out, there are often tears of frustration, and when they trudge off disconsolately after the finger is raised, bat tucked under arm, their demeanour is no different to a Taylor or a Williamson. Nevertheless an air of youngsters mostly having fun tends to prevail.

In the season’s penultimate match, the opposition coach (and co-umpire) treated the exercise like Boot Camp. He berated his 10-year-old players for their misfields with exponentially unnecessary aggression. And when it became clear that his charges were not going to chase down our total, he resorted to increasingly poor behaviour. He disagreed with and overruled the other umpire on no-balls and runouts. He signalled four even though our players had stopped the ball inside the boundary. He suggested that there was one more ball left in the over on a number of occasions, to the puzzlement of both scorers.

My son’s team’s coach wisely avoided a full-on confrontation, although he might have felt it harder to turn his cheek, had these interferences made a material difference to the result. Nor is this confined to cricket. As a sometime Rugby League referee, the worst sideline abuse I have ever had to endure has been from dads and coaches of junior teams. I should add that invariably most of the young players themselves resent this aggressive scrutiny and would rather just get on with the game, competitively, but without malice.

Remember this? The ultimate schoolboy cricket tantrum.

What message do such attitudes send to competitive and immature young sportsmen? An unacceptable one, for sure, and not without longer-term consequences. Those who are happy to brush off poor behaviour as “boys being boys” often refer to competitive spirit as being ‘hardwired’ into boys. Well, as members of the animal kingdom, there are a whole host of instincts ‘hardwired’ into us, male and female; surely the hallmark of a decent society is one in which we suppress these devices and desires from time to time?

Leaving aside the questionable underlying assumption that if ‘boys need male role models’ women must be incapable of providing them, what use is such influence from certain dads, coaches and older boys if it promotes competitiveness and aggression and winning at all costs as an approach to everything? It is easy to see how the pursuit of winning blurs into the language of dating: if boys didn’t fixate on ‘scoring’ with girls, then the more dubious attitudes of young men towards the opposite sex might be less prevalent, whether genuinely held or just bravado.

On a more positive cricket note, can we stop moaning about the Wellington summer that never really got going, and the disappointing, drenched conclusion to the Black Caps’ summer series? The received wisdom seems to be that NZ were a little underwhelming. Poor fortune should also be considered. The Wellington Test was lost by a NZ side missing its best bowler and second best batsman due to injury, while our best batsman scored 2 and 1. How would England have fared without Cook and Broad and with two failures from Root; or an Australia without Warner and Starc and two low scores from Steve Smith?

Moreover, more players cemented their place than caused the usual selection headaches. The obvious best XI is now pretty clear, injuries aside, except for the thorny question of the allrounder and spin spots. I would go with: Latham, Raval, Williamson, Taylor, Nicholls, Watling, de Grandhomme, Santner, Southee, Wagner, Boult.

Is there nothing to complain about? Sure there is. These guys don’t play a Test now until November, and only 5 Tests in the next 18 months. Without a decent diet of cricket, how can the team be expected to develop? As a case in point, Williamson’s stats put him on a par with Joe Root. Both have just over 5000 runs at 51 and 52 respectively (although Williamson has a superior conversion rate of fifties to tons) and there is less than a year in age difference. Yet Root will probably eclipse his Kiwi rival in terms of aggregate runs and centuries purely because he will have more opportunities, given that England play at least half as many Tests again as New Zealand. That’s worthy of a grumble.