Play up, play up, and play the game

THERE’S a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Vitai Lampada, Sir Henry Newbolt, 1897





If LS Lowry had lived in Calcutta, he wouldn’t have been able to call his painting Going To The Match. He’d have had to have called it Going To The Matches. Now why would that be?

The answer’s below:




Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 21.31.27


You see the little cross above the word Maidan near the centre of the map? Guess what all the rectangles around it represent? They’re sports grounds. When I was a boy in Calcutta, things used to be simple. You had the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium to the south of the city for large scale athletics events, and Eden Gardens for the cricket. Everything else was played at the maidan, in one or other of the stadia there. In those days the larger clubs had their own stadia, the smaller ones had sharing arrangements.

These were permanent temporary structures, the sort of things that were probably only possible as a consequence of the best strains of British bureaucracy mating with their Indian counterparts. Permanent enough to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of people safely; temporary enough to get past the “you can’t build here” zoning laws for that area, on land owned by the Army.

The proximity of the structures meant that when it came to the Saturday match, all roads led to the Maidan. Everyone was going to the match. Except there was more than one match. All the matches were held in that small space. It was like having the Dundee Derby every weekend, with ten teams rather than two.


This was a Good Thing. Supporters from rival teams didn’t fight each other quite as much as they might have otherwise, possibly because of the unnerving possibility that the “neutral” fan passing by was actually next week’s opponent. [That was what it was like when I was young, things may have changed since.]

You supported your team win lose or draw … if you supported a team, that is. It was all right to be a neutral and to visit without allegiance, nobody cared.

It wasn’t about winning. It was about “play up, play up, and play the game“. There were things that were “just not cricket”. Jerusalem may have had its Gate called Beautiful; in Calcutta, it was the Game that was called Beautiful. [Even today, it astounds me that India does so poorly at world soccer. I have a theory as to why, but that’s for another day].

How you played the game mattered. At school, there were many things you could do on the playing field. Challenging authority wasn’t one of them. Questioning the official’s decision was the quickest way of getting sent off. You shook hands before the match, and “three-cheers-hip-hip-hurrah”-ed your opponents after the match, regardless of the result. Coaches focused on teamwork; selfish stars found themselves dropped with alacrity. Football matches reached their conclusion without language, spitting or shirt-tugging. Yes, fouls were committed, yes, there were crunching tackles, yes, there was blood and there were broken bones. But not in malice.

Every sport had its rules, but the rules were underpinned by values. Phrases like the “spirit of the game” meant something.

Today, in many sports, the spirit of the game means nothing. Winning is what appears to count. Winning at all costs.

We all lose as a result.

We have drug cheats, match fixers, rule benders; we have divers and dissemblers, Oscar-winning injury-feigners, sly shirt-tuggers, all apparently in the name of “gamesmanship”. We use terms like “professional foul” where we mean “cheating”.

We all lose as a result.

The money involved in sport has become astronomical, so it’s not just the games that get fixed, it’s everything. Where events take place. What equipment is used. Everything.

We all lose as a result.

I love cricket. What happened at Lord’s yesterday was shocking. If Ben Stokes was truly considered to have handled the ball “wilfully”, the consequences could be serious. In a world where only winning counts, a world where the letter of the law counts more than the spirit, there is now an incentive for members of the fielding side to shy the ball, with extreme force, at a batsman anywhere near the stumps.

Situations like this have been simmering for a while, a consequence of poor blood on the pitch. Unfortunately England’s position on spirit-versus-letter has been inconsistent. Spirit of law when Bell is given out legally; spirit of law when Buttler is Mankaded; letter of law when Broad is given not out legally. Such inconsistency breeds frustration, and leads to situations like yesterday where the batsman, Stokes, isn’t given the benefit of the doubt by the fielding team or the third umpire.

The ludicrous “umpire’s call” rule makes a mockery of DRS, above and beyond the damage done by unilateral choices of equipment provider.

Why does all this matter? Because sport is about learning to do the right thing first and everything else second.

If we make sport about winning, we all lose.

We all need to play up, play up, and play the game.

Not just in sport.

In life.

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