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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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Casual Obsessions

There’s something quite unsettling about the death of Bob Woolmer.

The former English test cricketer cum South African then Pakistani national coach died in his hotel room last Monday, following his side’s humiliating world cup defeat at the hands of minnows Ireland the previous day. The man was described in some circles as being something of a redeemer – the man who “switched on South African cricket”, and had looked to weave a thread of redemption through a Pakistan side that had not endeared itself to anyone in recent times.

It’s unsettling to think that a little less than twenty-four hours before Woolmer’s death, hordes of fanatics were parading down the streets of Karachi calling, quite literally, for his head. It’s even more unsettling to think that upon hearing of his death, many people’s minds tuned in to a cornucopia of conspiracy theories, rumours and suspicions. It’s something we in New Zealand find hard to fathom, since it’s a reality far beyond the realm of the casual obsessions we whet our sporting palates with.

The very nature of sport, its essence as a bastion of national identity, almost goes without saying. We’re all familiar with the phrase “rugby is the national game” – we live vicariously through our sporting heroes and icons; their success becomes our success. We revel in their glory, inviting ourselves to their party and often with the taut enthusiasm of the icons themselves. It’s an obsession we cultivate; play with, embrace – but always, always indulge within the realms of sense and sensibility.

Perhaps what’s so disconcerting about the passing of Bob Woolmer isn’t so much the reaction in Pakistan to his side’s world cup exit, but rather the fact that it punctuated a series of ludicrous violence and shameful displays of anger and fervour that “the result” produced. New Zealanders mourn sporting failures much in the same way we would mourn a break-up: with a kind of churlish mope and sagging despair. We certainly didn’t tear Reuben Thorne’s house down following the All Blacks’ untimely world cup exit in 2003. We’re conditioned to accept loss, despite how dreadful it feels, and instead, we use it as a foundation for redemption. It’s one of the plusses of knowing our sporting administrations aren’t awash with speculation of corruption and greed; they know the way up.

This is certainly not the case in other parts of the world, where representing your homeland on the sporting field is tantamount to the most perverse and idiotic form of patriotism: “Success for the motherland, or death!” Unfortunately, these aren’t words we can scoff at on the back of a successful performance from our own team. We Kiwis are really quite lucky. Our casual obsessions, sometimes celebrated, sometimes impugned, are still by definition “casual”. As the dust settles in the West Indies, that’s perhaps the only fact I don’t find unsettling.

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