Nicholas Lezard: Cricketers bowled over by hubris

Kevin Pietersen's men should have known to sacrifice an ox to Zeus
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The Independent Online

Not for the first time, I reflect that, for the sake of our own sanity, we should revert to the recognition, if not the worship, of the Ancient Greek gods. I refer, of course, to the extraordinary defeat of the Twenty20 England cricket team against a bunch called the Stanford Superstars at the weekend.

That the match was not just lost by the English, but lost abjectly, has not only caused a great deal of comfort to serious English cricket fans (and to serious cricket fans worldwide); it makes one wonder about the workings of divine providence, and the grievous sin, the worst in the ancient world, known as hubris.

That the English were guilty of hubris, in its modern sense, there is no doubt. At stake was over a million dollars for each player on the winning team; the losers get nothing. And for all captain Kevin Pietersen's assertions that they were there to play cricket and not think about anything else, the question in everyone's minds was not whether the English team were going to win the money, but how they were going to spend it.

Had they gone into the game mindful of either the modern or ancient meanings of the term hubris – it originally referred to gratuitous desecration, violation or mockery of the living or dead, or insult to the gods – or had they possessed even a basic sense of humility, they might not have been so humbled. Sacrificing an ox to Zeus wouldn't have hurt, either.

But you don't have to be a classical scholar to know, intuitively, about hubris. I know Democrats campaigning for Obama who have been saying, in the face of all the polls giving their candidate a solid lead, "we are SO going to lose". This is, I suspect, part genuine, pragmatic prognosis, and part superstitious propitiation of fate, or the Fates.

It works whether or not our destiny has been mapped out in advance: at least not arrogantly assuming victory means that when defeat happens, you don't look like an idiot. And if you win? Well, you have won, so there. Just don't say "nyaah" to your opponents afterwards, or you're just setting yourself up for defeat the next time. Be decent, magnanimous. Such an attitude, in fact, was behind much of the impetus to codify traditional games and spread them round the world, and the essence of what came to be known as good sportsmanship.

So there is one possibility: that the English, mindful of the grievance felt by those in the squad left out of the final team (they were to have won a quarter of a million each), other players just as good if not better at Twenty20 cricket not considered at all, and indeed everyone else in the country who doesn't have a realistic chance of winning a million bucks for an evening's work ("earning" doesn't quite seem right here), actually threw the game: not deliberately, but from an unease born from an innate sense of decency, and disgust at the whole vulgar spectacle. (Actually, the winner-takes-all conditions of the game, if nothing else, should have made them think of the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome.)

If such thoughts were indeed going through their subconscious minds, then much is explained without recourse to the Olympian deities, and their defeat can now be seen as honourable. After all, we don't want to laugh at them when they get back, do we? That, in itself, would be hubris, in its original sense.