Cricket and Diplomacy

This summer I went along to my first cricket match – day three of the 2nd Test between England and India at Lord’s.  It was a wonderful, typically English, experience:  The weather was mixed, tradition and etiquette were in abundance, and there was a delightful air of eccentricity everywhere.  It was everything I’d hoped for.  I LOVED it.

Of course, I had little idea what was going on beyond the basics.  So my companion took time during the day to explain some of the subtleties of this fascinating game.  As he did so—and as I took in the action and the atmosphere—I thought about what my grandfather, Jacques Barzun, once asserted of baseball.

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” he wrote in his book God’s Country and Mine, “had better learn baseball, the rules and realities.”  They even etched that into the wall at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Well, the more I learnt of cricket, the more I realized that one could substitute the word “America” in that quote with “diplomacy”, and “baseball” with “cricket”—especially Test cricket.

With the tempo, twists and turns, and—let’s be honest—occasional tedium of a five-day match, cricket seems to mirror many of our diplomatic efforts.  I had to smile when I was told that when deciding whether to take a run, batsmen call out either “yes”, “no”, or “wait”.

Moments of great activity and excitement can be followed by lulls in the action.  And just when you think you’ve reached stalemate, comes a breakthrough.

Then there are those breaks in play – and captains, coaches and commentators talk of winning “sessions”.  Diplomats recognize fully the advantages that can come with suspending negotiations for a while, allowing everyone time to take a step back, regroup and assess what they have to do next.  (The Northern Ireland peace process was not accomplished in one sitting).  And often a result is reached via small “wins” – and despite some “losses” — along the way.

Cricket is also a team game where specialist players (spinners, seamers, wicketkeepers, slips, batsmen) contribute individually at different times.  That’s true also of diplomacy—although our “teams” are made up of thousands of individuals not all of whom are politicians or diplomats.

Finally, there is the idea that a draw is an acceptable outcome — even after days of hard work. It’s undoubtedly a frustrating outcome, but, as with diplomacy, there is much to appreciate in the realities of a sport where patience and perseverance are fundamental qualities.

It is not a perfect analogy, of course, and diplomacy is obviously not a game. But it’s a helpful lens for looking at the craft. In diplomacy you sign up to the ebb and flow, and the highs and lows. And you stay engaged for the long haul.