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Sporting Life: A dodgy wicket

02 June 2015 - 02:00 By Tom Eaton

Most sports are fundamentally meaningless, a mostly arbitrary set of movements governed by an arbitrary set of rules. But as a blank screen onto which we can project our ideals, they are extremely potent. Thanks to the power of projection, the act of hitting a ball with a plank suddenly becomes an expression of heroism, and part of a season-long soap opera full of unlikely plot twists and shocking character developments.At the end of the 19th century, Victorian Britain had found a screen large enough to contain all the sentimental romanticism and megalomania of its colonial project. Cricket was the new national pastime, but it was quickly becoming more than a sport. Thanks to clever spin by sports writers and politicians, it was transforming into a symbol of manifest destiny. In the new colonies, that made it a potent ideological tool.Empire, War & Cricket in South Africa by Dean Allen paints a vivid picture of how cricket was injected into South Africa as much for political and propagandistic reasons as for sporting ones; and he explores the life of a man who was crucial to this project. James Logan is called many things in the book - ambitious, hard-working, self-aggrandising - but most modern South Africans would recognise him for what he was: a tenderpreneur.Originally a PhD thesis, this book is clearly an impressive piece of scholarship. One suspects that Logan, Matjiesfontein and Victorian cricket have all been mined dry by historians, but Allen seems to have found a rich, new vein by bringing them together in a single volume.The book itself is beautiful, an object that demands to be picked up and paged through, offering the browsing satisfaction of a coffee-table book with the more meaty rewards of a thorough history.It also features an excellent forward by Professor Andre Odendaal, academic and cricket mensch. He provides some important historical and political context that isn't covered in a book whose scope does not extend much further than 1920, and which sometimes omits important qualifiers. The empire, writes Allen, "appeared full of possibility to those with ambition". Success in the new colonies seemed attainable for "those with the drive and ambition to succeed".One would have thought that having a white skin helped a little bit too.We have had more than our fill of self-promoting tenderpreneurs getting rich through government connections, and some readers might struggle to be impressed by Logan's exploits. The fact that he is glowingly praised by Cecil John Rhodes as one of only two "creators" Rhodes met in Africa (himself being the other) speaks volumes.Still, those who enjoy the Victorian Disneyland that is Matjiesfontein will be delighted by its origins.Empire, War & Cricket in South Africa by Dean Allen, published by Zebra Press, R290..

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