The scene is the cricket match between India and the West Indies during the recent WorldCup. Sachin Tendulkar is batting. He has barely faced a few balls when one races through his arm-pad and lands in the wicket keeper’s gloves. There is no appeal—neither from the bowler nor from the wicket keeper. But Tendulkar is walking toward the pavilion. The players are stumped! And so are the million audiences over the world! Tendulkar realized perhaps that the ball had indeed grazed his forearm and so without waiting for the umpire’s decision he retired. While in the commentary box the erstwhile icons of Indian Cricket Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Sastri debated the issues and virtues of “walking” the play resumed.
Now, we in the present appear to have forgotten the fact that cricket is a game to be played with the sportsman spirit it calls for. In all fairness Tendulkar had demonstrated it albeit the fact that he was playing for a country and that there are enormous amounts of money involved in the whole process. After all, the entire industry of Indian cricket and the business of the World Cup with its whole rigmarole of mega crowds, hoardings, televisions and their ubiquitous commercials, big business offers and betting and so on, revolves round the strategic issue of big money. How could anyone deny that? The spirit of play may be one thing, but the spirit that runs the whole thing is another. In this context what has playing fair and square got to do with the game?
And what is game? What is play? What is fair and square in the field and off the field? All games we must recognize are essentially sport, which entails entertainment, recreation, and exercise primarily. There is a whole history of human sports that would trace its evolution from the primordial ritual to the contemporary scenario of big Capitalist business. There is also the implied connection with war and destruction and domination: all contemporary games at the international level (and even at its minor levels) are perhaps symbolic versions of battles and wars—a mockery of the all consuming, vindictive passions of the human being!
Game, Sports, Play—almost synonymous, but each are descriptive of different issues. Game as it is usually understood, is something innocuous, non-violent, played out for the sheer pleasure of it all, and for the most enjoyable and involving little or no disastrous physical violence. It has a beginning, middle and an end—there is a marked difference between the before and after in terms of the protagonists as well as the spectators; above all there is entertainment and enjoyment for all in a game. Sports I would categorize in the similar manner as one that involves outdoor, physical activities, for the most. Entertainment and enjoyment there is, no doubt. There is a game in Sport and there is a sport in game as well. But the point is that all games and sports have their own set of rules which are purely arbitrary, having evolved over the years over cultures and times. In simplistic terms we could even state that all games and sports are products of sets of rules—they keep varying of course, but their visible presence (read umpires, referees, field book etc) and invisible presence (read time, place, action etc) account for the structure of all games and sports. However, the concept of play is something rather loose. It has a structure, no doubt, but this is an ambiguous, amorphous and protean structure, very loose and almost a non-entity, as when children get together and play about.
All three words have conceptual backgrounds; their own socio-political, cultural, economic and historical dimensions too. The proto game-sport-play is of course shrouded in human prehistory. It has necessarily evolved over many centuries. One could trace its graph from ritual to the romance of the Capitalist market economics of the present. However, there are these sets of rules that govern the logic and pattern of the game that is disrupted if not observed in practice. Rules, we recognize are invisible (or visible as the case may be)–threads that govern, condition and control all sports and games. The rules themselves are arbitrary and not nor never absolute, and this is what makes sports and games entertainment. For instance from the long colonial structure of a five day test match (with a rest day in between) how far has cricket come these days! When Kerry Packer invited major players to a fifty-over limited version of the game there was so much hue and cry over the sanctity of the test match structure and its disruption. Nothing sanctified was violated but the limited over cricket game evolved and attracted more viewers and audience. Commerce and market caught on and the television and technology supplemented the game. From there to the twenty-twenty rules and regulations have been altered and amended from time to time: nothing has remained inviolable, everything was open to transformation, change. All it required was convenience, consent and consensus. All rules are subject to change, very much like human history. We play on.
Jacques Derrida the harbinger of deconstruction—a veritable destructive and reconstructive practice of re-reading and reinterpreting interpretations themselves—initiated the whole issue of recognizing the play element in human sciences while delivering a significant address in the mid sixties in the Johns Hopkins University in the US [See Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95)]. According to him, human history (read western history of ideas) has been one structured round the idea of centre and periphery. It has been a virtual centre that has potentially ruled, manipulated and conditioned the structured thinking of the human being (read western). The invisibility of a centre that could be transcendentally present within a system maintaining the stability of the system without undergoing any change in itself has been the mainstay of western history of ideas. There have been no doubt many attempts to overthrow or discard this centre but for the most these attempts have been toward replacements rather than any displacements. As Derrida demonstrated, western history of ideas has revolved round such invisible centres. If one were to think of the idea of a god as the centre, one could almost logically close off all doubtful positions—all elements within the circle of the invisible structures are created, organized and maintained by god, and while he/she is at the indispensible centre all else is locked. The various elements within this system cannot bring any change to the centre, while they themselves could be changed. From Derrida’s reading the process of western structural change has been from god as the centre through science and rationality in turn replacing god as the centre. There has been virtually no change in the system even when such transplanting take place. This could perhaps account for the system’s stability. It is however when the element of play enters that a new discourse comes to be created. When the centre remains invisible and unaltered play is possible for all elements within a given structure. But this is playing within the structured rules of the game—playing fair and square. This element of play could be unending if one could imagine a structure without a centre, because then all the elements with and without the system would be constantly in a state of play! This just like a kindergarten class-room without a teacher in the middle! Utter chaos? Sheer confusion? But a recognition of total freedom, no doubt! However, the moment the teacher enters the class-room the system is restored to its harmonious structure.
The implications of Derrida’s concepts can be seen in close examining a totalizing situation where everything is dictatorially controlled and maintained. Human freedom is at stake here. So then, play reintroduces the element of human freedom, the recognition of the very condition of human existence. This is play at its extreme. When all totalizing systems collapse (like the state withering away) then the extreme conditions of entertainment and ecstasy would be revealed in play. We have come very far from the idea of play we started out with. But we are armed with new insights. When Tendulkar walked away from the crease he probably never even dreamed of all these possibilities. He was playing fair and square on the green fields! But he was also making a statement that rules and regulations are invisibly present in the game and this sport is essentially a play that needed to be played out within a structure– an arbitrary system– that is always open-ended. Many new transformations could be padded on to these rules—much could be changed, but for the most there is an implied idea of entertainment and ecstasy within a set of rules at a given time—all players have to adhere to that. Some of course play fair and square, others might wait for the umpires to dismiss them—still others would appeal to the third umpire loaded with his techno-tools and rule-books and strategic calculations. But the point of it all: heroes are made within the set of invisible rules– to play well is sometimes strategically to break the rules, to go beyond the boundaries, but the play within the imaginary rules is sometimes even more magnificent.