Anthony  D  Buckley

‘Aristotle and Cricket: Drama in Retrospect’’

Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2006, 33, 1, 21-36


There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight

Ten balls to play and a match to win

A bumping pitch and a blinding light

An hour to play and the last man in

Vitai Lamada, (Sir Henry Newbolt).


A game or a sporting activity  is likely to be a drama in the sense that a ritual or a play is a drama. In a pioneering article, Keenan (12) uses the word “tragedy” to discuss athletic performance using terms taken from Aristotle’s Poetics (1). This article will similarly show that that an enjoyable game will be, if not a tragedy , then a “complex drama” with features described in Aristotle’s discussion of theatre.  Some problems, however, need to be solved before this approach is adopted.

Using cricket as the main but not the only example, it will be asked how an unscripted game can resemble a scripted theatrical play, a complex drama with an Aristotelian plot. The conclusion will be that in a game, a hero, or team of heroes will strive to achieve goals in circumstances that render the path to success “complicated”.  Only when the game ends does a complex plot retrospectively emerge.

Aristotle’s Poetics sets out practical principles to allow a “poet” to write a well-constructed theatrical drama. Concentrating on the tragedy, which he sees as one type of complex drama, Aristotle emphasises the importance of the plot, which he calls “the soul of tragedy” (1: VI) .  He divides the plot of a complex drama into several sections.  After an introduction, the plot of a play becomes complicated.  At the reversal of the situation, good fortune turns towards bad, or bad fortune turns towards good. There then follows a denouement (1: XVIII) leading to a conclusion .  I shall argue that this scheme can be shown to exist not only in theatre but also in sport.

Because sport may be seen to resemble theatre, I shall ask whether sport, or some aspect of it, is “a work of art”.  I shall therefore investigate some ideas of David Best (2) who says that sport is not art.  I shall disagree with him on some points, but conclude that, although a game may be drama, it is not, however, art.

The focus of this article, however, is to solve the major difficulty in seeing a game as a complex drama.  Aristotle says of theatre that “the structural union of the parts [is] such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed” (1: VIII).  However, he thereby invites a question.  How can a game have that unity appropriate to a complex drama - with a reversal and denouement hanging upon an ending – with no dramatist to determine what the end will be? The answer I propose is that it is only retrospectively, when the game has ended, when successes and failures are clear, that one can discover the game’s dramatic structure.


Unity and the Laws of Cricket

Central to the Poetics is the concept of unity. Aristotle compares a play to an organism.  For an object to be beautiful, he says, one should be able to see not only the entire object, but also that it is an orderly composition of distinct parts (1: VII). A game, I shall argue, has the same kind of unity that Aristotle finds in a theatrical drama.

The simplest aspect of this is Aristotle’s idea that a play should have “a beginning, a middle and an end” (1: VII), or, as he later says, says it should have a Prologue (introduction), an Episode (the main action), and an Exode (conclusion) (1: XII) .  This feature of theatre is in fact also found in sport. Just as a play has a scene-setting introduction (outlining, say, how Lear gave his kingdom to his daughters), so too a game has scene-setting preliminaries.  After the toss, when umpires, fielders and batsmen  take their places, everyone knows that the central events will soon start.  Similarly, as in a typical play, a game will end with a clear result.

More tricky is ask how an agglomeration of individual, purposeful actions by two umpires, a scorer, 22 players and others can have the organic unity Aristotle expects in a drama.  I shall argue that, in a comparable manner as the actions of actors are interrelated by means of a theatrical script, so the actions of players in a game are united through the rules, called, in cricket, the Laws of Cricket (21).  In a game, however, the drama emerges in consequence of the players’ pursuit of a happy ending (winning or not losing) as this is defined in the game’s Laws.

Goldman argues that when individuals act, they follow a “plan of action” composed of both causally and conventionally generated actions. Causally generated actions are physical actions.  If, in cricket, I hit a ball to the boundary, my bodily actions, the movements of my arms, legs, torso etc., causally generate the movement of bat against ball; and this in turn causally generates the movement of the ball to the boundary.  In Goldman’s terminology, I dispatch the ball to the boundary “by” hitting the ball with the bat, which I do “by” waving the bat at the ball; which I do “by” moving my limbs etc.  Causally generated actions are the outcome of individual skills, and of tactical and strategic thought (9: pp. 22-25).

Other levels of action, however, are “conventionally generated” (9: pp. 25-26) by the Laws of Cricket.  Thus, when I hit my ball to the boundary, this counts as four runs in the context of the game of cricket.  This is by virtue of a conventional rule (Law 19) that states precisely this.

A starting point, however, is Law 21.  Law 21 is a conventional rule that defines what it is to win, lose, draw or tie  in a game of cricket. What is important about this Law is that every description of every player’s action in the Laws refers ultimately back to it:



1. A Win – two innings match

The side which has scored a total of runs in excess of that scored

in the two completed innings of the opposing side shall win the

match. - - -


Each Law is a “constitutive rule” whose structure Searle expresses through the formula: “x counts as y in context c”, (18, p. 28, et passim).  The above extract from Law 21 describes what counts as “winning” in a two innings cricket match, and it goes on to describe what counts as “winning”, “drawing” and “tying” in several specific contexts.

Further, and in case an innocent reader might not know what an “innings” or a “run” might be, the Laws reveal what these terms mean.  Law 18, for example, states what counts as a “run”.



1. - - - A run is scored

(a) so often as the batsmen, at any time while the ball is in play, have crossed and made good their ground from end to end.

(b) when a boundary is scored. See Law 19 (Boundaries).

(c) when penalty runs are awarded. See 6 below.

(d) when Lost ball is called. See Law 20 (Lost ball). - - -


One may now look to Law 29, which explains that a batsman is “out of his ground” if he or his bat is in front of his “popping crease”.  Then, Laws 9 and 6 helpfully explain “popping crease” and “bat”.

Reading the Laws of Cricket, therefore, is like reading an encyclopaedia.  One moves from reference to reference to discover what an earlier entry has left unexplained. Unlike in an encyclopaedia, however, where the quest will usually move in a circle, references in the Laws are hierarchical (14, p. 42).

Every Law dealing with a player’s action leads the reader towards physicality - to what Searle calls “brute fact” (18, p. 35), or what Goldman, speaking only of action, calls “basic action” (9: pp. 70-71). It leads towards a description of the physical movements of cricketers and of physical objects like the bat, the wickets and the pitch. But it leads in an opposite direction, towards Law 21, which defines the action’s goal.

Law 21, therefore, provides an economical description of what counts as winning, losing, drawing or tying in a game of cricket. However, with the exception of those Laws that deal with the conduct of umpires, scorers, groundsmen etc. (Laws 3, 4, and 10), the entire volume of Laws can be read as an elaboration of Law 21, explaining which actions cumulatively count as winning, losing, etc in a game of cricket.

The Laws of Cricket, however, also attach certain actions to what Reddiford calls “privileges” and “sanctions” (14: p. 44). We have seen that some actions are rewarded by being counted as “runs” or as “getting somebody out”.  Other actions evoke punishments, and yet others are neither rewarded nor punished .  Law 18, therefore, defines what counts as a “short run” (“A run is short if a batsman fails to make good his ground on turning for a further run”) explaining how the umpire should discount the run, or in certain circumstances award penalty runs to the opposing side.

In cricket, as in other sports, a clear distinction exists between conventionally generated levels of action and those that are causally generated by strategy, tactics and skill (14, p. 44).  A well-developed vocabulary (“Yorker”, “off break”, “googly” etc.) identifies different kinds of bowling. Other names (“extra-cover”, “silly-point”, “deep-backward-square-leg” etc.) define field positions in relation to the striking batsman.  Because these words all relate to the realm of strategy, tactics and skill, they are scarcely mentioned in the Laws whose province is restricted to the conventional.

It is, therefore, from the constitutive rules called the Laws of Cricket, from the rewards and sanctions distributed according to these rules, and from the more or less skilful actions performed in response to these rewards and sanctions that the unity of the game of cricket arises.  Similarly, the actions of umpires, scorers and other participants gain meaning through having been described in the Laws.  The meaningful actions thus defined are what differentiate the game from the other types of human activity that surround it.  As we shall shortly see, they provide the basis for another source of unity-in-diversity, the complex drama that is a satisfactory, enjoyable game.



Another major idea in the Poetics is that a theatrical performance imitates what exists off-stage (1: passim).  A game also resembles the reality that exists outside itself, but it does so in a different way. This resemblance between, on the one hand, the game or the stage-play and, on the other, some aspect of life outside the theatre or stadium allows the drama in each case to provide an explicit or implied social commentary.

Mimesis in theatre is half-pretence.  Actors are not, of course, like burglars who pretend to be honest, or confidence tricksters who pretend to own and try to sell the Eiffel Tower. Olivier does pretend to be Richard III, but the conventions of theatre let people know he is not in fact Richard III. In a realistic film such as Downfall, which recounts Hitler’s last days, care was taken to reproduce the costumes, actions, and even the mannerisms of historical individuals.  Other theatre is less realistic.  No real person (one hopes) ever closely resembled Wagner’s Brünnhilde or Wotan.  Nevertheless, Brünnhilde is a loving but disobedient daughter and Wotan a doting, angry father. So on the stage, even representations of gods resemble people, which is why Aristotle speaks of imitation.

Sport, in contrast, is not even half-pretence. When Shane Warne or Freddie Flintoff play cricket, they do not pretend to be Don Bradman, W G Grace or any other cricketer, real or imagined. Nor do they pretend to play cricket. Rather, they are actually playing a real game of cricket. Cricket, we may say, is a real-life activity of real people, where one cricketer’s actions are just similar to those of other cricketers.

If the players of games do not pretend - if they do not produce what Best calls an “imagined object” (2: p. 387)   - nevertheless, what goes on in a game does resemble what goes on in non-games. It does this at many kinds of levels.  For example, fly-fishing resembles other kinds of fishing, and mountaineering other kinds of walking and climbing. Competition in games often resembles other kinds of competition and conflict, including warfare. The rules of many games and the umpires who enforce them resemble the laws and judges of nations and religions.  And the courage of a boxer or a runner resembles courage found elsewhere.

It is this feature of sports and games – that they are similar to other forms of life - that allows them to express what Best calls “life issues”, relating to morality, society and politics (2: p. 386). Importantly, theatrical performances also address life issues, not, however, primarily because they are an “imagined object”, but rather because their imagined object resembles, in certain respects, life off-stage. In the same way, a sporting event addresses life issues because, in this case, it actually is a kind of real life that resembles other kinds of real life outside the stadium.

Best argues while it is intrinsic to art “at least to allow for the possibility of the expression of the conception of life issues”, this happens in sport extrinsically (2: p. 386).  He mentions, for example, the Black Power salutes at the Mexico Olympics, where a political view was expressed on the podium, but not on the track. Mexico aside, Best, however, is certainly mistaken here, for not only art, but sport and indeed all human action has “the possibility of addressing life issues”, and it does so in each case in much the same way.

There are two sides to this.  First, those who observe human action, be it sporting, artistic or some other kind of action, can read into it an understanding of a life issue.  Everything we do, including participation in sport proclaims who we are and what we think about the world.  If somebody crosses the street to buy The Guardian, you may guess that she thinks the road is free of traffic, that she reads English, that she is a liberal-minded professional.  You could start to guess what she thinks about abortion, the Middle East and euthanasia.  In fact, the more you notice her commonplace actions, the more successful will be your guesswork.

Second, however, because all action can be taken to signify, to a greater or lesser extent, who a person is and what that person thinks, everybody from time to time will act in particular ways just to express that significance (4).  One might, for example, buy The Guardian, as part of a stratagem to convince other people that one is indeed a particular type of person with certain opinions.  Similarly, merely to watch or play in a particular type of game may be taken to imply assent to a particular view of oneself or of some aspect of the world, and people will often participate in or stay away from a particular sport for this very reason.

The ways this can happen are legion. Zurcher and Meadow say that bullfighting is generally taken to express a specifically Latin kind of masculinity and that baseball expresses rather different ideals found in the USA (22). Stevens puts this Feuerbachian aspect of sport particularly well, speaking of illegal dog-fighting in Ulster.  “A fighting animal is a pleasure to observe not simply because he is a skilled vehicle of aggression, but because he exhibits (and is evaluated in terms of) many of the characteristics which [these particular] men admire in each other”(19).

More than this, the people engaged in sport – players, umpires, the writers of rules etc – will try to adjust the nature of the sporting performance because they know that their game will be taken to make some moral or political point.  They will therefore organise the nature of their sport in order to communicate what they think and feel about the world outside the sport.

The players, of course, try to do this most importantly by trying to win, for the outcome affects the expressive significance of any individual game. I found myself in central Belgrade in September 2002, when the Yugoslav (mostly Serbian) basketball team beat the USA in the quarterfinal of a major tournament.  Crowds packed every city square, watching the game, which was beamed from Indianapolis on to large screens.  When victory arrived, the crowds whooped through their city, many firing guns into the early morning sky. Yugoslavia went on to win the semi-final and then the final.  On the last evening (early morning), the streets of the capital city rang for hours with gunfire. These were not merely self-contained victories by one basketball team over another (though they were certainly this).  Rather, each successive victory confirmed the original vengeful victory over the Americans, whose bombing had so recently crippled their city, ruined their economy and killed their compatriots. The crowd’s jubilation did not convey something distinct from what was conveyed by the games: rather it underlined what everybody involved - players as well as spectators - believed to be expressed by the success in the games themselves.

Apart from trying to win, the ethos of a game is likely continually to be changed (or conserved) to express some morally or politically relevant view. Cricket was once widely believed to exemplify the ideals and morality of English gentlemen.  In 1932-33, the dangerous strategy known as “leg theory” was condemned as an assault on this gentlemanly ethos. Such was the outcry, that the Laws were changed to maintain the earlier more sedate practice.  A more recent controversy was over “walking”.  An informal rule dictated that a batsman should “walk” to the pavilion when he was caught out, even when the umpire did not agree.  An Englishman was supposed to be impervious to the discomfort of personal failure: he should “own up”, “take his punishment like a man” and keep a “stiff upper lip”  .  Since the 1950s, this alleged English virtue gradually fell into disrepute, and “playing to win” grew more important.  Professional cricketers now wait for the umpire’s signal before admitting they are out.

The point is that the rules of a game – both the formal rules and informal rules of conduct – are adjusted not only to ensure that the game remains enjoyable and exciting (i.e., for aesthetic purposes) but also to ensure that the game represents certain social ideals and not others.  More generally, it is the case that all human action, artistic, sporting and other, has intrinsically at least the possibility of representing a view of the world, including a view of moral, social and political questions.



Implicit in Aristotle’s theory is the hero.  There must be somebody whose fortunes, at the reversal, can change for good or for ill, whose story will have either a happy or a sad ending. In theatre this will be an imagined person; in sport a real-life one.

Commonly, in sport, for any one person, there is one hero and one drama. Since, however, there is no dramatist to decide who should be the hero, spectators have to choose to identify with one or the other side.  Heroes are often chosen in consequence of some prior allegiance such as locality or ethnicity. A bet at a horse race, however, can also create an instant allegiance: suddenly one cares which horse wins or loses, and the race can become a complex drama.

However, in sport as in theatre, a spectator may identify with more than one hero in more than one drama.  In the theatre, one may hope that Antonio will win his case but still feel some sympathy for Shylock. So too in cricket, one may hope for an England victory, but still applaud the Australians. It is possible too to be dispassionate.  An Irishman watching Pakistan playing Australia may care little who wins or loses.  The city marathon races succeed as rather nebulous dramas since the competitors pursue distinct private objectives. Some runners hope to win the race and establish records; others strive to beat their personal best; many just hope to finish the course. In tournament golf, there are countless dramas.  In such cases, the spectator can provisionally identify with particular protagonists, watching as the different dramas unfold. Such subplots, nevertheless, take their shape from the framework provided by the overarching game.

Players, however, do not have these problems. They must strive for success, so they are heroes to themselves. As they succeed or fail, their individual dramas come to their own happy or sad conclusion.



Crucial to complex drama is what Aristotle calls the “complication” (1: XIII).  Once a basic situation is established, the hero becomes entangled in events.  Later, following a reversal, the plot is disentangled and a conclusion comes into view.  The fact that a game becomes complicated and that this complication is then untied provides another source of unity.

Cricket’s Law 12 insists that each side in turn has an “innings”.  At any moment, therefore, a player is on either the fielding or the batting side.  This in turn differentiates between the actions appropriate to a batsman and those appropriate to someone on the fielding side.  The most fundamental conflict in cricket, therefore, is between batsman and fielder.

Each side, when batting, will try to get runs.  Each side, when fielding, will try to stop the batsmen getting runs and will also try to get their opponents “out” so they can no longer get runs.  This basic conflict between the two sides, however, sets up a series of other practical problems that renders appropriate action difficult.

Following Hegel, Bradley argues that in tragedy, there is a contradiction not so much between good and evil but between good and good. Thus Creon, in refusing to let Antigone bury her brother, was no mere oppressor.  He acted for the good of the city. Antigone, in turn, was not just disobedient or bad. She was defending a domestic right. “The family claims what the state refuses, love requires what honour forbids” (3: p.369; also 11 pp. 321-324). Bradley’s theory does not apply to all theatre, but often it does apply .

The dilemmas of cricket are not usually as profound as those identified by Sophocles.  Nevertheless, in cricket, each side is torn between good and good. The choices they confront are, at bottom, peculiar to individual games, but there are some recurring, because strategic, themes.

For the batsmen, one good is to score runs. Another good, however, is to avoid getting out, for when they are out, batsmen cannot score runs.  Unfortunately, the more a batsman strives to get runs, the more he risks getting out.  For example, if he slashes at apparently wayward balls in the hope of scoring a four or a six, then skilful fielders may catch him out. Conversely, the more he tries to stay in, the less likely he is to score runs.  To get a significant score, he must take risks.

Other dilemmas afflict the fielders. One good is to get the batsmen out. Another is to stop them getting runs. Unfortunately, the more the fielders strive to stop the batsmen getting runs, for example, by placing fielders near the boundary, the less likely are they to get them out. Conversely, the more they strive to get the batsmen out, perhaps by gathering fielders around the batsman, the more likely are the batsmen to push the ball through the gaps and score runs.

Dilemmas of this kind force captains to take calculated risks. They also make the drama “complicated”.  A captain who orders his batsmen aggressively to score runs may find his team losing wickets.  In response, the opposing team may now adopt an attacking field.  So the batting side may now become defensive.

These entanglements, however, resolve themselves at the game’s conclusion, precipitated, according to Law 16, 9, when there is a result or when the time limit arrives.  Typically, one side will fail to reconcile the conflicting demands of the situation and will lose. The other side will then have resolved its own contradictions and will win.  There is also the possibility of a draw or a tie.  How each side succeeds or fails to find a path out of the complication is what makes the game interesting and exciting.  And the tangling and disentangling of these threads contributes to the sense that the game is indeed a unity.


Denouement and uncertainty

Aristotle speaks very little of the denouement or unravelling which, he says, occurs after the reversal (1:XI).  It is evident, however, that the process of unravelling does not occur all at once, and that it certainly does not coincide with the reversal. Even in a play, the unravelling ought not to be an over-simple process: “Many poets tie the knot well, but unravel it ill.”(1: XVIII).  So it is in sport, where the denouement is ideally characterised by uncertainty.   Elias and Dunning, for example, writing of football, say that a team’s fortunes should ebb and flow with uncertainty :

If one follows the game regularly, one learns to see, at least in broad outline, what kind of game configuration provides the optimum enjoyment. - - - It is a game which sways to and fro, in which the teams are so evenly matched that first one, then the other scores and the determination of each team to score the decisive goal grows as time runs out.  (8: p 47)

Suits finds one source of uncertainty in that class of games where artificial restrictions make difficult the attainment of what he calls a “pre-lusory goal” (20), i.e., a goal that can exist outside of the context of a game. For example, there are many means to catch a trout: “tickling” the fish with one’s bare hand, using nets or even explosives.  The rules of fly-fishing, however, restrict the angler to a rod, line and a certain kind of bait.  So the goal becomes difficult, but not too difficult, to attain, and the outcome is made uncertain (20, p. 10).

Other games, among them cricket, have no such pre-lusory goals (16, p. 44) , but there are other means to create an uncertain outcome. Games such as roulette or bingo derive their uncertainty almost entirely from chance. In competitive games, as Dunning and Elias say, the organisers will often ensure that the players are “well-matched” (8: p 47), preventing, for example, men and women, young and old or (as in boxing) heavy and light people from trying to compete on equal terms.  Handicapping has a similar purpose.  “Seeding” too has the aim of ensuring that the final match of a long tournament should be between well-matched players.  All these devices seek to create uncertainty of outcome.

Where competition is “open”, the fear is that weak competitors will consistently lose, or that strong competitors will always dominate.  Sometimes, this fear comes true.  In Formula 1 motor racing, for a lengthy period following 1996, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari became so very strong that every race was predictable, and the sport was threatened with terminal boredom.

Game-organisers, therefore, try to arrange matters so that, ideally until a point close to the game’s very end, nobody will know what the outcome will be - whether the goal will be reached or, in a competitive game, who will win.


The reversal: drama in retrospect

A major element in this discussion is still lacking.  This is the reversal or turning point.  Kermode has correctly argued that all worthwhile narrative gains its structure and meaning from its reversal, but that this in turn depends on the ending.

Peripeteia [reversal], - - - is present in every story of the least structural sophistication.  Now peripeteia depends on our confidence of the end; it is a disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route. (13: p. 18)

I have made much of the fact that nobody knows how a game will conclude.  Even in the theatre, however, it is usual for the audience not to know the play’s conclusion.  Some plays are well-enough crafted to be worth a second or third watching, even though this means one knows how these plays will end.  More generally, however, it is thought ill mannered to explain how a play will end to people who have not yet seen it.  Friends and theatre critics will properly explain what a story is about, whether the actors are any good, whether it is enjoyable.  They will not, however, reveal the denouement or the ending, for fear of spoiling the story.

Similar considerations are found in ritual.  People will attend certain rituals – funerals, weddings, the Eucharist - knowing exactly what to expect.  Certain other rituals, however, for example, the initiation rites of the Freemasons and similar brotherhoods, are kept secret from a candidate precisely to enhance the drama of the occasion.  As in the theatre, the secrecy ensures that a drama is full of tension and occasional terror (5; 6).

The difference between theatre and ritual on the one hand and games on the other is that, unlike in the theatre or the rite, the outcome of a game is not known to anybody.  Nobody, not the players, the managers or the referee know the result in advance. Not until the end of a game does the nature of the drama emerge.

My argument here is close to that of Grice who says that when somebody hears an unintelligible locution, she will assume that the locution makes sense and on this basis will creatively and co-operatively invent a meaning (10). In a similar way, those present at a game will expect the game to be dramatic and at the end will construct a pattern in the drama from the now-available evidence. Once the ending is known, people will be able to discover the moment of reversal when their favoured team’s fortunes changed, and then trace the path that led to the team’s success or downfall.


Ireland beats the West Indies

To clarify this point, it is useful to describe a (locally) famous game between Ireland and the West Indies at Sion Mills in Co Tyrone in 1969.  Ireland, it was agreed, had one of the world’s weakest national cricket teams.  This was the more irksome since neighbouring England was the home of cricket .  The West Indies, however, had almost a mythic status as having the best cricket team in the world, having several times trounced England during the previous decade.  Those who knew about the match, therefore, expected West Indies spectacularly to win.  Indeed, at the very beginning, neither Irish nor Northern Irish broadcasters troubled even to cover the match .

The West Indies, winning the toss, elected to bat on a soft, indeed, soggy pitch.  To everyone’s astonishment, wickets began to tumble.  By the fall of the second wicket, the West Indians had scored only two runs.  Another run later, another wicket fell.  At some point, someone astutely telephoned the BBC in nearby Derry city.  In time for the fall of the fourth wicket (that of Basil Butcher), a camera crew and commentator were in place. The West Indies, however, had scored only six dismal runs.  Batting were now two of the great names of West Indies cricket, Clive Lloyd and Clyde Walcott.  Lloyd’s wicket, however, soon fell, with no more runs scored.  The West Indies were now playing defensively, transfixed by two highly competent bowlers on an unfamiliarly wet pitch. They evidently hoped to avoid losing more wickets, and may have decided to play for a draw.

It was not to be.  The next batsman, Shepherd, was soon caught in the gully having scored no runs.  The remaining men were tail-enders, bowlers with little batting skill.  Finlay came in, his wicket falling for zero.  Roberts suffered similarly.  Walcott remained as the only specialist batsman, but soon even his wicket fell, the score at 12 runs for 8 wickets.  The West Indies were facing defeat.

Two tail-enders remained, Blair and Shillingford.  Suddenly, however, the atmosphere changed.  In contrast to the cautious - statuesque - defensiveness of their predecessors, these last two individuals began to swing their bats. The ball flew to the boundary.  In a single over, the score more than doubled, albeit from a dreadful 12 to a flimsy 25.  Irish supporters felt a queasy flicker of anxiety.  Could these two tail-end batsmen rescue the West Indies from disaster?  The moment, however, passed.  Blair was bowled out, and the innings suddenly ended. The West Indies were all out for a pitiful 25 runs having batted for less than ninety minutes.

All that remained was for Ireland to overtake their opponents. The Irish gained 125 runs for 8 wickets, the innings having the quality of a lap of honour, before they declared. .  Their victory was secure.

Two questions immediately arise.  First, one might ask why broadcasters had neglected to send a camera crew to Sion Mills to watch such an illustrious team as the West Indies. Second, why did they change their minds?  Clearly, the answer is that at first they thought the game would be predictable, and lack drama.  It was likely to be very, very dull.

According to the present argument, the structure of a complex drama turns around the reversal, which leads to the conclusion.  At the start of this game, however, it seemed there would be no reversal at all.  Those destined to win, the West Indies, would certainly win.  Those destined to lose, the Irish, would decisively lose.  In Aristotle’s language, it would be a “simple” drama.  It would have a beginning, middle and an end, but not much more. There would be no complication, no reversal and no denouement.

At the fall of the second wicket, however, it seemed at least possible that Ireland would win.  So suddenly, there was a contest, or more precisely, there was an uncertainty of outcome. In addition, the plot had developed some “complications”.  The West Indies, in particular, were on the horns of a tactical dilemma.  Should they hit out, in the hope of scoring some runs?  Or should they plod away defensively, in the hope of gathering runs and maybe forcing a draw?

As for the plot, two broad possibilities now existed.  If Ireland continued to do well, then there would indeed have been a reversal - a change in the fortunes of both protagonist and antagonist – at the fall of the second wicket.  There was always a chance that the West Indies would fight back.  However, even if the West Indies were somehow to win, they would have had to reverse their own failing fortunes.  With the last wicket rally, it faintly appeared that this second possibility might just become reality.  But no.  The danger passed and the West Indies limped towards defeat.

Importantly, an audience discovers the moment of reversal in a game, as it does in a theatrical drama, only after the game is over. During the game, nobody could know when their heroes’ fortunes had changed for better or for worse.  Was it at the fall of the second wicket?  Or would the West Indies’ fortunes rally, say under Lloyd and Walcott, turning an imminent West Indian catastrophe into success?  Might there even be a rally in the ninth wicket? We now know that the reversal was indeed at the fall of the second wicket. We know this, however, only because the drama has ended and because the diverse parts of the game now have a structure oriented around our knowledge of the ending.


But is it art?

It is appropriate now to answer David Best’s question: is sport art? (2).  My conclusion is that Best is right to deny that sport is art, but that some of the reasons he gives are incorrect.  Specifically, I want to claim that a work of art is the intentional “work” or product of an artist (or artists) employing “art” or skill, but that a game is not such a thing. A game, I shall claim is a drama, but not a work of art.

The argument here hinges on the central difficulty addressed by this essay.  It was asked how an unscripted activity such as sport, where none of the participants knew what the outcome would be, could have the structure that Aristotle had discovered in theatre. This question, however, is merely another way of asking how an activity that is not a work of art can nevertheless turn out to resemble one.

It was earlier shown that Best is mistaken when he claims that it is no intrinsic part of sport to address the “life issues” that lie outside sport.  Best’s other major argument is that sport has purposive goals.  As I understand his argument, the goals of cricket are to score more runs than one’s opponents.  It matters, therefore, not how a team of cricketers achieves this end - whether they be elegant or clumsy, lucky or skilful – merely that they achieve it.   Art, in contrast, may have some purpose, but here the means to the achievement of that purpose is as important as its attainment (2: pp 378ff).

An advantage of comparing sport with theatre is that it exposes category mistakes (15).  This is because many characteristic features of sport map comfortably on to the characteristic features of theatre.  Thus, for example, a token game is comparable with a token theatrical performance; the rules of a game are comparable with a theatrical script; and the actions of players are comparable with the actions of the actors and so forth.

To say that the purpose of a game of cricket is to score runs – except colloquially - is to risk committing a category mistake.  One must compare like with like. In cricket, it is the participating individuals who have purposes, not the game.  A purpose of the umpires, for example, is to signal appropriately when a bowler bowls a wide, or when a batsman hits a six.  The scorers’ purposes include keeping a record of such events.  And a team of players (individually and collectively) have the purpose of scoring more runs than their opponents.  Games, however, do not have purposes in the same way as players, umpires or scorers.

There are similar considerations when studying works of art. Actors, playwrights and stagehands have purposes or goals. Like players in a game, they may act in a theatrical performance knowing that the performance will address certain “life issues” and this expression of views may be part of their purpose in so participating. Plays, however, do not have purposes in the same way as writers or actors. In saying, therefore, that sports differ from art by having purposes, Best compares the purposes of players in a game with the totality of a work of art, which cannot in the same way have a purpose. He compares what should not be compared.

Best is, nevertheless, correct to deny that sport is an art form. A “work of art”, as the phrase suggests, is the intended result of an artist’s “art” or skill. It is a work of art, in part, precisely because it is the outcome of an artist’s or artists’ purpose. At some moment, it was the artist’s purpose to use his or her skill to produce this token object and not some other object.

In many archetypal works of art, therefore, there is a single directing mind. This is even true, for example, in the case of Rembrandt’s paintings, many of which were produced co-operatively, with assistants working under the master’s supervision. However, one cannot rely on such a generalisation to sustain the argument, for there are other examples, especially in the performance arts, where the notion of an individual genius behind a particular work is more difficult to sustain.

A useful example is jazz.  Here, an original score, together with the conventions of the particular jazz genre (which together work in much the same way as a script or the rules of a game) provide the point of reference, an ordered sequence of chords that gives meaning and unity to the various particular notes played by the different musicians.  But in jazz, no single individual can lay claim to having inspired or directed the whole performance.

It is tempting, therefore, to state that sport stands in a similar relation to theatre as jazz does to more structured kinds of music.  The one, after all, has been improvised in relation to a score or a set of rules; the other is the result of the performers having more closely followed a score or script.

There is however, a difficulty with such an analogy.  When individuals co-operate to produce a single work of art – say, a jazz performance – they improvise a collective decision about how the piece will sound.  When successful, what they achieve is what they collectively had hoped for.  This is, however, not at all always true of a game, which only sometimes ends as the participants had hoped.

Even in individual sports and games (fly-fishing, solitaire) or in co-operative ones (mountaineering, foxhunting), there is no guarantee that the game will turn out as the participants wanted.  In 1924, Mallory and Irvine tried to climb Everest, but they died in the attempt. Their adventure was certainly a drama – indeed a tragedy - but it was not the drama they intended to create. An unsuccessful game or sporting event may have an unhappy ending, but it is still a drama.

More obviously, in competitive games, at no time is there even an approximate consensus about what sort of game ought to emerge. When, finally, the fully structured game does emerge, half of the players (the losers) will be unhappy at the outcome.  It follows therefore that a work of art and a game are significantly different.  A work of art is the outcome of an individual or a collective purpose; a finished game is not (or only sometimes).

This point has a broader significance. For it is not only sport and theatre that have the structure of an Aristotelian complex drama, but also the more elaborate forms of ritual.  And ritual too, for rather different reasons, cannot be described as “art”.



Developing some ideas of Francis Keenan (12), this article has claimed that, though not a work of art, a token game is likely to have an orderly unity with the form of Aristotle’s “complex drama”.

First, the rules of a sport like cricket transform a sequence of separate, improvised actions into an orderly game.  They do that by providing conventional definitions of what actions count as success in that sport, and what actions are worthy of punishment in relation to the attainment of that goal.  Conventionally meaningful actions are then causally generated from basic actions by the exercise of individual skills, both simple and complex, and through tactical and strategic organisation. All of these actions have the narrow and focussed purpose of achieving what the rules narrowly define as success and not failure. Thus, the separate actions that constitute the parts of the game are unified in a single whole

Second, sport is, in certain respects, mimetic. While it does not involve the half-pretence found in theatre, the similarity of the activities found in sport to life in the wider world does allow either a token game or a specific type of game to be interpreted and used as a commentary upon “life issues” in this wider world.

Sport too requires players and spectators at least provisionally to decide for themselves who they will take to be the hero of a sport. Often there are several heroes, and this effectively creates several complex dramas. The existence of a hero is important in that it provides either a happy or a sad ending.  It also generates “complication” as hero or heroes become entangled in events.

At the heart of complex drama, whether in sport or theatre, are complication and the overcoming of complication through a denouement. The denouement in sport is ideally characterised by uncertainty of outcome.  In a similar way, the denouement of a theatrical play is also often made uncertain from the audience’s perspective, but when this is the case, it is because the actors and others involved in the production (who know the outcome in advance) keep the play’s content secret.  In sport, however, nobody, not even the players, knows how a game will turn out.

Finally, when the end of the game is known, it is possible to have a retrospective sense of the structure of the plot, complete with complication, reversal and denouement, explaining how this conclusion was reached. The result is not a work of art, for a “work of art” is the intended “work” of one or more persons exercising their “art”.  Nevertheless, this particular product, the game, which not every participant will have wanted to help create, does have much of that form identified and defined by Aristotle as existing in theatre. It has the structure of a “complex drama”.



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