Human nature hates a balance. It craves a victor and a vanquished. In yesterday’s Cricket World Cup final, not a wafer separated the England and New Zealand teams. They tied. The sporting solution would be for both captains to admit the fact and shake hands. But the money, the chauvinism, the howls from the gallery, were more powerful. Kipling’s “twin imposters”, triumph and disaster, had to be set on a pedestal and honoured with what amounted to a coin toss, the “most boundaries” rule. Cue mass hysteria in England and mass misery in New Zealand. Cricket had gone the way of football’s penalty shootouts.
There is no denying that even the mildest patriot feels pride in victory for the home team – or in the case of cricket endearingly for the game’s “country of origin”. The chase is exciting and success goes deep into group identity. It is briefly and harmlessly heart-warming. It is curiously less an issue when the victor is not a team but an individual, as in Lewis Hamilton’s F1 British Grand Prix triumph also at the weekend, or when Novac Djokovic beats Roger Federer in another epic encounter at Wimbledon – which perhaps also should have been an honourable tie. In all these cases, we can thank sport for taking our minds off troubled times and driving politics from the front page.
George Orwell worried at the role of team sports in the national psyche. If they could boost morale, could they not also inflame it? He declared the chaotic 1940s football matches to be “war minus the shooting”. He was too alarmist. We have seen nothing since to equal Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, or the charioteer gangs of 6th-century Constantinople, who after one contest slaughtered hundreds and left the city a gutted ruin.
Yet the emotion that now surrounds some commercially obsessive “world cups” recalls Orwell’s nervousness at sport’s military terminology and at the goading of governments to wild extravagance. The 2012 London Olympics blew some £13bn on two weeks of games at a time of national austerity. They were capped by Vladimir Putin’s $50bn Sochi Olympics and the crippling of Rio de Janeiro by the 2016 Olympics. Nation states used to compete with drugged athletes. They now compete with drugged Treasuries.
Sport is not a proxy for war or for national prosperity. It is a pastime. The pleasure of cricket – so long in the doldrums – is the good humour with which it is played and its readiness to make itself less boring with shorter matches. The only pity is that when, just once in a lifetime, it delivers an uplifting equilibrium, it could not admit the fact, pat everyone on the back and share the champagne.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist