Aristotle on cricket

“I had no prior knowledge of the [ball-tampering] incident and do not condone what happened, but good people can make mistakes.”

For some, the recent turmoil in Australian cricket bears all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy playing out before their disbelieving eyes. Australian fans watched last week as some of the ‘gods’ of this deified Australian sport were revealed to have engaged in ‘ball-tampering’, instantly falling out of favour with fans worldwide, the public and sponsors. Shame-faced, the fallen appeared at a press conference to tear at their eyes (Oedipus-like) and to deliver their apologies and resignations in between sobs. Australian fans buried their heads in their hands at yet another sporting scandal, this time involving beloved cricket. A week later, the press has moved on and the perpetrators have been left to their soul-searching. Will the whole incident be remembered as ‘cheating’, or just a ‘mistake’, or ‘going over the line’ and does it matter?

Well, I think it does, because there is a big difference between a ‘mistake’ and a ‘conscious decision to cheat’ and this makes all the difference in Greek tragedy, and so it happens, in cricket too. Aristotle says that at the heart of every Greek tragedy is an exemplary and larger-than-life character who suffers from an ‘error’ or ‘a missing of the mark’ (hamartia). Funnily enough, the origin of this word hamartia comes from a sporting context – not cricket, but archery. It means a failure to hit one’s target.

This ‘missing of the mark’ is not the same thing as an in-built, pre-existing character flaw, nor is it a completely involuntary ‘mistake’. It is therefore not correct to call ‘ball tampering’ a ‘mistake’ as if one just happened to carry sandpaper in one’s pocket. ‘Ball tampering’ is a failure by a particular person to judge a particular situation correctly, and it is just the “sort of error that a person of [that] character would be typically prone to make” (Rorty, p. 10). So, in the case of a person who thrives on public admiration, for example, he might devalue the importance of maintaining an honest and ethical character, and under immense pressure to perform and to win, decide to cheat.

Every character type is at risk of ‘missing the mark’ in his/her own particular way. A proud king may fail to see his capacity to do wrong or a queen may become so driven by passion as to forget who she is and to commit a grave crime. Underlying every form of ‘error’ is a fundamental lack of self-awareness. We live in a society that talks a lot about ‘mindfulness’ and ‘attention’ and yet, we have just seen a ‘tragic protagonist’ err and fall because, according to Aristotle at least, he had no real self-awareness. If he had the necessary self-awareness, he would have acted differently: “[t]o know who one is is to know how to act: it involves understanding of one’s obligations and what is important in one’s interactions” (Rorty, p.11). This statement does not come from a modern guide to mindfulness, but a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. What Aristotle is saying is that tragedy is an imitation of life and a lack of self-knowledge, played out on stage, before our very eyes.

The really interesting bit is what Aristotle says next. What happens to the protagonist who attains self-knowledge? What happens to the cricketer if he really admits his wrongdoing not only to himself but to others. I emphasise the word ‘really’ because it is not enough to ‘play the role’ of admitting a mistake. The results of one’s conduct have to penetrate deeply in order to effect a change in the tragic protagonist. If this happens, there is a painful but very beneficial growth in self-awareness. Not in some warm, fuzzy, rosy sort of way but in a very practical way. The tragic protagonist becomes more real, more honest and more noble as a result of his/her admission, in “recognizing who they are and what they have done”.

For those who are watching this ‘tragedy’ unfurl, there are potential benefits too. According to Aristotle, tragic incidents provoke pity and fear so that these two emotions may be purged and cleansed away. But why these emotions in particular? Aristotle explains: we feel fear because we fear the same events happening to us, and pity, because we are watching life acting upon a character and bringing about the painful process of self-awareness. Importantly, in order to feel pity for the tragic protagonist, he/she cannot be too close to us (this evokes horror rather than pity) nor too far away (lest his/her fate has no effect on us). If you are an avid cricket fan, in other words, you are more likely to have experienced pity watching the players at the press conference last week, whereas in my case (as a non-devotee of cricket), I felt no pity for the players at all.

Once pity and fear are aroused, a good tragedy should achieve a ‘catharsis’ or ‘purging’ of those emotions. There will be a sense of closure, balance, harmony restored. The audience is “able to experience, however briefly, the kind of psychological functioning, the balance and harmony that self-knowledge can bring to action” (Rorty, p.15). This is the point we are at now.

If these events can be viewed as a ‘tragedy’, then ironically, according to Aristotle’s analysis, the results should be beneficial not only for the protagonists involved, but for the Australian public as well. So, the question is, will Australian cricket fans be able to view the events of the past week with sufficient objectivity, as if they were watching a tragic play on a stage? Will they gain a new appreciation of the importance of self-knowledge in life? Will Aristotle’s Poetics become the new guide to Australian cricket? Probably not, but hopefully someone out there can see the relevance of Aristotle’s insightful analysis.


I. Bywater, Aristotle On the Art of Poetry, New York & London, Garland Publishing, 1980.

A. O. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.