Christopher Smith ponders the sacralisation of cricket, and the secularisation of Christmas.

I’m not a great telly addict, but I do pay a bit extra to get the cricket coverage. Indeed, by the time New Directions lands on your doormat, the latest Ashes series will be well underway, with the Brisbane test concluded, and Adelaide about to begin. Frustratingly, cricket matches in Australia are played during more or less the exact hours I want to be asleep, so if I don’t become nocturnal for the duration, which would be inconvenient over Christmas, the only solution to the problem would be for me to go to Australia, which would be costly and time-consuming.

A new language

I was most amused to receive a tip-off that the Vatican wants to found a cricket team. I suspect this is the most interest the Vatican has taken in the English-speaking world since Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK, but in this case I imagine the focus will not be Britain, or even Australia, but India. 1.2 billion Indians, all, well, nearly all, cricket-mad, must be worth a bit of special outreach.

The club’s chairman is an Indian, called Mascarenhas, but not the recently-retired Hampshire all-rounder. Father Mascarenhas does not look capable of whacking Yuvraj Singh for five sixes in one over at the Oval, although he does apparently bowl a bit of off-spin. He thinks that ‘cricket will start to speak a new language’, although I think Pashto is ahead of Latin in the queue. Perhaps some cricket-loving classicist will offer them Latin equivalents of ‘cover drive’ and ‘deep mid-wicket’ (or ‘cow corner’, as it is often described nowadays).

Other priests involved in the setting-up of the Vatican team have demonstrated somewhat less cricketing knowledge than Fr Mascarenhas. The honorary president of the club is a Spaniard, Monsignor de Tosca, who conceded that ‘it’s all completely strange to me’. And Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Councilfor Culture, which (like the Ministry of Fun in this country) includes sport, came out with what seems to me the rather unlikely statement that ‘Cricket can bring together the many nationalities that work for the Holy See.’ I somehow feel that, of all the things that might forge a bond between those Italians, Swiss, Germans, Portuguese, Spanish and so on, it is unlikely to be cricket, and he should perhaps consider beach volleyball.

Sport and faith

Cardinal Ravasi did, however, acknowledge what many of us have suspected for a long time: ‘Sport and faith are closely related’. Ten years of living round the corner from Selhurst Park convinced me of that, and the Cardinal might be a little taken aback to discover the extent to which the Hindu cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, also recently retired, is worshipped almost as a god in certain circles. I like to think that his feet are kept on the ground by his mother-in-law, a social worker from Birmingham; even so, the BBC World Service broadcast a programme about him last month to mark his retirement which they called ‘Tendulkar, the living god’.

Lazy, cheap yet fascinating

Going back to the glowing lantern in the corner of the sitting room, it has taken me a while to discover a programme called Gogglebox. The idea is simple, and makes for lazy, cheap, yet rather fascinating television. We watch people watching TV. Of course, the people we are watching, watching, are a suitably politically correct mix, but it’s probably the more revealing for that. Should one of the viewers try to become a paramedic? ‘I’d struggle: I’m not very good with directions, to be honest.’ On Nigella Lawson: ‘How can anybody be that gorgeous?’ Sometimes the viewers display a remarkably high degree of animation about something seemingly rather dull, like size 16 mannequins,and then I suspect them of showing off for the cameras. More authentically, they sometimes drop off to sleep. I had to smile when I discovered that people have put home movies of themselves watching Gogglebox onto YouTube, so you can watch people watching people watching TV!

The ‘gift’ of Christmas

But the thing that really seems to have set the world of telly-watching alight recently is not a programme at all, but an advert. John Lewis are screening an advertisement which lasts for two whole minutes, in cartoon format. It tells the story of a bear who, because he spends all winter in hibernation, has never experienced Christmas. To solve this apparent problem, his friend the hare buys him an alarm clock, carefully wrapped in red paper, set to wake the bear up on Christmas morning.

Presumably, the advert is designed to create a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts towards John Lewis. Indeed, their marketing director said that it was all about making an ‘emotional connection’ between the viewer and the department store. But, even though some of us may feel as though we would prefer to hibernate through Christmas, it doesn’t do it for me. I sense the attempt at emotional manipulation, and become irritated by the secular message: Christmas is all about buying the presents and decorating the tree.

The hare shows no interest in taking the bear to midnight mass (and I would have fallen off my chair if he had), yet the director of the advert said the hare was ‘giving his best friend the gift of Christmas’.

To cap it all, we are told that the advert cost seven million pounds to make. Apparently, there’s also a Sainsbury’s one that lasts three quarters of an hour.

Should I hibernate to get away from it? No, I think I’ll become nocturnal and spend the winter watching the Ashes. ND