Highlighting that it’s more than just a sport from “Downton Abbey,” Sebastian Walker presented cricket as having the power to unite cultures during his TEDx talk on Sunday.
In his presentation, “The Greatest Spectacle You’ve Never Seen,” Walker argued that cricket has important lessons for all, even if it isn’t the dominant sport in America.
Forgoing the often covered TEDx topics of research and innovation, Walker explained why citizens of current and former British Commonwealth nations will endure five-day-long matches and what the athletes learn through playing. Walker himself spends nearly $5,000 dollars a year, traveling 7,000 miles just to play the game.
Walker knows firsthand the challenges of explaining the sport to those who are unfamiliar with it, talking on an experience he once had with his wife.
“I took [my wife] to Cape Town to watch a match between South Africa and Australia who at the time were the two best teams in the world … for two hours, she asked an incessant number of questions,” Walker said. “Two huge white guys in front of us turned around and gave us a look of ‘one more question from your girlfriend or we will shut you up.’”
He explained that he pursues what he referred to as his “obsession” because of three lessons the game teaches.
“One, it is very much so about the individual, but is played in a team environment,” Walker said. “You learn at a very young age, that when you are batting, it is you against the ball, one-on-one, no one is there to help you. If you fail, it is entirely because of yourself. However, without your teammates, you cannot succeed. Just as in the work environment, your projects will fail, if your teammates are unsupportive. So it is in cricket.”
The second lesson, Walker said, is that cricket can be a metaphor for life.
“Cricket is a sport where the strongest, fittest … most talented team is certainly not assured of victory … hard work and determination can overcome a pitfall of shortcomings,” Walker said. “How many 65-year-olds do you see beating 18-year-olds at basketball or soccer?”
According to Walker, the third lesson is the most important. Cricket has the power to unite culture.
“I grew up in the 1980’s where South Africa was very much segregated by race. South Africa’s history is dominated race,” Walker said. “It is now totally normal to play cricket with people of all races and colors and creeds. What seemed impossible to a child of the 1980’s growing up in South Africa is now entirely normal.”
By looking at the integration of the national team, and the interracial games that now exists, cricket acts as a vehicle to demonstrate social change in South Africa. Walker further states that cricket is a microcosm through which we can trace racial integration in South Africa.
“[Cricket] unites us in a way the United Nations could only dream of,” Walker said.
Pipe Dream: So for the context of this interview, could you tell me about your topic?
Sebastian Walker: So you know I’m South African, I grew up in South Africa. I am talking about cricket. Cricket has not just influenced me, but influenced the world. A billion people around the world play it and watch it, and how it has changed my life, and the people around me. And how it has influenced the history of my country. As you probably know South Africa has had quite a violent past, quite a violent past, kinda racist past and how it has reflected the changes in South Africa.
PD: Why did you decide to keep your topic a secret?
SW: It just occurred to me at the time. I thought ‘people always give away their topics,’ so I figured I’d keep it a secret for a change.
PD: Why did you decide to speak about cricket and not your career or studies?
SW: Everybody talks about consultancy, and what they do for a career and their research and everything else. I wanted to do something totally different, and obviously for an American audience. If I was giving a talk to an English audience, or an Indian audience or an Australian audience, I would have given a totally different speech. So I rewrote the speech 20 times, and my wife kept saying ‘you can’t say that, you can’t say that, you can’t say that, American’s won’t understand this, American’s won’t understand this.’ So it was particularly challenging to convey the message of what it is about and not be demeaning toward the audience. The whole point of TED talks is to expose people to something they haven’t heard of before, that they haven’t experience. I don’t think very many Americans have experienced it, not particularly this sport. I’m not talking about sports, not particularly about sports — it’s not particularly about cricket. Cricket is just the vehicle to get the message across. It could be about rugby, it could be about baseball, it’s a vehicle I used.
PD: In what ways did you change the speech for an American audience?
SW: Cricket is kind of a complex game. And I started to try and explain some of it, but there’s too much. I could spend a week doing it, there’s too much. First of all, unless you have strong interests, you won’t understand this. So there was no basic knowledge so some of the jokes had to be cut out. Some of the funny stories I had to cut them out cause they wouldn’t have made sense. Like some of my friends found them very funny, but I kinda had to cut some of them out, so it’s making it a U.S. interest.
PD: Is the sport specific to all in the Commonwealth nations or is it age and generational?
SW: Regardless of age. My nephew is five, he plays it avidly. He is obsessed about it. Whenever I visit South Africa, all he wants to do is play cricket with me. From the moment I see him he just wants to play cricket. So at a very young age they start. I said it’s Commonwealth cause all the Commonwealth countries — cause the British — introduced it to the world. In those countries it is most popular. But I think there are 92 countries now that play it to good standard, and it continues to grow. In the U.S., you don’t see a lot of it, but there is a lot, especially in the Indian and Pakistani communities. Its played right across the U.S., 100’s of 1000’s that play it now, but nobody sees it cause they go from playing fields far away, but it is becoming more and more popular.
PD: What else is your talk about?
SW: How it has influence. How it has influenced South African’s history. Its kind a microcosm for what is happening. And a microcosm for life, and a lot of the lessons are very important actually. A lot of the lessons I’ve learned in life, I learned at a very young age in cricket. It made me grow up, grow up very quickly. I was held to a high standard to play first league cricket which was kinda two below the highest standard you could play in South Africa if you are good enough to play it. It was extremely challenging. It made me grow up really really quickly playing against adult men who were really tough on me, really really tough and I was a very shy 17-year-old, extremely shy. And it made me come out of my shell. Either you were crushed or you grow up extremely quickly, and it did me a world of good. It’s based on honor and integrity, and people try not to cheat, it’s a very old fashioned game. The world has kinda lost a lot of what cricket represents.
PD: Would you like to see more cricket in America or do you think it is unique to Commonwealth?
SW: I would love to see it. In the 1800’s cricket was quit popular, more popular than baseball, then baseball took over and it started to die. I can’t see it taking over in the U.S., but it is growing by the Indian and Pakistani community which is becoming larger and larger in the U.S., especially the first generation community, they get Ph.Ds in India and they stay they play, and I think the community is going to play more and more and more and more. When it takes over, they have been trying for many years, who knows, it is becoming more popular but I can’t predict.
PD: How have you strayed the course?
SW: I think I’ve strayed the course by leaving my home country at a young age and setting off into the world all by myself and ending up in London and in America. Completely by chance. When I left when I was 22 or 23 I never imagined id be living in D.C. doing this. I never imagined I’d be using cricket as a vehicle that actually in a way bought me my ticket — and the connections I’ve made as I’ve traveled around the world. It’s helped me to find a base in every city, and I’ve lived in multiple cities. It’s helped me find a base of people who speak the same language as me. It allowed me to stray the common course of staying in Johannesburg and marry a South African women. It’s allowed me to travel the world and meet so many people that have had so many wonderful experiences.