Friday, 18 March 2011


"Laundry, Dude. The Whites"
Walter Sobchak

Walter Sobchak is the kind of man who can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon. With nail polish. Walter Sobchak is knowledgeable. So, if Walter Sobchak is prepared to sacrifice his beloved cricket apparel – the whites – as the ringer in a ransom hand-off (albeit so that he can keep the baksheesh), then we, the audience, cannot fail to appreciate just how important the great game is to him (at least, I think those are the rules of ransom; I know you need a hostage, uh, and that the hostage cannot be an acquaintance of the kidnappers. Anyway, let’s not get bogged down in details…).

Of course, to the layman its not immediately obvious that the Coen brothers’ masterpiece, The Big Lebowski, is a film about cricket. Principally, this is because they had to conceal this aspect so as to avoid alienating an American audience almost completely ignorant of the sport, finer points or otherwise. No studio is going to fund a cricket movie, man: think about it. Nevertheless, the maverick filmmakers clearly know a thing or two about the gentleman’s game. Scratch beneath the shaggy-dog detective-noir pastiche and it’s patently one of the major themes of the film – I’d argue the central theme, no less. Indeed, any self-respecting Dudeist ought to be able to decipher this from what they already knew to be the movie’s key scene in terms of plot development: namely, when the nihilists break into the Dude’s private residence and one of them smashes his answering machine with what the screenplay refers to as a “cricket paddle”. That the Coens use this misnomer instead of the more recognized term – bat – is overwhelming, irrefutable proof that the phrase is acting as a shibboleth, a secret code designed to throw non-initiates off the scent.

So it is that the centrality of cricket to the film’s ethos has been overlooked by both critics and devotees alike. Until now. So, let’s have a glance at some of the movie’s many, many cricketing observations, starting with the most learned character’s thoughts… 



Despite tending to deride combat on parched terrain (as with his scornful dismissal of the “bunch of fig-eaters with towels on their head trying to find reverse on a Soviet tank”), Walter is obviously something of an expert when it comes to playing spin on the ‘dustbowls’ of the Asian subcontinent. 

“I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand...” 

He realizes that the guard you take is crucial when batting on a worn, crumbling pitch. You have to be flexible, moving over to off stump to combat sharply spun off-breaks and left-arm wrist spin; or, conversely, batting outside leg stump against leg-spinners and slow left-arm orthodox to ensure that your pads are out of the line of the stumps (especially in the age of Hawk-Eye and the Decision Review System). 

Dude, meanwhile, is clearly struggling to pick the direction of the spin – be that the offie’s doosra or the leggie’s wrong’un – and is therefore of little help in the mid-pitch conference: “A lotta ins. A lotta outs. A lotta strands to keep in ol’ Duder’s head.” So, ignoring his compadre’s flustered inability to read the turn, Walter knows the best way to go against left-arm wrist-spin, what the dangers are… 

“The Chinaman is not the issue here Dude. I’m talking about unchecked aggression …” He understands that, for both left-arm wrist spin (‘Chinamen’) and slow bowling in general, the basic modus operandi must revolve around discipline and accumulation, fundamental pillars in the war of attrition against high-quality tweakers and twirlers. 

Walter also knows that, after a gruelling tour in Asia playing on dustbowls, there’s nothing like coming back to a good old fashioned ‘green-top’: “This was a valued rug.” (The square community would doubtless argue that preparing pitches to suit your own bowling attack is the work of “men who are unable to achieve on a level field of play: cowards, weaklings, bums,” but they can go fuck ‘emselves.) 


Then there’s Walter’s understanding of modern ODI and Twenty20 cricket… 

“Over the line!!” 

You can’t be bowling no balls, especially not in the era of the free hit. Get your run-up sorted out.

“Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.” 

When you’re playing a league game, a game that determines who enters the next round-robin, there are certain things that have to be abided by. Frankly, the Dude, whilst applauded for his placid nature, is wrong to say “so his toe was over a little. Who gives a shit?” It’s a good job Walter’s there to give a shit about the rules, otherwise people would be bowling off 19 yards…

“The man in the black pyjamas, Dude. A worthy fuckin' adversary.”

More generally, Walter is clearly au fait with the international ODI cricket scene, too, and realizes that New Zealand, while much depleted of late, still possess dynamic players like McCullum, Guptill, Taylor, Ryder, Oram and Vettori, and are therefore very much a force to be reckoned with in the shorter forms of the game.


The field of military theory has long overlapped with cricket. For instance, prior to the 2005 Ashes, Australia’s coach, John Buchanan, gave his charges as reading material Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War. Walter also learnt much from combat, principally concerning that old mantra of cricket coaches: Keep it simple. For, if there’s one thing he learnt in ‘Nam, it’s that “once a plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong…” Dude comes to realize this later, when his thinking about the whereabouts of Bunny and the money had become “a little uptight.”


Despite the recent introduction of DRS, Walter clearly possesses the attributes to become a top-flight umpire – with or without technological assistance – since he has the intuitive grasp of the game that’s needed to be able to read from the batsman’s body language when he has tickled one through to the ‘keeper: “this guy fucking walks. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.”


Walter could also help in the early diagnosis of the stress-fractured backs that have afflicted the game’s speedsters, since he has “seen a lot of Spinals.” 


“We're scattering the Ashes” 

What Walter means here is that, where the MCC have previously been highly intransigent in their reluctance to allow any victorious Australian tourists to take the cherished urn home, he would adopt a (perhaps surprising) conciliatory position and accede to the demands of Cricket Australia, thus demonstrating his often overlooked statesmanlike qualities. However, before any formal handover he’d need to know whether there was a Ralph’s in the vicinity.


Whilst a clear advocate of professionalism in the face of a bygone era of dilettante cricketers – “a bunch of fucking amateurs” – Walter nevertheless refuses to lose sight of the fact that it’s not life and death: 

Dude: “This isn't a fucking game, man”. 
Walter: “Oh but it is a game, you said so yourself”. 

I think it’s obvious from these many pearls of Sobchakian wisdom that leather-on-willow-mongers can learn much from the Big Pole/Jew. But what about his teammates and the other folk they encounter in our story? Well, they are less knowledgeable, sure, but they do have the odd thing to say…


“I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man”

The Dude is clearly a fan of South African domestic cricket. Clearly. He may support any one of the Titans, Lions, Warriors, Cobras, or Dolphins (being a man of impeccable fairness, he probably supports them all), but he’s magnanimous enough not to let parochial issues get in the way of his support for the game’s heritage…


“We held on! We held on! We...held...on!” 

In direct contradiction of the winners-and-losers philosophy of American sport, the Dude is every bit as excited by a hard-fought draw, which is the obvious interpretation to be made of his reaction to the hand-off. OK, they didn’t get the girl back, but neither did the nihilists “get the fuckin’ money”. Here’s a man who likes his Test cricket and is “not in to the whole brevity thing” of Twenty20. 


“Obviously you're not a golfer” 

On the one hand, the Dude is making a sarcastic point about Jackie Treehorn’s thugs failure to recognize his bowling ball; on the other hand, in line with the clear thematic presence of cricket in the film, there’s also a “hidden message” here: batsmen, don’t play too much golf otherwise it will interfere with your technique.


This is not so much an insight as an admission of affinity for the game from the third member of the bowling team: “Donny who loved the outdoors. And bowling” was clearly someone who propelled what is known in the trade as a ‘heavy ball’, as unambiguously implied by his line: “I’m throwing rocks tonight. You guys are dead in the water.” 


Despite the more obvious connotations of his name, Jesus was one of the perspicacious reformists who realized that Test matches had to cast off their languid colonial rhythms – timeless Tests; having a day off in the middle of the game – and be played on 5 consecutive days, principally because Sunday was a non-working day for the paying public and could therefore increase revenue. This forward thinking was succinctly articulated when he made his landmark representation to cricket’s ruling body, the ICC: “What’s this ‘day of rest’ shit? What’s this bullshit? I dont fuckin care. It dont matter to Jesus.” 

He’s also not that keen on the ‘art’ of sledging, which he regards as “bush league psyche-out stuff. Laughable, man!”


There are other gems of cricketing analysis that we don’t have time to go over (or invent) here, but suffice to say the true message of the film transcends cricket, and applies equally to all sports. I’m talking of course about the importance of equanimity in the face of victory and defeat, sentiments expressed in the oft-cited lines of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same”. The Stranger sums it up pithily: “sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, wal, he eats you.” 

So, cricket’s a game of “strikes and gutters”, but, win or lose, you’ve just got to have a good sarsaparilla or a couple of “oat sodas” after the game and take it easy, man.

It’s just a game, man.

* A version of this piece was published in The Dudespaper but the lazy f**kers didn't edit it properly. 

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