Sport’s abhorrence of pitch invaders is about fan control not player safety

For the second time in two years, Fortress Edgbaston was breached. Questa volta, tuttavia, it was not Steve Smith and Nathan Lyon but a few hundred inebriated hedonists from Warwick University.

“The behaviour of a small number of students after the match finished was disgraceful,” the Warwickshire chief executive, Stuart Cain, said following Birmingham Bears’ T20 Blast game last week. Cain confirmed to ESPNcricinfo that lifetime bans are being meted out for the monstrous crime of walking on to a cricket field upon which no match was taking place and milling around for upwards of five minutes.

We can probably all agree, credo, that jumping the barriers en masse in the middle of a pandemic is probably not the wisest course of action. And yet there was a curiously contemptuous tone to the coverage of events at Edgbaston on Thursday night. With most incidents of public disorder, the educational status of the participants is – at best – a tangential concern. But for some curious reason university students exert a curious hold on our political and media class. When they’re not refusing to host transphobic speakers or insufficiently venerating Winston Churchill, they’re protesting at the privilege of paying £9,250 a year for twice-weekly Zoom lectures or trying some new designer drug with a name like “bread” or “panda” or “Ella Henderson”.

So when several hundred of them have the temerity to raid a county cricket match in fancy dress, it feels only right that they should be met with appropriate hostility. “I will not let this crowd come to Edgbaston again,” a puce-tinged Cain fumed afterwards, despite the fact the club had actively invited local university students to fill an entire stand for something entitled “Invades Edgbaston – the Bears T20 Summer Day Party”.

Of course, you might point out the irony in a sport desperately trying to appeal to a younger audience suddenly balking when confronted with that very audience. But equally, there are issues raised here that impinge well beyond the permeable boundaries of Edgbaston.

After all, in the last fortnight we have seen several pitch invaders wrestled to the ground at the European Championship. A crash on the first stage of the Tour de France, caused by a roadside spectator, ha reignited the debate over how cycling crowds can be more tightly policed. (Short answer: they can’t be!) From the slopes of the Tour to the manicured lawns of Euro 2020, there has arguably never been a more inauspicious time to be a pitch invader.

Infatti, has there ever been a point when the simple act of incursion on to the field of play has met with such instinctive distaste? Those of you of a certain age will remember an era when the tacit right of a crowd to rush the pitch was inalienable, immutable. You only need to watch footage of the 1986 World Cup final or any Test match in England from before the 1990s: for most of sporting history, the crowd was not simply an adornment or a sound effect, but a physical participant.

These days it is basically a taboo, a specific criminal act, a form of moral panic that predates the Covid era and its taste for censorious space-shaming. And wrapped up in the usual disingenuous arguments about player safety and public order – after all, the vast majority of pitch invasions cause not one iota of harm – is a more profound debate over the sporting space: who owns it, who controls it, and for what purpose.

Above all the decline of the pitch invasion is tied into the increasing corporatisation of the sporting arena, accompanied by ever stricter delineations between the field of play and the hordes behind the fence. Corporate sport urges the modern fan to participate while rigidly demarcating the terms of that participation. You will click on this link, make your views known using the officially approved hashtag, wave your foam finger for the cameras and leave via the merchandise stall. But the spectacle itself will always remain beyond your reach.

You’ll notice that whenever a spectator invades the pitch during a football match the television pictures will instantly cut away. And yet when Christian Eriksen collapsed against Finland, the cameras gruesomely carried on rolling, zooming in on the faces of his traumatised teammates and partner. Morality does not remotely impinge here: rather, the distinction is one of control. The message: this is not an organic event but a curated product, a rights-holder-approved entertainment. You will see only what we choose.

For its part English cricket, after decades of lovingly embracing the pitch invasion as an essential part of its fabric, hastily legislated it away in 2001 after being repulsed by the sight of brown people storming the field during a one-day international against Pakistan. In a way, the shrill tone of the contemporary reaction – “But what if one of them had a knife?” – mirrored the discourse around last week’s events at Edgbaston. Spectators on the pitch: fine, fun, frolicsome. As long, questo è, as they are the right sort.

It’s no longer appropriate to say so publicly but, done right, a good pitch invasion can be brilliant: a thrilling and liminal act of collective transgression. And whether it’s Manchester United fans at Old Trafford, the rainbow-clad protester at Germany v Hungary or drunk Birmingham students, it’s possible to see in the modern pitch invasion something else entirely: a reclamation, an act of peaceful resistance, a reimagining of the sporting arena as a people’s space in the face of a culture that demands it be fenced off at all costs.

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