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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Just not cricket?

Just not cricket?

It's often said that Australian cricket captain is the second most important job in the country after Prime Minister, and some have even quipped that it's the most important.

It certainly feels that way with the extreme levels of furore over alleged ball tampering (actually the Aussie captain quickly admitted the team's offence, so it's not even alleged).

Cricket really is a uniquely weird sport, with more idiosyncrasies than perhaps any other.

Whether people admit or not cheating has always been a part of the game.

It's just that some cheating is considered deeply unacceptable and some is deemed worthy only of a slap on the wrist.

Schoolboy errors

Thinking back to school cricket in England, as 1st XI captain of cricket I was expected to uphold the highest standards on behalf of the school, which by and large I did - at least on the cricket field 😇 - enough to win a school sporting prize of some sort or other. 

But then at weekends I'd go to play senior League Cricket where gamesmanship or mild personal abuse (known informally as 'sledging') was generally considered to be acceptable, even by the League officials supposedly charged with governing onfield behaviour.

I recall one tribunal where among a litany of complaints an opposition player complained of receiving abuse about his weight combined with strong language. The juror, a solid fellow himself, dismissed that particular point out of hand - as a former player, he considered it a routine insult.

One chap was banned for life for cursing at an umpire having been no-balled, while another player received a 3-match ban for attacking a bowler with his bat. He was certainly provoked, but there wasn't necessarily a whole lot of consistency in punishments. 

Racism was considered off limits, of course, though even that was a bit of grey area. 

Quite rightly you couldn't abuse someone for being Indian, Pakistani, or West Indian, but it soon became apparent that insulting a player for being Australian or South African was normally taken to be fair game, even with a few expletives and adjectives thrown in for good measure.

If the recipient was an Aussie the umpires often chuckled, presumably because they'd heard enough pleasantries flying back in the other direction. 

Then there was the thorny issue of batsmen not willingly leaving the field when they knew they were out by snicking or edging the ball for a catch to the wicket keeper or slips. 

In League cricket this was absolutely the norm, at least in the top divisions where not 'walking' was rarely frowned upon after the initial onfield uproar had died down. 

But then I'd go back to play a revered annual school match versus the Marylebone Cricket Club where you could be vilified for doing exactly the same thing.

Nobody even dreamed of not walking in those games, let alone sledging or personal abuse - the MCC members would've had heart attacks! 

Confusing protocols and ethics? You can say that again! 

Universally challenged

By the time I got to University 1st XI cricket nobody really seemed to know what was going on.

Some teams such as mine (Sheffield, below) and those of other redbrick Unis (Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham) were self-managed and essentially adopted an 'anything goes' policy to everything from batsmen walking, sledging, and general onfield behaviour, to drinking caseloads of Newkie Brown on the team minibus. 

For us it all came down to personal decisions and choices, which perhaps is what going to University in Britain is all about. 

Other teams we played against (Durham, Loughborough) had professional coaches, with some of their players aspiring to professional contracts and too fearful of stepping out of line, or saying almost anything untoward on the field at all - to the point that we were able to turn them over in two different formats of the game, which should never have been the case given their far superior talent pool. 

To walk or not to walk?

When I first came to Sydney to play grade cricket, as a batsman you could cop a bollocking if you did walk, especially if it was detrimental to the team's chances. I never walked for anything in grade cricket, and most players don't.

At the professional level, today it is considered standard for players to wait for the umpire's decision even if they know they are out, so not walking is now in vogue, though this wasn't always the case. 

One legendary Aussie cricketer famously grappled with this moral issue during his career, but found that his teammates were bemused by his walking off during a critical World Cup match in 2003 when, it transpired, the umpire wasn't inclined to send him packing...

Australian fans and even some players seemed enraged for years about an Englishman not walking during an Ashes match, the sin in his case being that the edge was too obvious (though for some reason not obvious enough for the umpire to pick it up!)...

Yet Aussie cricket fans seemed to have conveniently forgotten that one of their very own had tried on exactly the same ruse in 2008, albeit to no avail in his case!

Thus, not walking is widely accepted in professional matches, though it might be more contentious for some players in big games, while back in the 1980s some batsmen seemed far more inclined to walk when they had scored, say, 37 runs or 68 runs, but not when they were on 0 or 99, which only confused matters further.

Mild cheats prosper

Some mild forms of 'cheating' are considered normal and fine - essentially not cheating at all - such as batsmen initiating part of a run before the ball is delivered by the bowler, a bit like trying to steal a base in baseball.

However, if the bowler runs the batsman out for doing so - nicknamed a 'Mankad' after  a player that undertook this unsporting act - this is within the laws of cricket but deemed to be against the spirit of the game (whatever that means!) and ungentlemanly conduct, unless the batsman has been cautioned at least once. 

That said, perhaps this form of dismissal is now becoming more common? I don't watch enough short form or T20 cricket to know either way.  

Batsmen showing dissent towards an umpire's decision was once considered to be sacrilege and worthy of a fine or a ban, but this issue too has become somewhat muddled since at certain times and in some forms of the game the batsman is allowed to question the umpire's decision by calling for a television review. 

Perversely, fielders claiming a clean catch when the ball had bounced was once seen to be one of the dirtiest tricks in the game, though attitudes to this scourge have softened too with fielders now more likely to profess that they are unsure and deferring the television cameras for judgement.

The pictures almost invariably come back with inconclusive evidence, and this has led to some furious exchanges between Test players.

Should the fielder's word be trusted, even where they also appeal speculatively for dismissals when they know full well they aren't out?

Bad blood

At the international level all too often there seems to be bad blood between teams and spectators. 

This is unsavoury, of course, but perhaps inevitable, for what we might deem to be acceptable gameship or 'mental disintegration' in Australia or England might be considered highly offensive to another culture.

Domestic state cricket in Australia can be seriously intense with the blurred lines of decency being crossed all the time, but players generally seem to know the bounds of what's considered totally off limits, and the world generally moves on.

International match flare-ups and disputes on the other hand can lead to an entire series being halted. 

Ball tampering in various guises has gone on for decades, of course, from the use of bottle tops to scratch the ball (total sacrilege!) to the less seriously regarded application of sweat and ambre solaire, or saliva infused with sugar from sweets/lollies to the ball to hopefully make it swing about more. 

Players picking away at the ball's seam with fingernails has often come to light, while a former England captain was once caught by a television camera apparently rubbing dirt on to the ball. 

He claimed afterwards that he was drying his fingers by applying dirt to them, which was a peculiar explanation so say the least, but helped him to dodge the lynch mob and a few media bullets. 

One former Test player told me that everyone was at it back in his day - on both sides of a series he played in - the trick was simply not to get caught.

All of which brings us to today, with an Australian player caught out by television cameras using less than noble means of doctoring the ball. 

What's unusual about this incident is that it seems some of the players and possibly even the leadership group knew about the plan, and confessed as much almost immediately.

Heads may roll, and maybe they need to given the exceptional circumstances.

Personally I just hope the Aussie captain can continue doing what he does better than anyone...actually playing the game of cricket.

In the words of Sir Henry Newbolt: "Play up! Play up! And play the game!".