[To my readers: This is unashamedly a post about cricket. If that’s not your thing, you’re probably going to get bored reading this. In which case you have my apology, that was not my intention].
When I was young, there were many sportsmen I admired; they ranged from Pele (whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 1996) and Gary Sobers (who played golf with my father, in my presence, in 1967) through to Tom Watson (whom I’ve seen play a few times) and Derek Randall.
Yes, Derek Randall. The Derek Randall who famously doffed his cap to Dennis Lillee just after he’d bowled a bouncer at him. And then said “No good hitting me there, mate, there’s nothing to damage.”
Randall epitomised the true sportsman to me. Incredibly talented, fanatic about his sport, but with a sense of proportion that showed in his humour, both on-field as well as off. Randall had already made his name well before the Melbourne Centenary Test at which the Lillee affaire (shown above) happened, and he nearly made that Test his own, with a brilliant 174. It was a match full of incident. Yet, when asked what really stood out for him, Randall is reputed to have said that it was when Rodney Marsh called him back to the wicket after the umpire (Tony Brooks) had given him out. He said “It’s how the Aussies play – hard, but fair. I honestly don’t think it would have made any difference if we were playing for the Ashes. It was Rodney’s way. He was such a competitor but above all he values cricket.”
[Incidentally, Mike Brearley, in The Art of Captaincy, reported that Randall asked Marsh, just as he was taking guard “How’s it going, Marshy?” Silence. After the next ball “What’s the matter, Marshy, not talking today?” To which Marsh replied “What do you think this is, a garden party?”]
That was in 1977. A full two decades later, I was reminded of the Randall-Marsh incident when Robbie Fowler, of Liverpool, went to the referee shaking his finger and mouthing “No, no”, just as the official was pointing to the penalty spot, having adjudged that David Seaman had brought Fowler down unfairly. And the headline at the time “Football hero in honesty shock“. The shock wasn’t about Fowler — Robbie was always that kind of person. The shock was about football, and about honesty in football. Seventeen years on, I cannot watch Premier League football, especially when a corner is given. Hands everywhere, shirts being pulled, goalkeepers bulldozed out of play, nudges and pushes, so much happening that the referee’s job becomes impossible.
The system is one that can be played, and so it gets played. In premier league football, winning has become more important than winning fairly; fairness has become a luxury. When that happens, travesty is round the corner, followed by tragedy.
Test cricket runs the risk of heading the same way. Which would be a real shame, since it was cricket that gave us the term “not cricket”, to describe something that was just not “done”. I was reminded of this when reading the Sunday Times last week, where, in an eminently forgettable article, there was an eminently memorable phrase:
…… behaved in a way which would not do if generally adopted. What a wonderful turn of phrase.
There was a time when batsmen walked when they were out, without waiting for the umpire’s signal. It wasn’t rare. Going back to Art of Captaincy, Brearley says “I admire the Australians’ straightforwardness with regard to “walking” — that is, not waiting for an umpire’s decision if you know that you are out. After the Second World War, “walking” gradually grew in English county cricket. By the early ’60s anyone who did not walk was considered a cheat.”
He then went on to explain how this could be abused: walking when it wasn’t important, and then not walking when you were near a fifty or a hundred, or when the match result hung in the balance. But that’s not the point.
The point is what happened since. Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that there are different forms of cheating, and that some forms are okay while others are not. So today we believe that when a fielder appeals while knowing he did not take the catch cleanly, that is wrong. That’s “active” cheating, when you do something to achieve the wrong outcome. This is what Denesh Ramdin was accused of doing a few months ago, and he was suspended for two matches for that transgression. And at the same time we condone “passive” cheating, as when a batsman who knows he was out stays at the crease to see if the umpire gives him out or not. The argument here is that the batsman doesn’t actually do something to achieve the wrong outcome, he just takes advantage of errors by the umpire as and when they happen. So it’s “passive”.
If you’re out, you’re out. And if you know it, then walk.
Kevin Pietersen walked today, without waiting for the umpire’s signal. [Well done Kevin, I shall be shouting for you at the Oval in a few weeks.]. He was probably still stinging from the cheating accusation levelled at him a few days ago, and rightly so. He strikes me as one of those hugely-talented and incredibly obstinate people who are capable of doing many things, right things as well as wrong things, but cheating is not one of those things. Not in his make-up.
Stuart Broad stayed at the crease some weeks ago when he knew he was out. When his team-mates knew he was out. When the opposing team knew he was out. When everyone watching, and a few million others who watched it later, knew he was out. When even the umpire had figured it out.
Yet Stuart Broad stayed at the crease because the system, the rules in use, made it legal for him to do so.
A few years ago, Ian Bell was recalled by MS Dhoni when he was “legally” out. Decades earlier, Gundappa Viswanath recalled Bob Taylor when he was “legally” out.
Broad is not a cheat, but he “behaved in a way that would not do if generally adopted”.
These are all “spirit” versus “letter” issues.
And spirit matters. If we lose the spirit behind all this, we lose everything. The essence of sport, learning about competitiveness and teamwork in an environment of fairness and mutual respect. Winning is important, but not at all costs.
That’s why I am concerned about DRS, that’s why I dislike Duckworth-Lewis. Because the unintended consequences of these changes tear at the spirit of the game.
The more we allow “letter” to dominate “spirit”, the more we are signalling to the generations that follow that what you do doesn’t matter; what matters is whether you get caught or not.
Sporting heroes are no longer readily available. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll have invaded every aspect of their lives; every day we hear of failed drugs tests, violent behaviour, drink problems, marital issues, the list goes on.
I am no troglodyte, I am willing and happy to endure and absorb change, some have even accused me of fostering and fomenting it in different contexts. But when change is brought about, it is important to remember the core values of that which is being changed, so that they don’t change.
We must understand what’s cricket.
And what’s not cricket.