By Manas Dixit
Cricket is a game synonymous with a gentleman. “That’s not cricket” is often a saying used to convey that something is not fair or sportsmanlike. The gentleman’s game they say.
The origin of this term dates back to the early 1800s when cricket was played between the Gentlemen and the Players. The gentlemen were rich British aristocrats, who would play the game only as a source of enjoyment.
The word ‘gentleman’ is described as a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of behavior. The game cannot boast to have many such gentlemen anymore.
The Rapidly Dropping Reputation Of Cricket As A Game
The ICC, cricket’s official governing body, aspires to the highest ethical standards in its governance and administration of the sport. This is essential to safeguard the integrity and the reputation of cricket.
‘Integrity’ and ‘reputation’ – these were the words used on multiple occasions by the then Australian captain, Steven Smith in his post-match confession-cum-apology last week. Smith revealed that it was a deliberate plan from the ‘leadership group’ of the side to tamper the ball in a ‘desperate’ attempt to get it to reverse swing on day three of the Third Test in the Australia vs South Africa match.
“The leadership group knew about it. We spoke about it at lunch. I’m not proud of what happened. It’s not in the spirit of the game, my integrity and the integrity of the team has been damaged, and rightfully so,” Smith said.
The preamble to the Laws of Cricket puts the spirit of the game above everything else. ‘Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the spirit of the game’ is stated in it.
The noblemen played cricket in a manner deemed ‘gentle’, which meant that the game was to be played in the right spirit, in a manner that was socially acceptable.
A contact sport, like football, can never be labelled as a ‘gentleman’s game’ because of its physical nature. In its beginning, football was looked down upon as a sport for hooligans. It was inexpensive to play football, and hence the gentlemen stayed away from it.
But this holier than thou image of the sport isn’t all without a blot. The Bodyline series, the Trevor Chappel “underarm” tactics, the Miandad-Lillee bust up are some incidents that immediately come to mind and make a cricket fan cringe.
The Ashes or the Indo-Pak rivalry can have a book to themselves when it comes to ‘not so gentlemanly’ incidents. Who can forget the match-fixing and tragic end of Hansie Cronje, the once great South African all-rounder.
And then came the Aussies.
The Aussies are known to play a fierce brand of cricket. It was under the leadership of Steve Waugh that the team reached new heights. In the early 2000s, the Australians were a formidable unit.
It was a team of eleven passionate men, who weren’t shy to show their emotions. If there were sledging “incidents” earlier, now came the sledging culture.
Sledging had been mainstreamed. They played hard and came hard. Their words were backed by passion and substance. They swept everyone aside and told everyone, “Listen up, this is the new line, the new cricket. That’s how we play, mate”.
It’s this legacy that the Australian team has carried since then. They are the team of everyone’s envy and they draw the line, albeit one that was often offensive to others. Ricky Ponting’s team had that aura and even Michael Clarke’s team was known for their fearlessness.
But the substance was not the same. The Sydneygate, or say, the Joe Root-David Warner incident, where the Australian opener threw a punch at Root, reflects the same. The Aussies were now drawing the line that the world was not ready to adhere to.
However, the Aussies presently seem to be crumbling under their own reputation. The substance is nowhere close. This is not the Oz team that makes you awe. That win at all cost was fine when you had the McGraths and the Lees tearing through every lineup, when you had the Haydens and the Gillys smashing around the park.
But now they’ve taken the line too far. It’s the weight of the legacy that this team isn’t able to carry and this explains the outrage.
It Is More Than Just Ball-Tampering
If this was just ball tampering, the laws are clear. Ball tampering is a Level 2 offence in the ICC Code of Conduct, which carries a maximum 100 percent fine and up to four demerit points, which equates to a one-Test suspension.
Mind you, ball tampering has sucked in some of the most pious names associated with the sport. Tendulkar and Dravid have both been reprimanded for it in the past. But this is more than that.
Australia is a sports-loving nation. Its cricket team is its biggest sports team and as fiercely supportive as Australians are, they are also fiercely critical if the team has done wrong.
What is even more baffling for the Australians is that their very own captain confessed in public that it was pre-planned and that his team cheated the nation when he gave a go-ahead to Warner’s ball-tampering suggestion to Bancroft in the Newlands Test.
It’s often said that the captain of the Australian cricket team is the second most important person in the country, after the Prime Minister. For him to turn out like that must have been a serious letdown. To think that their stars would even cheat to ‘win at all costs’ must have sullied their reputation.
Australia is widely regarded as both characterized and united by sport and this incident has raised questions on not just Australia’s identity as a cricketing nation, which seems to be in grave danger, but on cricket’s identity too.
This is just the latest in a long series of scandals that has damaged the reputation of the game and it would take it some time to recover. Its status as a ‘gentleman’s game’ is now under more threat than ever, as something in the state of cricket is not right.
But there’s still hope for the lovers of the game. Virat Kohli and his team are playing the Australian brand of cricket right now, and they are doing it really well. So the Australian brand of cricket doesn’t have to change. What needs to change is their mentality.
Smith, on Thursday, said, “If any good can come of this, I hope I can be a force for change. I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness”. Lessons are sure to have been learned. The Aussies sure know how to fight back.
All they need is the Australian public to forgive them and support them as they always do. The game has to move on once again and the gentlemen of the game need to step up, lest it should lose its way.
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