Fall from grace

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on April 13, 2018

Smith and Warner were not indispensable. They were not bigger than the game   -  REUTERS

In their obsession to win at all costs, modern-day cricketers often cross the line. The ball tampering by Australians is merely the latest in a series of ignominious behaviour

Controversies have been an integral part of sports, and cricket has been no exception. Football has witnessed many unsavoury incidents on and off the field, from players savagely attacking each other to vicious violence in the galleries; athletics has been ravaged by doping. Passionate fans put pressure on the players, who, in turn, adopt desperate measures to deliver. The ball tampering episode in the recent Australia-South Africa series was the result of one team ‘cheating’ to win at all cost.

Viewers world over watched Cameron Bancroft unlawfully use sandpaper to impact the state of the ball. That the move was orchestrated by the captain (Steve Smith) and vice-captain (David Warner) cast a shadow on the leadership of the Australian team. The trio’s indiscipline was rightly punished by Cricket Australia (CA) with a 12-month ban on Smith and Warner. Bancroft was handed a suspension three months short.

Cricket history was witness to one of the most unfortunate off-the-field incidents in Australian cricket, a brawl between a player and a selector in 1912. Australian captain Clem Hill and selector Peter McAlister, who had played eight Tests, got into a fist fight during a selection meeting over the appointment of a tour manager. Thankfully, cricket has been spared such acrimony in subsequent years.

Australia has long been an architect of aggressive play on the cricket field.

Instances of Dennis Lillee nearly coming to blows with Javed Miandad, and of Lillee engaging in an ugly verbal spat with Sunil Gavaskar are well documented. Such behaviour stems from an intense desire to win, but, of late, that intensity is on the verge of crossing the line, because Australia’s superiority is being challenged universally.

The inability to win overseas meant that Australian cricket was under pressure to pull off one against South Africa, a team supposedly in transition. When things did not work out in their favour, the Australians took to unfair means, and the ball tampering act only showed the team in worse light. The uproar back home inflicted greater humiliation on the players, and the disgraced Smith and Warner had little option but to step down from their positions. The message from CA was clear — for all their lofty achievements and the pedestal on which they were placed, Smith and Warner were not indispensable. They were not bigger than the game.

Thriving on ugliness

Cricket has battled controversies such as match-fixing, spot-fixing, ball tampering, and has come to acquire the image of a sport that thrives on ugliness on the field. It would be incorrect to say it is the flip side of playing cricket the hard way. The game was played as hard in the past too, with the Australians leading the trend with some outrageous sledging. But recent developments hardly portray cricket as a gentleman’s game. In fact, it had ceased to be so ever since commerce started dictating the course of the game.

The abysmal behaviour of the Bangladesh team in Sri Lanka, where the players broke the dressing room door, reflects the mindset of modern cricketers — aggressive beyond accepted norms. Some of the young Indian players are known for their boorish behaviour with fans and opponents. As a former Australian Test player pointed out, the administrators are solely responsible for the reprehensible behaviour of modern cricketers. Warner’s altercation with South African wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock during the Durban Test was surely in bad taste. Warner was quoted saying in his defence, “I can’t see anyone else making comments the way that he made them, which were outright disgusting. It’s a thing you wouldn’t say about any lady, especially someone’s wife. When it comes to family or racism comments or anything like that, that’s just a no-go zone.”

Australians are the acknowledged masters of sledging. Steve Waugh called it a “mind game” and had a taste of it when India captain Sourav Ganguly used the same weapon to make his point in the epic 2001 series in India.

It is not that the Australians are the bad boys of international cricket. In fact, they are the most-sought after players in the cash-rich Indian Premier League. Their brand of cricket — playing to win — is a flashback to the days of dominance that Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team enjoyed in the decade starting 1975.

However, the West Indians were also guilty of introducing rough tactics, an overdose of bouncers, especially from around the stumps, and invited criticism for the controversies they created on the field — Michael Holding kicking off the stumps and Colin Croft deliberately running into the umpire. India and Pakistan players have also brought disrepute to the game with their awful on-field confrontations in the name of aggressive play.

Aggression is today an accepted part of the game. For Gavaskar, aggression meant raising his batting benchmark. For Kapil Dev it meant adding more skills to his bowling. But, increasingly, cricketers tend to cross the line and, in the process, compromise the spirit of the game in their obsession to win at any cost. Credit to Cricket Australia. The strict punishment meted out to Smith and Warner is a big step in crushing dishonest cricketers.

Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu

Published on April 13, 2018

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