October 14, 2022: Cricket as a sport has always been looked upon as one that should be played fairly in what one terms as in the right spirit. The famous saying “it’s not cricket” when things are not fair, honest or morally correct was how cricket was perceived by one and all.
How wrong one was, as the first cricket legend, Dr. W.G. Grace, when bowled out by the first ball he faced, decided to put the bails back and continue batting. His retort to the umpire was that the crowd had come to see him and not the bowler and certainly not the umpire!
The Ashes battle between England and Australia soon developed into a fierce encounter in which winning became a very important factor. The spirit of cricket was tarnished in the 1932/33 series by the England captain, Douglas Jardine, when he introduced the ‘Bodyline’ to stop the run-scoring Australian machine, Sir Donald Bradman.
The Bodyline series buried the spirit of the game completely. Jardine, if looked at in the present context, played according to the rules. His strategy after intense research and detailed planning could have been made into a Harvard case study. However, his tactics even though he was successful, tarnished the image of the game. Jardine, an English gentleman was one who was instrumental in burying what the English called the ‘Gentleman’s game’.
The proud moment for India came about when one of the players from the Douglas Jardine side, Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi, who incidentally had just made a century on debut in Sydney, dissented against his tactics. His refusal to accept Jardine’s orders resulted in him being dropped and Pataudi, thereafter, decided to return home.
An Indian standing up against an English cricketer was itself an act to admire.
Gradually, other cricket-playing nations entered the realm of the cricketing world. Victory became an important ingredient. The 60s brought about a radical change and sledging became a part and parcel of cricket at every level of the sport.
Indian players then were seen as good, docile and hospitable opponents, ones who were still in awe of the established cricket teams. A major incident and that too of Vinoo Mankad in 1947 in Australia, dismissing Bill Brown by taking off the bails at the non-striker’s end before releasing the ball, brought about a hue and cry of unsporting behaviour. The irony of it was that this was not the first incident of such an act, which was well within the rules of the game, but done by one from a team that still had to establish its credentials.
Since then, several incidents of unsporting behaviour have haunted the cricketing world. The underarm ball bowled by Trevor Chappell in 1981 against New Zealand to win a One day International match was one such incident. Tony Greig infamously running out Alvin Kallicharan at Port of Spain in 1971 was another such incident. Yet another incident was that of John Snow sending Sunil Gavaskar sprawling at Lord’s in 1971. Similarly, Dennis Lillee kicking Javed Miandad in 1981 in Australia were incidents which brought out the diminishing spirit of the game.
The word ‘unprofessional’ came about or one was looked at as a ‘sissy’ if one could not take the verbal exchanges and bullying that became the norm of the game.
This behaviour was visible not only at the highest level but had filtered way down into school cricket as well.
The recent controversial incidents of Deepti Sharma running-out the non-striker and the shove of Matthew Wade to block Mark Wood from getting him caught and/or run-out brings back memories of the past. One was quite amused by the England captain, Jos Buttler’s remark after the Wade incident, when he said that he did not review or appeal against it as it was too early in the series. How magnanimous of him!
Having spent many years of my life in cricket and playing it at the highest level, I can assure you that unsporting behaviour has been a part and parcel of the game since ages. One has seen great cricketers, who one thought were saints, turn into devils on the field. An act of getting one out by cheating was looked upon as bad luck for the one who suffered or it was referred to as a deliberate bad umpiring decision.
The great theory then was that in the long run it will even out. The problem was that one had to have a long run. This is why players from every part of the cricketing world rooted for neutral umpires. The introduction of the DRS system has been a great boon in the removal of one major area of discontent.
The most wonderful introduction for cricket has been the franchise-based T20 cricket tournaments. The Indian Premier League has been such a lovely platform where cricketers from other countries can interact with each other, as teammates. This has brought about some semblance of closeness amongst them. Playing, socialising, travelling and eating together for two months has bridged the cultural gap. One can see a perceptible change in the way International cricket is being played amongst the cricketers at present.
The problem that arises emanates from the fans, critics and followers. Unfortunately, for them winning is all that matters. This then percolates to the way a cricketer approaches the game. The adrenaline kicks in and all sanity goes down the drain.
In order to uphold the spirit of the game of cricket, one needs to appreciate and enjoy the performances in an unbiased manner.
Cricket then will be played in the right spirit of sportsmanship. Till then the shoving, pushing and taking advantage of every rule by hook or by crook will remain the order of the day. The spirit will still be up in the air, languishing.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)