Michael Jeh November 5, 2008

The abuse must stop

Perhaps now, finally, after way too much prevarication on the issue, the ICC might finally take a stand on what the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ actually means. It’s clear that no such spirit operates in the real world. It’s just a fancy set of words that mean nothing to the cricketers and officials who are meant to uphold that spirit.

The full media release from Justice Sachs regarding the Gautam Gambhir appeal is a sad indictment of what really happens on the field. It tells a story of abuse and sledging and a subsequent physical response that has cost Gambhir a crucial Test match. The saddest part of the whole thing is that no one is even attempting to deny the abuse and the physical contact any more. It’s now an argument about when abuse becomes too much provocation to prevent physical contact.

The entire transcript from players, umpires and Match Referee is a sordid reflection of what the ICC is prepared to tolerate in this so-called professional workplace.What other workplace would allow such behaviour to occur under the shameful umbrella of “competitiveness, grown men, a man’s game, a tough environment, what happens on the field…” etc? It is now clear that not all cricketers can play by these arbitrary rules. The mere fact that Gambhir’s actions were triggered by the constant provocation proves that different people have different levels of tolerance to abuse. And their reactions can take different forms, on different days, leading to higher levels of abuse or physical contact.

Cricket has a simple decision to make. Is this is a professional workplace or a mere sporting environment? Either definition makes it difficult to legitimise abuse, verbal or physical.

If it is a workplace, then the administrators and players should start treating it as such. They need to start behaving in a manner that is appropriate in a normal work environment. If they expect to be paid the sort of money they justify to themselves by claiming they are highly skilled professionals, start behaving like it!

If it is merely a game and not a profession, then pay them commensurate salaries. And if it is only a game, why get so hot under the collar then? After all, it’s only a game isn’t it? Cricketers can’t have it both ways – it’s either a profession where professional courtesies apply or it’s a game where sportsmanship should take precedence. Or just dispense with all such notions, call it “open warfare” and don’t bother with any pretentions of honouring the Spirit of Cricket.

Some of the blame can be leveled at the match officials. If Billy Bowden spent less time trying to be the centre of attention and concentrated on keeping order and making better on-field decisions, some of the tension might have been dissipated. Instead of waiting for Gambhir to complain to the umpires about the ‘chat’, why didn’t Bowden nip it in the bud? It makes it very difficult for Gambhir to complain to the umpires. He would no doubt cop the usual vitriol about “being soft, being a cry baby, go and tell Mummy that we’re being mean to you”.

The umpires and match referee were obviously aware of the tension that was building up and the verbals that were being exchanged by both teams. That much is clear from Chris Broad’s acceptance that Gambhir had been subjected to a certain level of provocation. Well, if they were aware of a storm brewing, why didn’t they do something about it? Perhaps they don’t have the authority to do anything until it becomes a full-blown incident. And then see what happens….

The ICC should take a firm stance on what’s acceptable conduct in a highly visible public workplace. The players should take a look in the mirror and start behaving like the highly skilled professionals they claim to be. And the umpires and match referee need to have the conviction and commonsense to prevent fires rather than dousing flames or punishing arsonists.

Until all the stakeholders in the game take some of this responsibility upon themselves, the Spirit of Cricket will remain an empty epithet, devoid of any real meaning. There can be no such thing as an “acceptable level of sledging”. What’s acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to another. Furthermore, what’s tolerable one day may be insufferable the next day, even to the same person. Where do you draw the line before somebody snaps?

The tragedy is that it leads to the situation where a double centurion, in the form of his life, misses the final Test match with the series in the balance. Regardless of who you support, that can’t be good for the Spirit of Cricket.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane