Michael Jeh August 22, 2010

What cricket can learn from golf

For a non-gifted sportsman like myself, frustratingly, golf and cricket seem to have diametrically opposed plans for me

A deliberate no-ball denied Virender Sehwag a ODI century against Sri Lanka © AFP

For a non-gifted sportsman like myself, frustratingly, golf and cricket seem to have diametrically opposed plans for me. Despite my best intentions, I tend to finish a round of golf having played far more strokes than is ideal. A regular round of 18 holes has me consistently beating Bradman's famed batting average, whereas in cricket I rarely ever fulfil the plan to play lots of shots or post a big score. I justify the golf score by convincing myself that I'm actually getting value for money by playing as many shots as possible but I can't quite come up with a good enough excuse for my all-too-regular low scores with bat in hand.

I've always felt that golf has so much to teach us about life and about cricket. What is most remarkable about golf is that it is utterly unremarkable that players are expected to police themselves, even when the truth is only between themselves and their conscience. It is a game that is entirely founded on integrity, honesty and manners, much like the way cricket was allegedly played in a bygone era. In golf, you count your own strokes, play the ball where it lies, penalise yourself even if you're playing alone or nobody's watching, bad luck is accompanied by a philosophical shrug, bunkers are raked, players keep quiet whilst their partners are playing - the list of good manners and etiquette goes on.

In the last week, where international cricket confronted a few unusual and delicate issues around the spirit of cricket, golf has just continued doing what it always does best - playing fair without even expecting accolades for it. We've had the Sehwag/Randiv/deliberate no-ball incident and it is to the credit of Sri Lankan cricket that they acted so swiftly to punish their own, even when the cricket world was split down the middle about the heinousness of the crime. I've read many of the blogs on the topic, including Sambit Bal's excellent piece a few days ago, and it's clear that whilst most people agree that it was a mean-spirited thing to do, it hardly ranks up there amongst the worst excesses on a cricket field in recent times. Yet, Sri Lanka Cricket, regardless of their motives (as some bloggers were keen to allude to), were proactive in salvaging some pride from an incident which they felt tarnished their reputation as upholders of the spirit of cricket.

This same week, a golfer at the PGA event in Whistling Straits penalised himself for an offence that no one else may have witnessed. It barely rated a mention - such acts of honesty are replayed hundreds of times every day on golf courses around the world, hackers and professionals alike. There is no allowance made for a major event as compared to a weekend thrash around some overgrown golf course. It's just taken for granted that this is the minimum expected of you when you walk up to that first tee, alone on a bush course in the outback or on front of a packed gallery at Augusta. It doesn't matter if the stakes are for the Ryder Cup or a quiet beer with only yourself for company - golf has managed to create a code of ethics that requires nothing more than a look in the mirror.

We've also had the unusual situation where Kyle Mills was given a "30 minute ban" for bowling a warm up ball on the pitch, a technicality which may have some good reason for existing but is hardly the crime of the century. If that constitutes a temporary 'red card', golfing enthusiasts must indeed wonder why some of the vicious sledging, head-butting, shoulder charging, spitting, ball-throwing at batsmen and appalling manners on the field is allowed to happen with a token slap on the wrist at a post-match hearing with the Match Referee. Whilst golf is essentially a singular pursuit, one still wonders why cricket can justify outright boorishness solely on the basis of pathetic excuses like "pressure, competitiveness, man's game, heat of the moment". Life itself is full of such pressures but we generally don't condone crude, rude and obnoxious behaviour because of it.

Can you imagine a golfer whispering to his playing partner that his wife/mother/sister etc was less than virtuous last night and then taking pleasure in the duffed shot that follows? That would be seen as tantamount to cheating, let alone the complete abrogation of honour and decency. Golfers would view that as a hollow victory, a moment not worthy of revelling in, their reputation on the 'circuit' damaged beyond repair.

Yet cricket often legitimises such gamesmanship, even go so far as to celebrate the exponents of these practices as being "hard men" who can mix it with the toughest of competitors. Their reputation on the circuit actually is enhanced because of it! I suspect that serious golfers, hardened men amongst that lot too, would be appalled that a sportsman could actually derive any pleasure from winning under those circumstances. What's even more ironic is that many cricketers who play their game with this so-called 'uncompromising' attitude can actually play outstanding golf as perfect gentlemen, thereby negating the very essence of their own argument that they need the adrenalin surge of the 'niggle' to bring out the best in them.

No one doubts that cricket and golf are totally unique and will naturally bring out very different physical and mental skills. Even allowing for that, it is almost a shame that the two sports, both of which are now hyper-professional (in fact, the money at stake in golf makes cricket look like a joke) have diverged so far from common values that were rooted in olde worlde manners and courtesies. It probably boils down to a cultural value set that is now so firmly entrenched in golf that it is now second nature to anyone playing that sport, at any level. It's almost become an unwritten rule of the game where to observe the rule is merely your duty whereas to transgress it would be a shameful act of treachery. And that's probably where cricket has moved away from its original reputation as a true gentleman's game - it is now the case where batsmen who walk when they nick it or keepers that don't appeal when they know it missed the edge or fielders who refuse to claim dubious catches are now celebrated as wonderful sportsmen worthy of special mention. In golf, that sort of behaviour is a moral obligation.

In the 1925 US Open in Massachusetts, the great Bobby Jones called a shot on himself for a moving ball. He went on to lose by a single stroke but was genuinely surprised by the fuss that was made of his honesty. "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank" he said.

That's just not cricket! Not today anyway. Perhaps in village cricket but not at the top. And I think the game is all the poorer for it.

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