Clarke sets the benchmark high
"It's innocence when it charms us, ignorance when it doesn't" - Mignon McLaughlin
It's hard to tell at this stage whether the ball-tampering allegations will turn out to be a storm in a teacup or something that leads to greater intervention by the ICC. What is interesting though is the way it has been reported here in Australia, and the benchmark it has now set for the admirable team culture that Michael Clarke has already managed to establish in his short tenure as captain.
Since taking over from Ricky Ponting, whose captaincy was occasionally tainted by the perception that the spirit of cricket wasn't always adhered to, Clarke has seemingly created a culture that is refreshingly open, honest and upbeat, even in adversity. I use the word 'perception' with care when talking about Ponting's reign because opinions can be so varied on such a controversial topic so to label it thus merely acknowledges that in some quarters, Ponting's leadership era was perceived in that light.
Clarke, on the other hand, has a different personal brand to Ponting (and arguably very different to any former Australian captain in recent memory). I am prepared to take him at his word when he denies any knowledge or deliberate involvement in this latest ball-tampering saga because his record thus far speaks of a thoughtful and decent man who understands that the honour he is bestowed with as captain of Australia demands a certain level of dignity. Likewise Peter Siddle; I knew him as a young man when he was at the Cricket Academy in Brisbane and was always impressed by his demeanour and manner. There was very little to dislike about this big-hearted chap so I'm more than happy to take his word that he was not part of anything that was deliberately untoward.
What is interesting though is the moral high ground that the Australian team is now occupying, not necessarily of their own doing. In today's Australian newspaper, Peter Lalor attributes the following sentiments to Clarke. These words may not necessarily be Clarke's exact words, because it was not represented as a direct quote, but one can presume that it broadly represents Clarke's views. Lalor's words were "captain Michael Clarke said he was absolutely sure his players would not breach the spirit of the game."
If that is an accurate representation of Clarke's views, it is admirable that his team sets such high standards of behaviour as a benchmark rather than a retrospective defence of any untoward behaviour. Note, he is not saying that they "did not breach the spirit of the game" but he's actually elevating it to a higher plane by saying that his players "would not breach the spirit of the game". The nuance of those words, if accurately reflected, suggests a moral position that is laudable because it presupposes a culture that would not countenance engaging in sharp practices.
Clarke is not so much defending an accusation so much as proudly claiming an organisational culture that makes it clear that under his captaincy, Australia will always aim to play cricket in the right spirit. I sincerely hope it also extends to all aspects of the spirit of cricket including sledging, dissent, social media transgressions, respect for umpires/opposition players etc. If that is what Clarke's leadership stands for, long may he reign.
What will be interesting to see is if the Australian media (and a team led by Clarke) also extend that same respect and presumption of innocence, bordering on righteous indignation on the part of Siddle, to others under the spotlight in similar circumstances. Except in the case of the Shahid Afridi ball-biting incident, where the actions were clearly indefensible, we now owe it to our opponents to be similarly charitable if they are ever accused of not playing in the spirit of the game. After all, I'm sure Clarke would agree that such values are not the sole domain of the Australian team and that presumably all captains would also be equally sure that their players too would not breach the spirit of the game. We owe them that courtesy at least.
In a direct quote, Clarke goes on to say, "I 100% believe we always play in the spirit of the game, I don't think any of the Australian players would ever jeopardise that or do anything to ruin our reputation. We play hard on the field but we understand there is a line you can't cross and we play the right way."
Presumably he is speaking 'post-Clarke captaincy era' because it would be untenable (and untrue) to say that Australia (or any country for that matter) has always played in the spirit of the game and that they have never done anything to jeopardise that reputation. One can only think (hope?) that he is speaking for any team that is led by him because it has not always been thus. If all international captains were of similar ilk, and to be fair, most of the current captains around the world broadly reflect these values, then the spirit of cricket is in safe hands.
I can speak only of the Australian media because I read and listen to it every day (and being an Australian-based writer makes me one of them) when I say that it behoves us to afford the same sort of indignant, "of course he's innocent" sort of editorial slant when a player from another country is accused of ball-tampering too. Playing in the spirit of the game is a universal quality that all nations are equally capable of embracing and as writers, we are duty-bound to afford them that same generosity of spirit (until proven otherwise). Anything less than that is uncharitable at best, bordering on discriminatory or racist at worst.
In the same way that I am prepared to accept Clarke and Siddle's instant indignation, I am also prepared to accept that the initial complaint made by the Sri Lankan management was made in good faith and there was nothing sinister or malicious about it. It would be hypocritical to ascribe higher motives to one party over the other unless evidence of a sinister plot emerges later. There is not always the need to find a villain when looking for the truth.
For example, if a Pakistani bowler were to be accused of ball-tampering (and denies it), I would hope that we would be just as quick to write an initial story framing him in a positive light. To taint him with associated guilt just because Afridi had once been found guilty of a similar offence would be akin to labelling all South African captains as match-fixers just because Hansie Cronje once was. It is a ridiculous notion to think that the commitment to the spirit of cricket resides only in Australia in much the same way that is ridiculous to assume that just because someone is Australian, they are therefore afforded automatic immunity from ball-tampering. Vilifying either team in this latest incident leaves us open to accusations of selective bias and that too is surely not in the spirit of cricket writing.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane