July 13, 2013

Is there a different moral code for batsmen?

Why do we judge a player who nicks it and stands his ground differently from one who claims a bump catch?

Broad's heart may have skipped a beat but his body language betrayed no despair © PA Photos

The immediate public reaction to the Stuart Broad caught-behind incident overnight was predictable. Many of my cricket friends that I've spoken to, cricketers who have played a high standard of grade cricket in Australia, are nonplussed by the fuss being generated by the popular media, presumably driven by the sentiments of the public, many of whom have never played cricket at a high enough level to understand that mistakes of this nature are part and parcel of the game.

From those who have played the game to any significant extent, the reaction was that it was no big deal. Umpires make mistakes, even howlers. Batsmen are perfectly entitled to stand their ground, fielders are entitled to show instinctive disbelief and disappointment, and the game moves on. The very "Australian-ness" of the moment was not lost on any of the folk I canvassed this morning. It is a widely accepted truism that Australia has always been slower to embrace the notion of "walking", happy enough to take the good with the bad.

Peter Siddle said as much in his excellent post-match interview. In his laconic, laidback style, he made it clear that the Australian team had accepted that they had got the rough end of the pineapple, but that it was part and parcel of modern cricket. A few journalists tried to make mountains out of molehills but the burly Victorian wasn't taking the bait. The spirit-of-cricket rubbish was thrown up in the air and Siddle calmly defused that grenade by pointing to the fact that the Australians just got on with the game and were unable to dismiss Broad by the end of play. Their immediate disappointment, disbelief and frustration were as instinctive as they were understandable. From the highlights reel that I saw, it did not appear that Australia lingered too long in the aftermath. Fair play to all concerned.

The only people I encountered who appeared shocked by Broad's brazen insouciance were those who had not played cricket at a competitive level and therefore (quite understandably) did not appreciate that this incident cannot be viewed in isolation. Their understanding of the spirit of cricket seems to be based purely on what they think the words mean in a literal sense, rather than on an appreciation of the nuances of the term as it has come to mean in the modern professional game.

Perhaps it is incumbent upon the ICC or FICA (representing players' voices) to clarify exactly what the spirit of cricket is meant to cover in a pragmatic sense. I wonder if the intent of the spirit is to legislate against things like racist sledging, match-fixing, ball-tampering and umpire abuse? It is certainly difficult to believe that the clause was invoked to stamp down on such acts of dishonesty as not walking, because that just opens up too many inconsistencies.

For example, if one argues that Denesh Ramdin's recent suspenson was because he knew that the ball had dropped from his gloves, it is difficult then to believe that Broad also did not know that he nicked it. Likewise Ricky Ponting must have known that he nicked it in the last World Cup* against Pakistan when he calmly stood his ground, and to his credit, equally calmly walked off the field when the third umpire upheld the Pakistani referral. So merely knowing cannot be a valid criterion for breaching the code (although Ramdin appears to have been judged by it).

What is the difference between a batsman who knows he has nicked it and a fielder who claims a catch that he knows has been grassed? Is there one moral code that applies to the point of impact, when ball passes/hits bat, and another for anything that happens after that point of impact? As one non-cricketer asked me today (and a valid question it was too), does the batsman have some sort of immunity from morality that no other player on the field can rightfully lay claim to?

When I asked her to explain further, she wanted to know why the game places no expectation on a batsman to be honest but frowns upon a fielder who claims a catch that has bounced, or a fielder who steps over the boundary line and does not confess to it. Her point was that if it is perfectly acceptable for a batsman to stand his ground when he clearly knows that he edged the ball, and live or die by the umpire's verdict, why is it that there appears to be a different sort of moral obligation on that same player if he were a fielder and claimed a low catch that he knew to have slipped from his fingers?

The tension and bad blood stems from this lack of clarity. Is it in the intent, the knowledge of a crime committed, or something that happens after the impact zone of bat, pad and ball? As it currently stands, there appears to be two different zones of honesty

While I totally support Broad's decision to stand his ground, would I judge him any more harshly if he claimed a catch that did not carry? If I was being honest, the answer is yes. I myself am a victim of that duality of morality that we've come to accept because we've played the game, but for all that, it makes no sense to someone looking in from the outside without any knowledge of that invisible code of honour.

Where did we learn this honour code? Has it just been passed down from generation to generation, defying national boundaries and cultures? Is it enough to just shrug our shoulders and hide behind the "this is cricket" sort of statement?

That's where I think the ICC or FICA could articulate what the spirit of cricket means in the modern context at the professional level. It might help to ease the tensions and confusion when an incident like this happens. Their clarification needs to be clear about the fact that it only applies to games where neutral umpires are in charge, because we all know that if we are playing in a game where there is no neutral umpire, it is generally considered poor form to deliberately cheat when one of your own team-mates is the one reluctantly standing in the white coat.

Australia have set the standard in this series by accepting the umpire's verdict with as much grace as one can expect under the circumstances, given the state of the match and the desperation of the moment. They might cop a few more poor decisions before the pendulum swings back in their favour, as it will inevitably do over the next nine Tests. England will hopefully display similar grace under fire when they cop a few shockers.

No one expects any team to just smile and get on with it. There will be that flash of disappointment, that kick of the turf, the odd profanity that is involuntarily uttered, and the swish of the bat as a batsman walks away after a rough decision. To deny the player that moment of humanity is to suck the very spirit from the game. What remains unclear is exactly where the line in the sand is when it comes to that spirit. And that's where the custodians of the game can do us all a favour by clarifying exactly what this ubiquitous beast is. The tension and bad blood stems from this lack of clarity. Is it in the intent, the knowledge of a crime committed, or something that happens after the impact zone of bat, pad and ball? As it currently stands, there appears to be two different zones of honesty and that is an anomaly that needs to be clarified.

I must confess to a grudging admiration of Broad's split-second reaction at the point of impact. Unless he genuinely did not know he had nicked it (which I find difficult to believe), it was probably this lack of a guilty reaction that saved his bacon. I think back to times when I've tried to get away with a fine edge and it was often that first trigger movement or slump of the shoulders that gave the game away. Jonny Bairstow's reaction when he edged thinly to the wicketkeeper was more natural, that moment when reality could not fight deception. Broad's heart may have skipped a beat but his body language showed none of that despair. American singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill couldn't have been thinking of Broad when she opined that "reality is easy. It's deception that's the hard work".

*13 July, 2013, 09:41:31 GMT: The article originally said Australia played Pakistan in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. They played each other in the group stage.

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