January 15, 2014

Brett Lee v Piers Morgan? Not cricket

Is there any thrill in watching one of the world's fastest bowlers bowl illegal deliveries aimed at the body of an annoying talk-show host with zero batting skills?

Lee turned a noble cricket art into a circus freak show © Getty Images

Being a wildlife guide in Africa, one never gets weary of the thrill of being on foot in the bushveld amongst a breeding herd of elephants, magnificent, humbling, awe-inspiring beasts that they are. We carry high-powered rifles in case of dire emergency, but to be perfectly honest, if these creatures decided that they really wanted to hurt you, they could. Their power and magnificence are a latent threat and you are acutely aware of your own mortality when you're in their presence. But unless provoked or caught unawares, they rarely feel the need to maliciously hurt a lesser being.

It's like when someone of my limited cricketing talent comes across a genuine fast bowler in a serious game of cricket. I've had the privilege of facing Shoaib Akhtar, Malcolm Marshall and Allan Donald at various points in my journeyman career, and whilst they bowled fast and straight, there was no intent to humiliate or hurt. It would have been all too easy for fast bowlers of this calibre, but where is the fun in a battle where one of the combatants is clearly ill-equipped to fight on equal terms? These great fast bowlers had nothing to prove by intentionally injuring a batsman who clearly wasn't good enough to do up their bootlaces.

It was with some revulsion, then, that I read about the macabre, cheap stunt on Channel 9's The Cricket Show in Melbourne recently, involving Brett Lee and the British talk-show host Piers Morgan. On the face of it, the skit might have had something going for it. A bit of banter, Lee running in at full throttle and yorking Morgan with a few thunderbolts, giving the viewers an idea of just how fast these guys bowl and how much skill it takes to combat their speed. Morgan, for his part, would have looked ruefully back on his skittled stumps, made some fatuous comment about the courage of the England players (which he did, anyway) and conceded that facing extreme pace is not a whole lot of fun. If Lee or the producers had any sense of what is good for cricket, this is how it might have been scripted.

Instead, we saw someone with no batting talent whatsoever being deliberately targeted by one of the world's fastest bowlers, seemingly intent on humiliating and physically injuring him, signed indemnity waivers and all. Watching the incident later, I winced at the utter crassness of it. A friend of mine in Perth, a Level 3 cricket coach, confessed that he turned the television off in disgust, appalled that a noble sport to which he has dedicated his life had descended to this level of farce where a hapless media celebrity was at some risk of being genuinely hurt for no good reason. Some would argue that Morgan being hurt is a good enough reason on its own, but despite his abrasive manners, witnessing a lamb to the slaughter has no appeal to me.

It's like a big-game hunter sneaking up on a new-born impala fawn hiding in the long grass, shivering with fear, shooting it with a rifle with telescopic sights from 200 yards and then proudly displaying the trophy on the mantelpiece

It would have been slightly different if the "victim" had been a real cricketer, a retired one even. Maybe a Derek Pringle or a Mike Atherton perhaps, a few years out of the game, facing some heat in the nets and then relating it to the challenges that the England batsmen have faced and failed to master. At least they would have some skills in avoiding being hurt by a genuine fast bowler, rather than what we saw from Morgan, who clearly had no idea of what it takes to play cricket at any level, let alone criticise the best cricketers of his country.

What was most shameful about this sham was the fact that Lee was bowling deliberate no-balls. That act of cowardice was the last straw for me, underscored by the cackling of Shane Warne in the background, himself no stranger to cheap publicity but surely with some sense of a fair fight. Surely Warne, not the most courageous batsman of his era when it came to facing genuine fast bowling himself, must have had some instinct that this was simply not cricket, not by any measure?

One of the world's fastest bowlers trying to injure an overweight talk-show host and not even being man enough to do it with a legal delivery. That's meant to be entertainment? That's meant to showcase cricket to young fans? Parents are meant to sign their kids up for a sport whose luminaries think it's funny to hurt helpless opponents with illegal tactics? The programme is overtly targeted at young viewers, offering basic coaching tips, and the producers thought they would fulfil that charter by highlighting the physical danger inherent in a non-skilled participant being hurt by a fast bowler who was bowling deliberate no-balls? That will give all the novices an incentive to sign up for junior cricket!

Sir Richard Hadlee, the Rolls Royce of fast bowlers, was outspoken in his contempt for this incident. Apart from the very real possibility of premeditated injury (which might even have crossed the line of criminal intent if something had gone wrong), he presumably felt a sense of shame that fast bowling (and fast bowlers) had been reduced to something akin to the boxing tent of a travelling circus where all comers could step into the ring with the bearded lady and throw haymakers, except that the novices had one hand tied behind their backs.

If this was a genuine contest, Morgan would have won it by TKO, because, technically, Lee couldn't play by the rules and hurt his opponent with a legal delivery. Fancy bowling deliberate no-balls at that pace, watching them thud into Morgan's flaccid flesh and deriving some pleasure from that. It's like a big-game hunter sneaking up on a new-born impala fawn hiding in the long grass, shivering with fear, shooting it with a rifle with telescopic sights from 200 yards and then proudly displaying the trophy on the mantelpiece.

I've heard Morgan described as one of the most disliked men in Britain, and some will say it is delicious irony that he finally got his just desserts from another bully who doesn't quite realise when he has overstepped the mark. In an environment where cricket is trying to portray itself as a sport that is character-building, fun, healthy and full of noble traditions, the producers of this garbage television clearly lost sight of the white line that distinguishes humour from hubris. Plenty of so-called tough men and no balls.

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

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