February 22, 2014

Cracking cricket's morality code

His minders may frown at his decision to have a drink before a game, but do fans care if Jesse Ryder's hydration levels were down a notch as long as he can still do magic with a bat?

"If I play cards, they'll say I'm gambling, if I read a magazine, they'll say I'm frivolous, if I sleep, they'll call me fat and lazy" © Getty Images

For the religious believer, morality is a simple business. It's all there in black and white, there's a rule for every situation, and if you're stuck, a man in a robe will happily explain for you what God meant.

For the rest of us, it's a stickier business. We have to work out for ourselves what is naughty, what might be naughty in certain circumstances and what is not naughty as long as you take precautions, and then we have to negotiate with other people.

This can lead to multiple moralities. The moral code of traffic wardens, for instance, appears to demand of its adherents a dogged commitment to spreading misery and perturbation amongst the car-driving populace. Politicians too have a distinctive moral code, one that allows them the freedom to practice the ancient art of truth-massage, and to exercise their traditional skills of ethical flexibility and intellectual suppleness.

Even cricket has its own morality; a set of rules that can look as strange and ruthless to outsiders as the rituals of the Aztecs or the liturgy of the Church of Maradona. One cricket commandment states: "Thou shalt not cheat by pretending to have caught the ball", yet another decrees: "Thou may cheat by pretending not to have hit the ball." Screaming abuse at an opponent is okay, but shaking your head at an umpire is forbidden.

Cricket's code has been expanded in recent years to include the following edict: "Thou shalt not drink even a drop of alcohol on Test-match eve, for verily shall the breakers of this commandment be declared unprofessional and cast into outer darkness at the day of judgement, being the day upon which central contracts are bestowed upon the worthy."

Whereas once cricketers might be expected to drink before, during and after a Test match, those who break this new commandment and enjoy a little pre-match tipple are likely to find themselves on the wrong side of an outrage, as Jesse Ryder and Doug Bracewell can attest. Their Auckland soiree caused a furious backlash as the puritans of the cricket establishment and their acolytes in the cricket media denounced the two sinners:

"It does not go down well with players, coaches and selectors who pore over computer footage late at night while Ryder and Bracewell shout their hangers-on another round of bourbon and cokes."

Granted, that is pretty shocking. What kind of sick twisted individual pollutes their whiskey with coke? It should, however, be stated, that Ryder and Bracewell have only been accused of mixing their whiskey with a child's soft drink. There's no direct proof.

But let's look at the bigger picture. Which of the two groups have their work-life balance in order? The oddballs who sit up all night watching video footage of themselves playing 17 varieties of forward -defensive, or the two young men who relieve the pressure of having to perform in public by going out and having some fun.

Odder still than the reaction of the cricket professionals is the reaction of some non-cricket professionals. It may well be that the Church of Cricket demands such abstinence from its clergy. But why should journalists or fans meekly bow our heads?

I don't care whether the New Zealand team nutritionist believes that Jesse Ryder's going out for a drink the night before makes him 7.5% less efficient at the crease, or that a few pompous scribblers have decided that having a whiskey before a Test match is akin to treason. I want to see our planet's most gifted and exciting willow wavers at the crease, yet Jesse Ryder and Kevin Pietersen are not allowed to play for their countries because they are deemed by the cricket puritans to be of unsuitable character. Is our sport really so overblessed with charismatic performers that it can afford to be so sanctimonious and picky about those it allows to participate?

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here