January 15, 2015

Whatever happened to sportsmanship?

The nasty behaviour we continue to see on the field is threatening to drive fans away from the game

The constant so-called banter during the recent Test series in Australia could well be the last straw for some cricket watchers © Getty Images

I thought I would never enjoy watching cricket again when the 15-degree flexion rule was introduced. But the die-hard cricket fan in me resurfaced sooner rather than later, and I learned to enjoy the game selectively. The match-fixing and IPL scandals nearly put me off the game permanently, but I continue to believe in the innate honesty of the majority of cricketers; and my affair with cricket continues.

Sledging and "mental disintegration" go against the lessons I learnt at the kness of my parents, mentors, coaches, and senior colleagues. These and other ugly features of the contemporary game sometimes make me wish I had had the talent and training to become not a cricketer but a violinist, poet or engine-driver. (In fact, I retired from league cricket because I grew tired of having to face, once or twice every season, the angry tantrums of someone I had played with or against since boyhood.)

The so-called banter between India and Australia down under could well be the last straw for me as a spectator. Yes, we know all about the Australian way of cricket, and for decades Indians (like other teams) have been at the receiving end of that strange paradigm of playing - and talking - the game hard, but these days the Indians seem to have decided to give as good as they get. It's quite another matter that, unlike the Australians, they tend to collapse like a deck of cards the moment they get all verbal and offensive. The one sane voice in the midst of all the brave talk by the likes of new captain Virat Kohli (whose stance was endorsed by the team director, Ravi Shastri), that of MS Dhoni, will no longer be heard in Test cricket.

Much hypocrisy surrounds the claim often made by the culprits that on-field bad behaviour is merely strategic and stays on the field and should remain there. It rarely does, and much of the acrimony overflows, even into the television studio and the pages of newspapers. For all the objectivity we expect of a commentator like Matthew Hayden, he sometimes sounds like a 12th member of the Australian "verbal assault team" rather than a neutral TV voice. The chirpy and hyper-aggressive David Warner sanctimoniously calls for an end to send-offs to dismissed batsmen, while coyly confessing that he might just have crossed the line sometimes.

Much hypocrisy surrounds the claim often made by the culprits that on-field bad behaviour is merely strategic and stays on the field and should remain there. It rarely does, and much of the acrimony overflows

Who draws the line and who decides when it has been crossed? Did Ramnaresh Sarwan cross it before Glenn McGrath did in that infamous incident in the fourth Test of the 2003 series, in St Johns?

While the Australian team, TV commentators and media were convinced of Harbhajan Singh's wrongdoing, and some even accused Sachin Tendulkar of lying during the Monkeygate incident in the Sydney Test of 2007-08, how many Australians found anything wrong with the way the likes of Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke claimed bump catches at different times and exploded on the field when the umpires disallowed those catches?

When Phillip Hughes died, the whole cricket world was stunned by the tragedy and there were signs the the rude awakening might jolt the community into a more civilised, empathetic form of competitiveness than we have seen in the recent past. That hope too seems short-lived, with teams not only back to snarling at each other on the field but also firing salvos at each other off it, threatening relentless aggression and bouncer wars.

Cricket has been known for the sporting spirit shown by its greatest players. I remember Rahul Dravid's email some time ago to Kevin Pietersen (reproduced in Pietersen's autobiography) in which he addresses KP as "Champ" and gives him advice on playing spin. The English batsman's response to it: "Help through encouragement and wisdom? He had me at Champ. If you love cricket you'll know why I often read that email and smile to myself."

I remember my incredulity as a schoolboy at visiting captain John Reid's magnanimity in asking the New Zealand fielders to run while changing places between overs when rain threatened to spoil the chances of India chasing a target of 70 in the Delhi Test in 1965-66.

I was listening on the radio a season later when Garry Sobers told the umpire he had picked the ball up from the ground after Budhi Kunderan had been given out caught at backward short leg in the middle of a fighting late-order partnership with S Venkataraghavan in the Bombay Test between India and West Indies.

Bishan Bedi helped Dennis Amiss learn to play spin better by bowling to him in the nets in the middle of an India-England series, and gave sage advice to Pakistani spinners Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed, that enabled them to bowl winning spells against India.

Who can forget GR Viswanath's grand gesture of recalling Bob Taylor in the Jubilee Test, with the score at 58 for 5, thus facilitating a 171-run partnership between him and Ian Botham and a thumping win for England?

With the memory of the recent tragedy still fresh in everyone's mind, can we expect some of our Test cricketers to look beyond narrow chauvinistic considerations and read that Dravid email and smile to themselves every now and then, and to not teach young cricketers to resort to nasty behaviour to win matches? If they don't, many like me will want to stop watching the game.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

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