August 6, 2011

Keep the battles on the field

There's been a lot of stroppiness in the England-India series. Both parties have been guilty of overdoing it

The England-India series has been quite an ill-tempered one. Not so on the field, of course, where things have been almost too good-natured, but off it. Among supporters, bloggers, Tweeters, and especially media pundits, the atmosphere has been positively fractious. Be it Michael Vaughan's Vaseline nonsense, Ravi Shastri's tantrum over "jealous" Englishmen or the endless to-ing and fro-ing on the volcanic social media landscape, if there is a special spirit of cricket, you won't find it here.

As much as anything, the combustive atmosphere is a response to history. In cricket India and England share a unique past that breeds a particularly tense relationship. The kind of hypersensitivity exemplified in the Shastri-Hussain saga was not on display during England's recent games with Sri Lanka, for example. But in this series, the backdrop of cricket's old off-field superpower taking on its new one has injected every remark with a deeper significance.

When England's MCC and later Test and County Cricket Board were the dominant voices in the game, their inflated sense of virtue was often at odds with their behaviour. Be it the resistance to boycotting apartheid South Africa or the haranguing of overseas umpires, England rarely acted as the responsible leader.

Now, of course, the situation is not dissimilar, but it is India who are in charge. When an umpire offends them, as was the case with Steve Bucknor and Daryl Harper, the umpire is removed - one way or another. When a Test nation doesn't impress them, as in Bangladesh's case, they don't tour.

Nothing captures India's power more than the IPL. Every cricket board in the world would love a domestic tournament as lucrative, and it is a sign of India's recent economic prowess that no country can match the IPL. The English cricketing public, however, view it with intense suspicion, seeing little cricketing merit in the league and grumbling over its malign effects on the traditional game. It is from this context that Shastri's outburst - and similar feelings expressed across the Twittersphere - emerged. If not jealousy, there did seem a certain indignation from sections of the English press that India could dominate both the most classical form of the game and the money-spinning newcomer.

After two heavy defeats in the first two Tests, though, questions rightly arose over both India's claim to be No. 1 and wider issues about how the game is run in the country. Internet comments are rarely forums for the most thoughtful debate but some of the response to that criticism has been incandescent. Charges of arrogance, conspiracy and ignorance are too readily applied to views India supporters find uncomfortable.

"We Indians played the GENTLEMEN'S game in the right spirit," raged one fan on ESPNcricinfo. "We did not check Ian Bell and Tim Bresnan's bat for Vaseline or extra wood; we didn't keep taunting English players like the way Jimmy Anderson was doing; None of our players' father was a Match referee to get away with all the antics with umpires; and the most important one: WE DIDN'T BEG LIKE ANDY FLOWER AND ANDREW STRAUSS TO REVERSE THE DECISION… WE FOLLOW THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME AND THE MONEY FOLLOW US. Not the other way around." It might not be fair to pick out a random example but the sentiments expressed are not unusual.

Given its position at the top of the global game, holding the BCCI to account is essential to the sport's health. It is why the revelations in the Mumbai Mirror that commentators like Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, who are contracted to the BCCI, cannot say things "against the policy or interests of the board" give cause for concern. On issues like the DRS and scheduling, both of which have affected this series, questions must be asked of the Indian board. Similarly querying why, for all its expertise in generating cash, the BCCI's record at grassroots redistribution is so sketchy, is necessary for the game's development in the country.

It's worth acknowledging though that attacking the BCCI and its influence can be easily construed as a slight on the Indian team, and by association the Indian public itself. The media has a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. Back in April, for example, at the Wisden dinner debate in the Long Room at Lord's, the question was clumsily posed: "Is India's influence a threat to world cricket?" That could only ever fan flames of resentment.

Awareness of context, history and culture, particularly from journalists outside of Asia, is needed. Vaughan's attempted Vaseline banter showed none. The continued outrage in reaction has been tedious, and a little synthetic, truth be told, but we could have been spared the whole episode if Vaughan had thought a little beforehand.

The new world order is hardly that new anymore. Cricket's old establishment has adjusted to its subordinate position off the field, and is desperate to catch up on the field. Its fans and media, however, would do well to remember their chequered history. Supporters of the new power, on the other hand, should try to respect that India's regal position will demand criticism. Cricket doesn't really have a spirit as decreed from above, but the game would be served best if the battles were kept on the field.

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2011, 11:01 GMT

    I do not think that debate and banter is a bad thing. It is part of the fun (look at the Ashes) plus it is important in a free society to be able to comment on sport. I suspect the problem here is a lack of knowledge about the other and a level of sensitivity to perceived slights or arrogance which is over-developed, perhaps understandably, on both sides. As a result silly but harmless comments are given a significance they really do not deserve.

  • nilesh on August 7, 2011, 6:16 GMT

    I think the author is wrong when he says that both parties share equal responsibility. Remember comments from Ian Botham, when India hadn't even started the tour of WI, he said that England are true number 1 and ICC rankings are flawed. This was the first statement from either side that started everything. Indian commentators & players on the contrary were a lot more restrained in their comments. No commentator mocked englad's worldcup campaign to say the least. Even after that Swann kept whining about the DRS. The fuel was added by micheal vaughn and atherten. Indian commentators (shashtri, ganguly and gavskar) started making such statements only after the lord's test got underway and their comments were far less provoking than their English counterparts. I don't want to talk about the media, because they are not part of the fraternity and have no responsibility towards the game. But from the former players, I would expect better.

  • Harsh on August 7, 2011, 4:24 GMT

    @ Paul Rone-Clarke Really? I saw massive crowd difference between FT20 and England/Srilanka series. I am sure ECB and County owners will tell you different stats when you ask them! I am surprised English press is not discussing this!

  • Johnathon on August 7, 2011, 1:49 GMT

    And honestly, nobody cares about T20 anymore. Thats the sad fact. IPL will die in another couple of years unless they stretch it out to include first class and limited overs games, which could severely be a HUGE success and overtake English County Cricket. But IPL with just T20 is going to be a failure. Ratings have dropped and nobody I know (i live outside India) even watches a single match other than the Final, and that too just highlights. T20 is a huge joke. Look at the Sri Lanka vs Australia T20. Promised to be a good game, but who has actually watched it? Dilshan made a century (only 5th person to do so), but who cares? I wouldn't watch any T20 unless its the T20 WC. India might have a powerhouse in T20, but honestly in a couple of years, they will realize that T20 is nothing

  • walk on August 7, 2011, 0:21 GMT

    If there were DRS in this series,

    What would have happened, if India had used both DRS reviews before Harbhajan's LBW dismissal?

    My point is, DRS is not good excuse to fight among. BCCI only opposes it, because Indian players are not in favour of it. I can only hope that sense will prevail in Indian Players..

  • Jake on August 6, 2011, 19:23 GMT

    I don't think English are jealous of IPL. Cricket public in UK is actually more discerning than India. They prefer test format, which is why you see sell-out crowds for first four days of each game (and also for 5th day at Lords). They are not interested in razzmataz or what they call 'hit and giggle cricket' (T20). But they are concerned about effects of IPL with players prioritising T20 over tests. This is for wider good of the game and nothing to do with jealousy of India. We have already seen in test series so far how IPL has ruined techniques of new generation of Indian player. In five years time India will not have a test team worthy of the name. That is primarily India's problem, not England's. Maybe we in India will then be jealous of England's playing structure that breeds real cricketers rather than show ponies. Let's face it: cricket history will remember players who have been put to the test and prevailed, not those who can bowl their four overs for less than 40 runs!

  • suresh on August 6, 2011, 16:55 GMT

    Hey ! When was cricket ever a "gentleman's game" ? Were not pitches prepared to help the hosts ? Were not tactics used to win games which would put a cheater to shame ? Rather than call cricket a gentleman's game, we would do well to call it a game which was played by many gentlemen.

  • Paul on August 6, 2011, 16:45 GMT

    I think people seem to be confusing two very different things, which are the English public as a whole and the English press. The opinions of the English press do not in any way reflect the opinions of the average English cricket fan. If you are a journalist your job is to write articles and the more sensational the article the more papers get sold. It is worth remembering this fact when you read the papers or listen to commentary by the cricket pundits. English cricket fans are not resentful of the IPL and this fuss over "vaseline" comments or disagreements between Hussain and Shastri is just a story that sells papers. Nothing more. I love following the IPL. It's a terrific event that brings the best players in the world together in one tournament. The cricket is spectacular and it should be celebrated. My only concern is players prioritising the IPL over playing for their country and I think the international and domestic schedules need to be better coordinated.

  • Tony on August 6, 2011, 15:13 GMT

    Whereas, Mr Dutta, your article is for the most part well balanced I discovered that the reason Judah Reuben never stood in another test after the "vaseline incident" was that he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 55. It was not due to England's undue influence and just shows how easy it is mistakenly accuse one side or another of unfounded misdeeds.

  • Dummy4 on August 6, 2011, 13:14 GMT

    Agree with just about everything said here. The one thing I'm not sure about is the "T20 jealousy" Here in the UK T20 is dying on it's feet. Crowds are down year on year. And yeah, we have most of the stars turn up. Pollard, Gayle, Afridi etc, they all play here. But over the years fewer and fewer people watch. Remember England are world champs at T20 NOT INDIA. And STILL there is nothing but apathy over here. Even at weekends most grounds are barely half full for T20 games, even ones featuring 4 or 5 international players. As for "Bellgate" - it's now being used an excuse for poor India performance. The REAL spirit of cricket would have been not to appeal in the first place.

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