India in England 2014 July 31, 2014

Anderson England's guilty pleasure

There is an uncomfortable recognition that the beauty of James Anderson's cricket comes with a professionalism that has been taken to the limits but weak umpiring has to share the blame

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'Hope to play at Old Trafford' - Anderson

As James Anderson prepares to face an ICC enquiry into his alleged misconduct during the Trent Bridge Test, it is hard to suppress a feeling of frustration about how this wonderful fast bowler has been allowed to become England's guilty pleasure.

Anderson is close to the apex of a fulfilling career, only 12 more wickets needed to draw equal with Ian Botham as England's leading Test wicket-taker. He is championed in England as a true craftsman among fast bowlers, a manipulator of a cricket ball who deserves to stand alongside the best.

And yet, this faith in his bowling purity sits uneasily with a sullied reputation; a player now well known to all but the most casual follower of the game as one of the most ingrained sledgers around and, a natural development, who allegedly has now tipped over into the pushing of Ravindra Jadeja as well. It does not take long to find an opponent, or a past opponent, who says there is nobody worse - even if they then admit it is a crowded field. It should never have come to this.

This then is England's guilty pleasure: on one side, the shy craftsman who became one of the finest fast bowlers in the world; on the other, the Burnley Lip, whose abuse of opponents has been incessant for many years. Many in the game will tell you it doesn't matter a jot. It does. Cricket has a problem - and it needs to deal with it before everybody starts to grow Luis Suarez fangs.

It is important to observe - and his captain, Alastair Cook, was shrewd enough to do so from the start - that the ICC code of conduct commissioner, Gordon Lewis, a retired Australian judge, has been appointed to judge one specific incident at Trent Bridge, about which the details remain at issue, and not to pass opinion on a verbally-strewn career.

The ICC's judgment, in the simplest terms, will determine whether Anderson is banned from his home Test at Old Trafford next week, and perhaps for the rest of the series. For many, that outcome is all that matters. It might swing a Test series towards India in the process, although the suggestion that this is India's reasoning is overly cynical.

This is not a tactic; this is a campaign. And once Lewis makes his ruling, we will wait to discover if it is the first campaign of many or if Anderson is to be its sole victim. A trophy killing for India's mantelpiece.

Anderson's fate will be determined on whether video evidence really does exist - India say so, but they might be bluffing - and on the dubious testimony of witnesses about Who Pushed Who When, Who Said What To Whom, all of which tittle-tattle should be enough to make Lewis wonder whether he should be doing better things with his life.

Cricket's fate will take longer to determine. What we may also be experiencing is the start of India agitation against persistent on-field abuse, a habit resented for its disrespect and occasionally because of its implied threat of physical violence. The reality is that only India is empowered to change the nature of the game - to say "we will not play this way". What is less unclear is whether it has the will to try to transform the way the game is played - or whether perhaps Lewis' ruling will carry wider encouragement for cricket to clean up its act.

We may know a lot more about the repercussions by Christmas. If India, and in particular their captain MS Dhoni, have taken a stand against what they regard as Anderson's excess, how will they respond when India pitch up for a Test series in Australia? They have acted independently of the umpires and match referees once. If Lewis rules in their favour, will they feel obliged to do it again?

If Mitchell Johnson snarls from underneath his vaudevillian moustache, will India be consistent and immediately lay a charge with the ICC? If David Warner yaps like a dog for much of a session, as he once stupidly did to irritate Faf du Plessis, will another charge be laid? If Shane Watson adds some sly words of his own, will three Australians be in the dock?

Anderson's alleged push of Jadeja is presented as the catalyst for the complaint, but it was his reputation as a serial sledger that made Dhoni so anxious to pursue it. Anderson was charged because he has form - the alleged push was just a chance to get even. And physical contact, incidentally, is not necessarily needed to win a case. There is plenty in the ICC Code of Conduct that pretends to punish verbal abuse. It is just that nobody ever presses charges.

While England is invited to regard Anderson as a guilty pleasure, international umpires and the ICC must be feeling nervous. If India is embarking upon an attempted clean up, the umpires will need to intervene in a manner they have not seen fit to do for years. If they do, it will be long overdue. What we have at the moment is a sham.

So much in cricket is disingenuous. The Spirit of Cricket has become a widely-ridiculed moral salad dressing on a game where umpires allow verbal aggression to go unchecked in the misguided belief that they are permitting the vital confrontational elements that enhance the game at the highest level. As long as the invective isn't aimed at them, as long as nobody actually makes physical contact, they are only concerned with ensuring the public does not know too much.

Most of us - at whatever level we play the game - relish a clever sledge, most of us permit a physically-straining fast bowler a display of frustration, most of us don't mind a bit of backchat, but umpires have utterly failed in their duty to check the incessant boorish behaviour that has now become regarded as just a daily reality. Where were they when Anderson indulged in his 30-metre rant at Jadeja as the players walked off for tea? Where is the dividing line? Is everything acceptable unless you actually push someone? It is time we were honestly told.

Instead, we have Anderson, the essentially gentle guy trying to play tough; the diffident figure who has been told by coaches to become more aggressive; the man who could barely spit out a sentence in press conferences at the start of his career, transformed into a venomous on-field malcontent; a natural leader of no-one proudly bowling more Test overs than anyone in the world as he forever strives to be the Leader of the Attack; a talented, likeable lad who has been gradually lulled by this failure of umpires and administrators to rule and has developed, in his immense desire to win Tests for England, into a twisted, nastier on-field personality than he really is.

Considering all the jokes about his grumpiness - his best mate, Graeme Swann, loves to joke that it takes a couple of beers to cheer him up - this role play does not seem to have made him very happy.

As England celebrated an overwhelming victory at the Ageas Bowl, Anderson's hugs with his team-mates seemed slightly troubled. A few minutes later, he was collecting another magnum of champagne, another man-of-the-match award logged. He had produced his finest all-round performance for a year, a display summoned out of adversity, adversity not just for himself, but for his captain, Alastair Cook, and indeed the entire England Test set-up.

While we cherish Anderson's skill, we prefer to be spared a truth. The abuse has become the sourness we would rather not recognise

It was a pleasure to see Anderson and Stuart Broad remembering once again how to play with joy - "play with the happiness of your first Test," the coach, Peter Moores had urged them as he sought to arrest England's worst run for 20 years, and England's senior players, as one, had released the yoke from their back. England kept their lips buttoned - and won by a country mile.

But on the one occasion that Anderson allowed himself some backchat - a sentence or two to Ajinkya Rahane at the end of the fourth day - the response from Rahane was so melodramatic that India's zero tolerance policy was abundantly clear. Was this personal animosity, a tactical manoeuvre ahead of the hearing or further proof a long-term attempt to change the nature of the game?

Anderson's post-match interviews, as ever, were conducted in that vulnerable, polite, halting style. It is the Anderson that England wish to celebrate: the self-effacing, bashful sportsman who has succeeded in a physically-demanding, confrontational job. We would rather dwell on his 371 Test wickets and not wonder about his tally of C words when the game gets tough.

His newly-adopted beard looks like a defence mechanism against the uproar surrounding him. When he was asked after the match if he was confident about the outcome of the hearing, his "don't know" response sounded abashed. There was no petulant strut, no words of defiance, just a world-class player trapped in a behavioural mode that might be about to bring suspension.

While we cherish Anderson's skill, we prefer to be spared this truth. The abuse has become the sourness we would rather not recognise: the stain on the luxury, hand-woven carpet; the dodgy financial dealings that produce the beautiful marina; the uncomfortable recognition that the beauty of Anderson's cricket comes with a professionalism that has been taken to the limits. The alleged push has finally forced us to take notice.

We all know this: fans, team-mates, opponents, former players, umpires, administrators, all playing our part in this endless charade.

The ECB defends Anderson because it wants to win the series and protect its players; no thoughts here - not publicly anyway - of the wider picture. The ICC just bleats that the authority of the enquiry has been compromised because both Dhoni and Cook have passed comment on the situation, more concerned with systems and processes than the long-term health of the game.

Meanwhile, James Anderson, is hung out to dry.

And nobody is imposing, for all of us to see, the behavioural standards by which the game should be run.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on August 2, 2014, 14:09 GMT

    Completely exonerating both is certainly NOT honourable to a great game! Sorry, to see a decision hiding behind the lack of "visual" evidence. To exaggerate the point, will any judge dismiss a case of theft for lack of visual evidence. I plead guilty for this exaggerated comparison, but had to, since many are dismissing the event as a non-event.

  • IndianInnerEdge on August 2, 2014, 13:51 GMT

    Nice read from David...'Sledging' 'Mental Disintegration' are just labels attached by Aus players &Waugh to basically lip service& mouthing off which was existent even when the noble game began. Also in real life, in the corporate jungle, arent we all moving like chess pieces, playing political games, manipulating, etc just to get that extra edge, that extra promotion? Slegding is the same thing,except it is out in the open minus all the smoke&mirrors that go with real life climbing the coroporate ladder. What endears people like Rahul, Sachin,kallis,sanath,inzy, mo yo, lax,chanders, etc was that these august gentlemen rarely sledged, if they did-it was to challenge the cricketing skill of an opponent-the very reason they were on the same field as their opponent-WITHOUT any reference to certain body parts, certain bodily functions, questioning anyones parentage, heritage, never was personal, sledging is fine as long as it sticks to these parameters & has an element of humour

  • dummy4fb on August 2, 2014, 13:21 GMT

    Although I agree with the sentiment of this article to an extent, the concept of Indian 'cleaning-up' cricket seems laughable to me.

    I agree that is a shame stump mics have essentially been turned off in recent years. I think the verbal element of the game is enjoyable within reason. I want to hear keepers and close-in fielders trying to gain the psychological edge. I don't want to hear yobbish abuse like you'd hear a troubled inner city school. I guess umpires have become scared teachers, who just accept the reality of the situation and think they can do little about it.

    Just tell the players stump mics are going back on for viewers, and any indiscretions deemed too extreme will be punished by the ICC. You're right to point out that Jimmy and England (among other nations) play the 'humble sportsman' card in pre and post match interviews. Let them prove it by making it known the world is listening. I think they would clean up their act quite quickly actually.

  • dummy4fb on August 2, 2014, 8:38 GMT

    So Anderson and Jadeja are found not guilty owing to a lack of evidence, and the whole issue is swept under the carpet again.

    It's time for cricket to institute a sin bin system - send players off for 30 minutes, with no substitute - for inappropriate language, pushing and shoving etc.

  • DustBowl on August 2, 2014, 7:59 GMT

    Excellent article. As others and G Boycott have said, nip it in the bud - but the umpires and administrators are too weak to do this. Sledging and wit are surely to be welcomed, but Warner's efforts and 'breaking arms' are boorish and just for the 'pub car park' - though I can see why Clarke broke after the earlier drubbing and lip from Anderson. Is it a cultural thing, did Dravid or Murali sledge - not really? I don't think Kallis did, great demeanor. Compare to boring Warner and Anderson...

  • dummy4fb on August 1, 2014, 18:06 GMT

    I always liked the sledging the Aussie developed and it did make the game interesting and added more drama to already high voltage atmosphere of test cricket. Anyway, with two test to go and a deficit of 13 wicket, great chance for Jimmy to go for the highest wicket taker and surpassing Botham's record of being the highest English wicket taker.

  • TrumperLives on August 1, 2014, 15:46 GMT

    Sledging was never part of the game - psychological banter and gamesmanship however have always been so. Sadly people make the mistake of confusing foul mouth abuse (sledging) as banter. Common Law principles if applied to on field abuse would be considered as either slander or causing alarm and affront.

  • shane-oh on August 1, 2014, 15:21 GMT

    @davidhopps1 - brilliant! That response is gold, I shudder to think how abusive some of the messages must have been! Thanks for replying in such comprehensive fashion.

  • davidhopps1 on August 1, 2014, 15:04 GMT

    Thanks for all the published responses. Clearly sledging is alive and well on Cricinfo too. People are always entitled to regard every piece they read as misguided - the counter argument that physical threat is entirely different from endless sledging, and that this issue is only about an alleged push, can be advanced but I don't happen to agree with it. But as for the many junked comments, please read the piece first before tearing into infuriated views that I regard Anderson as entirely innocent (wrong), that this is an evil attack on India (wrong), that I want to ban ALL sledging (wrong), that I am blaming Australia (wrong) or, most funnily, that I am known as a champion sledger because I was once "outed" by the Guardian for calling Ashley Giles a wheelie bin. I am still giggling at that. Please call the piece I wrote the most ridiculous piece you have ever read on Cricinfo if you must be so aggressive not the piece you think I wrote or we will have no option but to lay Level 4 charges

  • agent001 on August 1, 2014, 15:03 GMT

    Tactics to get Anderson out of the series ? It takes two to tango. Just fine Anderson for 100% of his match fee and call it even. Spectators ay big bucks to come see the players play, and barring them from the game is not the right approach in the short term or I the middle of a series. Impose huge fines.