My father often referred to Gundappa Viswanath as a gentleman cricketer. He often spoke of the time when Viswanath recalled Bob Taylor after the umpire had wrongly given Taylor out. For him it mattered how a certain individual behaved and often his rating of a cricketer was linked to the personality and on-field behaviour of that player. While I appreciated his sentiment, I often wondered whether it is important for a cricketer to be a role model. Does it really matter how a cricketer behaves on the field as long as he is great player?
When Rahul Dravid retired, a lot of focus and praise was on what a gentleman cricketer he was and for the way he conducted himself. There is no doubt that he conducted himself very well, but what if he hadn't conducted himself the way he had? Would that have taken anything away from his greatness? No, he would have still been the best No.3 batsman India ever had. Unintentionally, we attributed a lot of emphasis to his behaviour and undersold him on his pure cricketing skills. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ricky Ponting. A fine batsman, probably the best player of fast bowling ever, but he wasn't the most "gentlemanly" cricketer around. However, Ponting remains one of Australian greats, second only to the peerless and unsurpassable Sir Don Bradman.
People judge cricketers based on their off-field activities. I have often heard statements like "X loves partying... he is not concentrating on his game" from people who know nothing about the player or his lifestyle. We (media and the public at large) tend to keep an eye out for such cricketers and the moment they fail on the field we pounce and blame their "errant" lifestyle. They are soft targets. Judging cricketers on their off-field activities is like judging regular office-goers on what they do once they go home after work. No employer keeps a tab on what an employee is doing after office hours. Similarly, judging cricketers on what they do after stumps are called is not only intrusive but also unfair.
When the law of averages, coupled with some fine swing bowling from Jimmy Anderson got the better of Virat Kohli in England this year, the problem was attributed to the latter's love life. This was stupid, and insulting to both Kohli and Anderson.
Another topic which gets lot of attention from the pundits is the on-field behaviour of certain players. Sledging and abusing are always looked down upon by the commentators. These experts have had problems with the manner in which some players mouth expletives while celebrating their on-field success. While I do not condone foul-mouthed outbursts from players, I have always wondered if the commentators are there to report on the game, or to perform a behaviour analysis of players. Cricketers like David Warner and Anderson have played all their cricket in a certain manner and that has worked for them. If one asks them to change the way they play, I think that will restrict their style and that will ultimately affect their cricket. Yes, aggression does not mean abusing, but what if sledging or taking on an opposition works for them? Asking Warner to tone down will take away what works for him and that will only be detrimental to him and in turn, to cricket at large.
An average cricketer makes his debut somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25. At that age, most of us are still figuring out what we want to do with our lives, but we expect the cricketer to not only take tremendous pressure of representing his country, play in front of large crowds but also put on a behaviour which is good for the kids watching them on telly. I feel it is all a little too much to ask. Yes, some of the behaviour is boorish and that is not acceptable but some leeway needs to be given to cricketers. If anything, proper training sessions should be organised at a young age to explain what is acceptable and what is not and also to channelize the aggression.
Rahul Dravid was a legend and so was Ricky Ponting, both had different methods to achieve the kind of success they achieved. If walking away from sledging worked for Dravid, then giving it back to the bowler worked for Ponting. There's no need to judge them for their methods. Judge them on their cricket, nothing less and nothing more. So while my father will continue to adore the Viswanaths and Dravids of the world, I, on the other hand will have no qualms in accepting Warne or Ponting as my heroes. Maybe it is just a generation thing.
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Biswa Patnaik is a corporate lawyer based out of Mumbai, but his passion is cricket. He tweets here
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