For rather too long cricket has swaggered along merrily, proudly carrying the weight of its own self-imposed, pompous and deceptive title — a gentlemen's game. It would mean as if other field and team sports are not!
But hardly does a year pass when cricket is not embroiled in a major controversy or two, conclusively confirming that under the guise of being a gentlemen's game, it has always been played on the frontiers of gamesmanship, on and off-the-field.
W.G. Grace, the much glorified father of cricket, tended to cheat when the mood seized him. Tales of his cheating and gamesmanship abound.
The day the idea of Bodyline bowling was conceived just to stop Don Bradman from plundering runs, as was his wont, the spirit of cricket had taken a severe beating.
No true sportsman talks about seeing a batsman's blood on the wicket. But Jeff Thomson did. Can such an attitude have any place in a gentlemen's game?
The other day in Chittagong, the West Indies clinched a dramatic two-run win over Zimbabwe through a disputed run-out at the start of the final over of their group match in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh.
Keemo Paul, beginning the 50th over of the innings, appeared not to enter his delivery stride before breaking the stumps and appealing for a run-out against the non-striker Richard Ngarava.
The onfield umpires, Ahsan Raza and Phil Jones, told the West Indies captain Shimron Hetmyer if he wanted to withdraw the appeal, which was against the very spirit of cricket. But Hetmyer confirmed he wanted to uphold the appeal. It sealed the West Indies' victory and entry into the quarterfinals.
“We got so close. No comment about it. I don't have anything to say right now. No comment,” a disconsolate Zimbabwe captain Brandon Mavuta said after the match, refusing to comment on the incident.
This was not the first time that such an unsporting yet perfectly lawful incident was witnessed on a cricket field. Vinoo Mankad had run out Bill Brown, after reportedly warning him twice, in a Test match in Sydney in 1947-48.
The Indian allrounder not only gained notoriety but also got his name into the cricket lexicon. Mankad has become both a verb and a noun. Any batsman getting out similarly is described to have been Mankaded.
In all, four players have been Mankaded in Tests and four others in ODIs so far. In 2014, Jos Buttler was run-out by off-spinner Sachithra Senanayake in an ODI at Edgbaston, Birmingham. The Sri Lankan, whose bowling action was called into question on the eve of the match, was roundly booed by the crowd.
To be fair to Senanayake, he had given Buttler two warnings in the 42nd over before removing the bails in the 44th. While England captain Alastair Cook accused Sri Lanka of "crossing the line", his counterpart Angelo Mathews said he would "stick" by it.
How times have changed. Today, even junior cricketers from the Caribbean do not bother about fair play.
But in the 1987 World Cup on the subcontinent, the peerless Courtney Walsh simply refused to Mankad the tail-ender Saleem Jaffer for backing too far at the non-striker's end in a nerve-wracking quarterfinal against Pakistan at Lahore.
Walsh's sporting act cost the West Indies a berth in the semifinals for the first time in World Cup history. Walsh later said he would do the same again in a similar situation.
It is because of truly gentle and sporting players like Walsh, Gundappa Viswanath and Frank Worrell — to name only three from a very short list — that cricket has managed to hold its head high somehow.
Always a gentleman cricketer, Worrell strictly instructed Wes Hall, his most lethal weapon, not to attempt any bouncer even when he was bowling the last over of the historic Tied Test to Australia's tail-enders in Brisbane in 1960.
Two years later, when Nari Contractor was felled by a vicious Chrlie Griffith beamer in a match against Barbados, ahead of the third Test, Worrell, the first black Caribbean captain, who built a powerful West Indies team, was the first among those who donated blood to save the severely injured Indian captain's life.
Viswanath recalled Bob Taylor after he felt the England wicketkeeper was wrongly given out in the Golden Jubilee Test at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in 1980. The visitors were precariously placed then. Back again on the field, Taylor and Ian Botham orchestrated a remarkable recovery and struck a major partnership, which eventually did India in.
But one swallow does not make a summer. Against noble men like Walsh, Viswanath, Worrell and several others of their ilk, there are thousands of dishonest players, who do not care a fig for all the niceties and virtues cricket stands for.
Cricket is littered with ugly incidents, on and off the field — Dennis Lillee versus Javed Miandad, Mike Gatting versus Shakoor Rana, Rashid Patel versus Raman Lamba, the "Dirt in the Pocket" affair at Lord's, of all places, involving the former England captain and today's pundit Michael Atherton, the Monkeygate row involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh, et al.
Close on the heels of the Mankad-style incident in Chittagong has come the news that Pakistan's leg-spinner Yasir Shah, who has figured in 12 Tests, 15 ODIs and 2 Twenty20 internationals, has been slapped a three-month ban by the ICC after he pleaded guilty to a doping offense, saying he had inadvertently taken his wife's blood pressure medication.
Betting, bribery, match-fixing, spot-fixing, sledging to the extent of crossing the line and making personal attacks, arguing with umpires, abusing and sometimes actually threatening the opposite players, and doping. The gentlemen's game (pun intended) has seen all these evils and vices and many more in the last 150 years.
Cricket's so-called "spirit" has been worst affected in the 21st century in particular because of the monster of money. Along with crass commercialism has come many ills and they have hit the game really hard.
But it is irrational to blame only the IPL, as many people do, and other such lucrative leagues across the cricket globe for spoiling the players and tarnishing the image of the game. They may be in a small number, but there are still good cricketers upholding the game's basic principles.
But to keep calling cricket a gentlemen's game despite all this is a bit too much. It is nothing but sheer hypocrisy because those who follow the game closely are not unaware of the starker realities.
The very concept of sportsmanship seems to have changed today. There are players ready to indulge in any kind of gamesmanship if their action is going to help their team gain some advantage.
Winning at any cost is a way of life for many hardcore professional cricketers today. So they do not mind using all the negative tactics, including indulging in sledging, claiming questionable catches as if they were real, pressurising the umpires, appealing excessively and vociferously even when there is no need, quarreling with the opposite players, and so on.
Bringing success and laurels to their team, their country, even at the cost of the spirit of cricket, is the new fad.
One wonders if cricket was ever a gentlemen's game. And even if it was, it has long ceased to be one. At least in the 21st century it looks all but a gentlemen's game.
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