Monday, January 14, 2008

The Spirit of the Game

The preamble to the Laws of Cricket state that "Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major respons[i]bility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains."

I won't go into the laws any further, because they seem to indict Ricky Ponting at every turn as far as the Sydney Test match is concerned. In the light of Anil Kumble's expressed desire to move on, this seems to be the right thing to do.

I cannot help but observe, that at the end of the day, the only generous offer, the only expressed concern for the game came from Kumble. Ponting's great concern has been narrowly limited to his own team - "We want to be loved... ", "We take the criticisms on board", "There was only one incident at Sydney and it did not involve us". For Ricky Ponting, it seems to be a public relations exercise. Anil Kumble on the other hand has revealed a tremendous sense of regret about events in the Sydney Test, and a terrifically farsighted concern for the game. He offered to apologize to the Australian side for the Harbhajan Singh issue even though he was convinced that nothing wrong had been said on the field. He even remarked that he felt this would be viewed as weakness or admission of guilt. How right he was. His goodwill (in the matter of the catching agreement) as we all saw was abused by the home captain without as much as a second thought. Ironically, it is Kumble's credibility and integrity which is likely to be questioned as much as Ponting's even though the latter has been demonstrably shown to be economical with sincerity on the field.

At all times in this matter, Kumble has had one eye on the welfare of the game itself. Having played for 18 years, without a single visit to the match referee for disciplinary issues, and as the Indian captain, Kumble knows a thing or two about how issues like this latest racism row blow up. It comes as no surprise that India have unilaterally withdrawn the charge against Bradley Hogg. The Australians doubtless are delighted, and have had the cheek to call it a "generous gesture". Further, the match referee has called it a "magnificient gesture". With respect, Mike Procter should not be talking about magnificient gestures. He has singularly failed to uphold even the simplest and most accepted laws of fair play and natural justice in this new year, let alone lofty ideals like the Spirit of the game.

I wrote in my previous article that there would be all the right noises, nobody would mean anything they said and move on to battle at the WACA. I was wrong. Anil Kumble has in one statesmanlike gesture shown us that there are in fact cricketers who worry about the game, at least amongst those who visit Australia as part of touring cricket teams. Cricinfo reports that the catching agreement has been scrapped, and the only reason for it is that Ricky Ponting broke it. That must one of the highlights (or lowlights) of this entire episode.

What then is this spirit of the game of cricket? If the Sydney controversy has shown anything, it is that there is no longer any authority in the game which commands the respect of the two teams. The umpires are respected, but they failed at Sydney, lost control of the game and with it their ability to command the respect and faith of the players. The Match Referee wields enormous power, with zero accountability. He is shielded from press scrutiny (and rightly so), but this becomes a frustrating thing when he is seen to be selective in his use of his authority.

Given this lack of authority, it would seem to me, that the best description of this spirit, would be that it essentially appeals to the standards that one sets for oneself. What is permissible and what isn't, can never be completely satisfactorily listed in the rule book. In order for cricket to stay the special sport that it is, the players have a responsibility to set standards of conduct for themselves. The quality of the game depends on how the players choose to conduct themselves. If batsmen walk, it becomes a better game. If fielder claim catches sincerely and are willing to give the benefit of any doubt to the batsman, then it becomes a better game. It follows naturally, that whatever standards players set for themselves, must be enforced by them at all times, irrespective of the match situation. If you have one standard for Day 2, and one standard for Day 5, then it is obviously a problem. Having these standards and sticking with them reveals character and a fundamental respect for the game.

Consider the respective actions of Kumble and Ponting in this entire issue. Ponting requested the catching agreement, then breached it. Cricinfo has been very polite in saying that he appeared to breach it on Day 5, but have left it there. He made an ill-advised charge against Harbhajan Singh, which has since blown up into a huge controversy despite being warned by his more experienced counterpart about the possible consequences. Kumble and his team showed admirable restraint through out the Test match and have made the only real concession as part of "moving on". Ponting and co. on the other hand have barely budged and gleefully taken what Kumble offered, without any substantial comment (at least so far).

I think we can look forward to more "hard but fair" play at Perth. Issues about the spirit of the game are merely a temporary set back (if that). If a team which has been accused of not playing in the spirit of the game is able to "move on" without offering a public response to it, especially after Kumble's post match sentiments were seconded many times over by an amazing number of people, then it is clear that there has been only lip service to the spirit of the game by hosts (not to speak of a cynical lack of self-respect).

There has been much breastbeating about this issue, without any real desire on anybody's part to engage in an earnest debate about events on the field. Everyone has taken sides while pretending not to take them. Taking Cricket's side has invariably meant making grand comments about the spirit of the game and how the captains can and should get together to solve things. This alas contravenes more than just the spirit of the game of cricket, for it is not sincere. It cannot be sincere to paper over actual events on the field and shove generalities down everybody's throat. I much prefer the partisans on either side, who are atleast sincere about their partisanship.

In the final analysis then, the spirit of the game is like one of those shelved government reports - usually ignored, occasionally referred to (mainly when it is convenient), perpetually shelved and at best serving the purpose of being an irritating inconvenience to the business of winning. We are told that when we make mistakes and when we find ourselves in the midst of disasters, we must take a step back and reflect on things. What cricketers do is to reach for that little book on the shelf. The few cricketers like Kumble who actually want to do something about these disasters, are fighting a losing battle.