Why is cricket referred to as a gentleman’s game? When you think of the phrase so often used to describe the sport, the image that crops up is of mild-mannered men in white flannels with their shirts tucked in and their hair parted neatly. Maybe a pat on the back, a gentle handshake or a shared joke while walking back to the pavilion with opponents at the end of a session. A game that supposedly segregates the classy from the crude, the boorish from the benign.
Cricket is often regarded as unique compared to other sports because aside from the laws of the game, players are expected to abide by the ‘spirit of the game’. So what constitutes this intangible spirit?
Walking when you know you’ve knicked a delivery even if the umpire hasn’t pronounced you out, not claiming a catch that was grassed, abstaining from an lbw appeal when you know there was an inside edge, refraining from abuse of an opponent are just some of actions used to describe cricket’s indefinable attribute.
Common agreement seems to be that the term was associated with the game since the time English aristocrats began playing it. They determined that the game would be played in 'a gentlemanly manner'. The term immediately lends itself to nostalgia and the reminiscing of a time when things moved at a slower pace and the world was captured in black and white. But with phases like bodyline, was the sport ever really genial?
The concept of ‘spirit of the game’ is one that has always lent itself to heavy debate what with it having no exact defining line. There have been several instances when the term has clashed with the defined rules of the sport.
One such instance took place last year when MS Dhoni decided to recall Ian Bell who was run out when he wandered off the crease. The Indian team was entitled to appeal and they deliberately decided to. It was only upon a request from the English coach and skipper that they reconsidered during the tea break. The decision received mixed reviews, with the English press hailing Dhoni as a hero while many others back home felt that run-out was ethical and Bell had only himself to blame. So was Dhoni’s decision aimed at winning brownie points or was it the right thing to do?
What about when ‘being a gentleman’ clashes with the correct decision being made?
When Mumbai Indians Harbhajan Singh and Munaf Patel wagged their fingers and bullied the umpire into going in for a television review on Monday, the game’s spirit was trampled upon. The act was deemed as deplorable by many despite the fact that Sangakkara was actually out and the behaviour of the duo had contributed to arriving at the right decision.
Were they wrong in doing whatever they could to win? After all, some would say playing to win is one of the most important aspects of playing in the spirit of the game. Something that match-fixers and spot-fixers have been penalised and condoned for disgracing.
Where they erred was in not only questioning the decision of an umpire, but using their aggression to influence him to change his mind. Umpires are fallible and there was no doubt in this case that a TV replay would have helped. However the fielding stride is expected to take such human errors in their stride the very same way a batsmen is not expected to show dissent even if he is incorrectly given out. Moreover, for a country that has by and large opposed the Decision Review System, it did come across as paradoxical.
The bigger fallout of such an incident was that it sets a precedent for the future. A future which by early indications will be one with very few gentlemen. All the young kids glued to their TV sets during that IPL game now unfortunately know that the penalty for using intimidation on the cricket field is a mere warning. It’s no surprise then that the next generation’s heroes are the aggressive young guns who don’t think twice before using their clout or showing the middle finger.
Can the authorities step in and take a stringent stand that could act as a deterrent? The game’s well wishers would surely hope so, for otherwise ‘it’s just not cricket’.
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