The Rajkot game [previous post on the topic] moves Harsha Bhogle to philosophize on the nature of cricket as contest.
At the heart of cricket’s magic, the reason all of us are so enamoured by it, is the fact that every ball is a contest. The bowler conceives the challenge, sets his line, his length, his movement, the placement of fielders, and presents it to the batsman, who must then unravel it and respond.
And then there is another challenge. It is relentless and it must be that way. The moment the delivery of the ball to a batsman is no longer a challenge, the contest ceases. It is no longer cricket. Or maybe it would be to the same extent that boxing would remain a sport if each boxer is allowed three minutes at a punching bag and the winner determined by who hits the bag better.
And so it is imperative that we get the surface right. The vagaries of the surface, and therefore their role in the presentation of a challenge by the bowler to the batsman, lies at the heart of cricket: favouring the batsman a bit one day, then ensuring that he has to hop against the bounce or crouch to smother the turn the next day. It is the inherent mystery in the surface that defines the contest. And that is what cricket’s administrators have to protect. They must be obsessed by the need to retain the contest. Chocolates must have their cocoa, cricket must have its contest; neither exists otherwise.
And having said all that, Harsha goes on to suggest that maybe the job of leveling the playing field is too crucial to be left entirely to the ICC.
Maybe we can start, us in the media, by defining what a good pitch is; not one on which batsmen can score a lot of runs but one on which ball and bat have equal opportunity. Every time a curator says, “I have prepared a good wicket”, let us ask him what he really means.
Bowlers are not waiters, they should not have to serve deliveries on a platter at a batsman’s command. We have already produced monster bats and brought the boundary rope in so much that on some days it looks like we are playing in a small park. And increasingly we produce pitches like the one in Rajkot. Is it inconceivable that a day will come when a bowler is given a list of balls he can bowl, it is announced on a public address system, and then we all wait to see what the batsman does with it?
Hopefully that is a doomsday scenario, but it doesn’t reduce the great need for the cricket world to come together to ensure that every cricketing occasion is a contest between ball and bat. We must be obsessed by the need to maintain it.
Right — I’m off to finish work on India Abroad, and then head out for the weekend. One of the few remaining weekends in Mumbai for me, so hopefully much fun will ensue. See you guys back here on Monday; be well meantimes.
There is, said Peter Roebuck in his latest essay, a fine line between teasing and taunting. Peter’s a fine bloke, besides being the most balanced of journalists writing in the Australian media space [his Brit origin likely has something to do with it; Peter manages to avoid the rabid parochialism that underpins the writings of his peers there].
Here is what Peter wrote after the infamous Sydney Test on our last tour Down Under:
Make no mistake, it is not only the reputation of these cricketers that has suffered. Australia itself has been embarrassed. The notion that Ponting can hereafter take the Australian team to India is preposterous. He has shown not the slightest interest in the well-being of the game, not the slightest sign of diplomatic skills, not a single mark of respect for his accomplished and widely admired opponents.
Harbhajan Singh can be an irritating young man but he is head of a family and responsible for raising nine people. And all the Australian elders want to do is to hunt him from the game. Australian fieldsmen fire insults from the corners of their mouths, an intemperate Sikh warrior overreacts and his rudeness is seized upon. It might impress barrack room lawyers.
In the past few days Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.
Which is why, as I revisited the clip above [and this is merely one of dozens of such clips I could throw up, all of them featuring Australia on one side and assorted opponents on the other], I found myself wondering: where exactly is that line drawn? Who is supposed to draw it? Who ensures that players of all nationalities remain on the right side of that line? And most importantly — just when will this happen?
On which side of that line, incidentally, would you put a succession of Australian bowlers in the clip above? Which brings us to this:
Ironically, the match referee who handed out the ban to Gambhir then, and to Benn now, while gently slapping the concerned Aussies on the wrist, is the self-same Chris Broad. His comments after the latest incident are classics of their kind. Here’s one that takes the biscuit for its unadulterated wtf nature:
Benn has the right to appeal and Broad said there was every chance he would have received a lesser penalty had he pleaded guilty.
South Africa’s coach Mickey Arthur described Ricky Ponting’s team as “masters” of putting pressure on umpires with their “histrionics” and Chris Broad, the match referee, said they pushed the boundaries of fair play but not crossed them.
Brilliant, that. Australia does not cross the boundaries, it merely moves them further away? I wonder if you can do that while fielding? What if a fielder needing to take a catch who is perilously close to the rope kicks the rope further away to make space — pushing the boundary of play but not crossing it, so to speak?
Anyway. After that impromptu riff on the principles of jurisprudence in general, Broad gets specific:
“It was an incident which could have been avoided. No one likes to see cricketers pointing bats at their opponents or pushing each other away. It is not the sort of example that players should be setting at any time, least of all in a series which is being played in a great spirit and being followed by millions around the world on television.
“The decision to find Benn guilty of a Level 2 offence is indicative of the fact that conduct contrary to the spirit of the game is completely unacceptable. I hope Mr Benn has learnt his lesson and will be careful in the future.”
Absolutely unimpeachable statements, those. Especially the one about pointing bats not being the kind of behavior anyone wants to see on a cricket field. But, um, just who was batting at the time?
The over began with a run-in between the bowler Benn, who was moving across to field a drive, and the non-striker Johnson, who was taking off for a single. The contact seemed incidental, with neither man at fault, but Haddin appeared to inflame the situation after completing the run, when he pointed his bat at Benn.
Uh oh. So at the end of an accidental contact between opposing players Brad Haddin — who was not the player who was pushed, even accidentally — made it his business to make a physically threatening gesture at his opponent. That is not, as Broad so vehemently says, the kind of behavior you want to see on a cricket field — so of course the law came down hard and heavy, with a 25 per cent of match fees fine.
Presumably, the law does not want to see on a cricket field a player standing still for bats to be pointed at him — which must be why Benn attracted the heavier punishment of a Test match ban. Again:
There appeared to be some incidental contact between Johnson and Benn when Johnson moved to position himself between his partner and the bowler. Things became even uglier when Johnson pushed Benn away, following the initial contact. After stumps the West Indies captain Chris Gayle said he felt Benn had not initiated the physical clash.
Again, Benn’s physical involvement is being described as ‘incidental’; Johnson’s response as deliberate, and deliberately physical. So naturally, Johnson gets docked 10 per cent of his match fees. It all makes perfect sense, no?
When my friend Karunakaran [on Twitter] pointed out these anomalies earlier in the day, I told him the whole thing reminded me of this story of the mother who took her son to school on his first day. “My little Brad Johnson is sooooooo sensitive,” the mother cooed to the teacher.“If he ever does something wrong, just punish the kid next to him — he’ll get the message.”
Chris Broad operates along similar lines. Recognizing the extreme sensitivity of Aussie players, he hands out salutary punishment to the other bloke, confident that the message will get across loud and clear to the real culprits.
Jokes aside, there are two issues here. The first is the ICC’s lack of will to draw the line and to hold it firmly against all comers. [Before you remind me, there is a ‘Code of Conduct’. Here is the concise wiki entry; I have too much concern for your well being to link to the gibberish-laden full version].
The bigger problem is the match referees’ idiosyncratic application of whatever norms do exist — and no one is more idiosyncratic than Broad. [Irony alert: In his playing days, Broad was the poster boy for bad behavior, smashing the stumps with his bat after being bowled in the Bicentenary Test in Sydney; on the infamous 1987-’88 tour of Pakistan that was signposted by the famous Mike Gatting showdown, Broad stood at the crease for well over a minute after being given out LBW; on one occasion he was even dropped from the England side because the management couldn’t stomach his constant mouthing off].
For instance, note that “inappropriate and deliberate physical contact between players during play” is deemed a Level 2 offence; note that there was nothing appropriate about Johnson pushing Benn; note that the prescribed fine is 50 per cent of the match fees and/or a ban for one Test or two ODIs. And finally, note that Johnson got away with a mere 10 per cent of his fees.
Had there been a review system for match officials, Broad would have been put out to pasture ages ago. There isn’t, so he isn’t.
…and fly someplace far away where there is no TV, or at least no cricket broadcast, sums up my mood when I read this morning that we are due another concrete wicket at Nagpur. Yet optimism beats — albeit with a faint, fluttering beat that wouldn’t show up on the ECG gizmo, because if there is one thing our ‘experts’ consistently get wrong it is their reading of the wicket. Who knows — this one might be like Brabourne, with something in it for everyone. At least, you can surf that hope till 2.30 pm, when some sacrificial lamb walks to the top of his bowling mark, turns, and runs in to his scheduled execution.
Okay, in case it wasn’t already apparent, I’m feeling a bit bilious today. It’s Friday, there is a paper to produce [my penultimate edition of India Abroad, actually], but none of that is going to stop me from turning on the TV at the appointed hour and watch bowlers bleed all over the concrete [random thoughts during the game on Twitter, as always].
I’m not the only one feeling bilious, by the way. Here’s Mahela Jayawardene:
“I have always been critical of the fact that bowlers now have to bowl in the ‘strike zone’ basically,” Jayawardene said ahead of the second one-dayer in Nagpur. “You can’t bowl down the leg side. Anything outside the off stump is a wide.
“With the Power Plays and all the restrictions it’s important we give bowlers leverage as well. Another option would be to give them another bouncer. Give them two bouncers an over. Restrictions are probably easing up and have given them a bit more in third Power Play. But we need to balance it out a bit more.”
Elsewhere, I found this wtf passage in Peter Roebuck’s reflections on the ongoing West Indies-Australia Test. An extended clip, with the key bit highlighted:
Meanwhile, Benn, no lilting lily himself, had been chirping away in his incessant manner. A fine line exists between teasing and taunting. From a distance, it is impossible to say on which side his remarks fall. Truth to tell, he is a spinner in a fast bowler’s body, a conflict that has caused trouble before now. Tony Lock and Bill O’Reilly were not the most polite players ever to put on creams.
All things considered, Perth was an incident waiting to happen. No sooner had play resumed after lunch than the pot boiled over. At first Haddin was a bystander, a role that does not suit him. Benn and Mitchell Johnson rubbed shoulders as they crossed paths without dwelling upon rights of way. Haddin did not need to get involved but his mate’s cause is his own and, anyhow, he was already irritated.
Annoyed by Benn’s refusal to give ground, he pointed his bat at him and drew a sharp riposte from an equally agitated opponent. By the look of things, both were spoiling for a fight. A strong intervention from the umpire was required and a calming of tempers at both ends. To no avail, Chris Gayle tried to settle things down.
Now came the flashpoint that is destined to be replayed a million times, for all the world as if it was more important than the cricket. At the end of the over, Benn glared at Haddin and threw the ball to his keeper. Haddin strode towards the bowler whereupon the trouble began. By now both parties were speaking with forked tongues. Benn angrily pointed towards Haddin and his arm collided or otherwise came into contact with Johnson, hitherto a mostly innocent bystander. Affronted, the Queenslander pushed his opponent away, an intervention commonplace in footy but unacceptable on a cricket field.
In many decades of watching cricket, it’s hard to remember any other instances of physical contact between players. Bumps occasionally occur as batsmen take a single and the bowler seeks the ball. Dennis Lillee kicking Javed Miandad on the same ground was about as far as it has gone, conduct that draw an enraged response from the feisty Pakistani. Otherwise manhandling is almost unknown.
Peter is almost right. It was a thin line between permissible banter and downright obnoxious behavior — but that line has long since been obliterated, largely because sections of the cricket world led by Australia decked up bad behavior in psycho-babble — when someone suggests he and his mates spent the previous evening doing the nasty with my wife, it’s abuse — not “mental disintegration” — and the authorities consistently winked at it.
Why, for instance, did the field umpires at the height of yesterday’s brawl not order the involved players off the field, to cool their heels in the dressing room till better sense prevailed? Why have the players involved not been banned for a Test or three?
Many of us have been repeatedly warning that one day, someone will take that one step too far. It almost happened yesterday; it will get worse before it gets better.