/ 6 July 2023

Ashes to dust: It’s just not cricket

England V Australia Lv= Insurance Ashes 2nd Test Match: Day Five
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 02: Jonny Bairstow of England walks off the pitch after being stumped by Alex Carey of Australiaduring the 5th day of the LV=Insurance Ashes Test Match at Lord's Cricket Ground on July 02, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

While modern cricket is micro-managed by a set of written laws, it is also presided over by an unwritten code, captured  by that nebulous phrase “the spirit of the game”. 

What constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct in cricket, on and off the field, is framed by decades of uncontested superiority largely rooted in the arcane, self-delusional mindset of colonial custodians of the game, that is reinforced by a willing coterie of journalists, writers, historians and an assortment of cricket commentators.

There is something quintessentially English about a gentleman’s agreement that tempers sporting behaviour based solely on self-defined perceptions of morality, ethics and fair play. This is akin to asking warring countries to observe ethical standards of killing, while at the same bombing the smithereens out of their respective civilians. 

It’s a quaint notion only if the rules of engagement are observed by all parties. But there is no Geneva Convention for cricket and so one has to rely on traditional standards of virtue embedded in a colonial past that contemptuously dismisses the conventions of the once-subject classes.  

The recent kerfuffle at the second Ashes Test match, when Jonny Bairstow was run out, has once again unleashed a stream of opprobrium and moral indignation from English players, administrators, a clutch of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members and the unrelentingly vocal English spectators. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has waded into the fracas. You’d think he had something more important to focus on.

In Anyone but England, Mike Marqusee writes: “In 1867, Lillywhite advised young cricketers, ‘Do not ask the umpire unless you think the batsman is out; it is not cricket to keep asking the umpire questions.’ The ‘cricket’ in ‘it is not cricket’ had come to refer to a transcendent code of behaviour above and beyond the explicit laws of the game. By the end of the century ’it isn’t cricket’ was being widely applied to all spheres of public and private life.” 

Unsurprisingly it became a metaphor for traditional, mainly English, standards of fairness and integrity.

One can imagine the normally unflappable members of the MCC, the original custodians of the laws, grumbling under their collective breaths at the sight of Kerry Packer’s World Series cricketers, dressed in their smart pyjamas, playing one-day cricket. 

Their apoplexy would have been incandescent with the introduction of T20 cricket, with players in garish attire, more suited to the bedroom than the playing field, which brought circus-like entertainment to frenzied crowds from Kerala to the Caribbean. “It’s just not cricket!” would have been a popular refrain in the early days of such whimsical behaviour.

During the turbulent Pakistani tour of England in 1992, renowned journalist Peter Oborne observes in his book Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, that the “British tabloid media especially had established the idea that Pakistan cricketers were representatives of an alien and barely civilised country. 

“None of England’s other cricket opponents have ever been so constantly vilified.”

Daily Mail sportswriter Mike Langley described Pakistan’s captain Javed Miandad as a “wild man with a face you might spot crouched behind rocks in an ambush along the Khyber”. 

Oborne notes that “such articles were not confined to the tabloids”. The political columnist Simon Heffer writes in the Sunday Telegraph that “no team has ever more merited the opprobrium of the international community than our current visitors”. He said Miandad’s “ethical deficiencies make him the last man to captain his country, even if it is only Pakistan”, and further, Heffer suggested that “the only fair play on show in Pakistan’s cricket stadia came when they were used for public floggings”. 

Much of the antagonism and racial stereotyping stemmed from the Shakoor Rana incident in 1987 in Faisalabad when, in the second test match, Rana and English mercenary captain Mike Gatting argued after Rana decided Gatting had made a fielding change as the bowler ran in to bowl. The altercation stopped the match and Rana refused to continue unless he received an apology from Gatting. 

In Cutting Edge: My Autobiography, Miandad says, “Gatting was wrong, terribly wrong. He showed an extreme lack of respect for the umpire, which is simply unbecoming of any cricketer, let alone an English captain.

“I wanted the apology not as the opposing captain but as a Pakistani. Gatting’s audacity in yelling at Umpire Rana was an insult to Pakistan. Can you imagine what the English would have demanded had I berated an English umpire the way Gatting had Shakoor Rana? They would probably have asked for my head, at the very least. We were just asking for an apology.”

In the first test match, Graham Gooch, leader of the first English cricket mercenaries, had to persuade Chris Broad  to leave the crease, after being given out, caught by the wicketkeeper. It took Gooch over a minute to get Broad to leave the field. 

The irony was not lost on cricket observers when, in 2003, Broad became an ICC Test official, standing as match referee for Test matches and one-day Internationals. The Broads certainly have form! In 2013, Chris’s son, Stuart, refused to walk after snicking the ball to the slips during England’s win in the first Ashes Test. 

During Cricket South Africa’s 3TC tournament in 2020, Mark Nicholas, commentator and former English cricketer, played a major role. 

In an article on Cricinfo (Not walking when you nick it? That’s cheating, 3 October 2013) Nicholas writes: “If a batsman edges the ball and stands, he is cheating.” Solid advice no doubt. However, it seems that this exemplary piece of sportsmanship is not applicable when you believe that the other team is not playing within the “general spirit of the match”. 

In a game against the touring Pakistanis in 1992, Nicholas, captain of Hampshire, was given out caught by wicketkeeper Rashid Latif. Nicholas refused to walk, claiming that the ball had bounced. So steadfast was Nicholas in his “cheating” that the umpire reversed his decision, allowing him to continue batting. 

This gallery of rogues expanded with the addition of the notorious Australian umpire Darrell Hair. Hair called out Sri Lankan spin master Muttiah “Murali” Muralitharan for his bowling action and accused Pakistan of ball tampering in a test match in 2006 in England. 

Commenting on the 2010 spot fixing, Hair said: “Unfortunately, the Pakistan cricketers show no respect for the game and continually attempt to cheat. The game as currently being played by Pakistan is a hoax and fraud to the public.” 

In 2017, Hair, who was dropped by the ICC, was arrested for embezzling Aus$9 000 from his workplace to pay for his gambling addiction. 

Was there more to Hair’s crusade to rid cricket of cheats, specifically brown men, in this case? Could it be that at the time Hair was no-balling Muralitharan he might have been approached by bookies promising appealing rewards to satiate his off-field gaming appetite? 

Ross Emerson, the Australian umpire who called Muralitharan for throwing in a one-day match in 1999 in Brisbane, admitted to Australia’s The Daily Telegraph in 2014 that he no-balled Muralitharan on orders from an unnamed Cricket Australia official.

“I was called to a meeting with him [the Cricket Australia official] and, knowing that I had called some other players, he told me I had set standards in certain areas which I should uphold in Adelaide. Yet everything blew up after I called Murali and when I saw him again he wouldn’t even look at me,” Emerson said, claiming that he had been let down after following through with the orders.

Six years after Emerson’s admission, the ICC had not acknowledged the role of Cricket Australia or offered Muralitharan or Sri Lankan cricket an apology. Murali suffered the vilest abuse from a bigoted cricket establishment and an accusatory media that casually stroked a hostile environment which led to him being subjected to racist taunts from spectators. 

The real cheats are Emerson and Cricket Australia. Instead of its characteristic bending the knee to Australia, the ICC must, 24 years after the incident, demand an apology from Australia and then ask for forgiveness from Muralitharan and Sri Lankan cricket. 

When Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi cricketers were caught match or spot fixing, the general clamour was that it was, “Just not cricket!” Appropriate punishment was meted out to these players by cricket authorities and a sense of equilibrium and harmony was restored. 

And so when Australian cricketers Mark Waugh and the late Shane Warne received payments of $4 000 and $5 000, respectively, for pitch and weather information from “John the bookmaker” on a tour of Sri Lanka in 1994, the expectation was that the Australian Cricket Board would throw the book(ies) at Waugh and Warne. This was just not cricket! 

When the board found out in 1995, it went into coverup mode instead, fining the players, but withholding the information from the public, who were only informed in December 1998. The chief executive of the ACB then, Malcolm Speed, later became CEO of the ICC. 

The teammates who listened to South African captain Hansie Cronje’s get-rich-quick match fixing scheme in a Mumbai, India, hotel room in December 1996, have escaped sanction and opprobrium. Any one of Andrew Hudson, Pat Symcox, Daryll Cullinan, Derek Crookes, Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson could have immediately reported Cronje to the team management or later to Dr Ali Bacher, who was managing director of the then United Cricket Board of South Africa. 

Morals didn’t matter to any of them as they quietly skulked until Hansie-gate hit the headlines. Richardson was later appointed CEO of the ICC. Oh, what a morass of immorality when the guardians of the game have been caught without their jockstraps! 

The amnesic Symcox and McMillian, and other assorted bigots, are ready to dish out lessons in righteousness to the masses, but fail to reflect on their own abject, sleazy, narrow-minded and repugnant complicity in empowering a religious-minded cheat and liar like Hansie.  

Included in this assembly of villains are the cricket mercenaries and their paymasters. In his autobiography, Gooch debunks the myth that Ian Botham supposedly refused to take apartheid money because he could not contemplate making eye contact with his English county pal and West Indian great, Vivian Richards. 

Gooch suggests that Botham’s refusal had more to do with money than morals. It was Geoff Boycott who divulged the mercenary trip to Gooch, David Gower, Botham and others. All had signed a handwritten letter confirming their interests in boycott busting. 

And what of the paymasters in the mercenary venture? Bacher became South African cricket’s supremo, feted by the ANC, while the chief distributor of apartheid’s largesse, the late Joe Pamensky, was made an honorary life member of Cricket SA. 

Instead of shunning Pamensky, every MC or reluctant CEO at the Wanderers long room was compelled to acknowledge “Papa Joe”. One could sense the collective rise of gall in the throats of those who viewed the unlikeable rogue for what he was.

Post-mercenary ventures, many of Bacher’s boys have been lucratively rewarded with long-term commentating contracts with SuperSport. This is an affront to the vast majority of South Africans who are continuously reminded of the enduring racist innuendo that underpinned the rebel tours and whose only ahistorical frame of reference for the likes of Mike Haysman, HD Ackerman, Keppler Wessels and Fanie de Villiers are the batting and bowling statistics of players enjoying the privileges of apartheid. 

In championing apartheid South Africa’s readmittance to world cricket, Australian Ian Chappell yearned for the talents of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter and Eddie Barlow to be viewed on the global stage and not “where the rest of the world cannot marvel at their talent”.

Gideon Haig recalls in The Cricket War: The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket that Chappell said: “Right now South Africa’s cricket future is in the balance … Once the cream of their cricket bow out, there will be some big gaps left … and that sadly could signal the end of cricket of any real class in South Africa.”

The dwindling, yet vocal, killjoys in South Africa still hang onto their self-serving bigotry that it’s “just not cricket” that the game no longer resides in their grip. 

Decades of skewed, negligent and biased commentary has emboldened the racists, inspired the bigots and roused the privileged. That browns and blacks in whites are cheats not playing in the spirit of the game is the default voice of unrepentant bigotry. It is clear that conscious and unconscious colonial privilege is the subtext of a history that remains unchallenged by the very beneficiaries of that legacy. 

  • Faizal Dawjee is a former government communicator and is an observer of all things cricket.