Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hypocrisy and the spirit of cricket

Cricket sees itself as the gentleman's sport - where the spirit of the game is just as important as the rules or regulations. While competitors in other sports dive or deceive in order to get ahead of the game in any possible way, cricket's noble code shuns anybody who doesn't play fair. So when Surrey's Murali Kartik 'Mankadded' (ran out the non-striker as he came in to bowl) Somerset's Alex Barrow in today's game at Taunton, the cricketing universe went into overdrive decrying the former Indian spinner for flouting the all-important spirit of the game. But technically neither Kartik, nor Surrey (who refused to withdraw the appeal) broke any rules - and arguably Barrow was playing against the spirit of the game by attempting to back up while the bowler was in his stride, especially considering Kartik had already had the grace to warn him about it previously. So who is in the right - and indeed, is the spirit of cricket still relevant?

Well, in this case, it seems that Kartik was in the right. While Mankadding is cricketing etiquette's biggest no-no, he had already informed both Barrow and the umpires that if his over zealous backing up continued, he would be left no option but to whip off the bails and appeal. And despite this, Barrow ignored the fairly reasonable request, and he had to go. Critics have said that Kartik completely ignored the 'spirit' of cricket - but in fact, by warning him in the first place (which under the laws he didn't have to do), he showed an understanding and respect for it that many have missed.

There is a level of hypocrisy about the 'spirit' of cricket and it's application - it's almost become accepted that some batsmen are walkers and some wait to be given, and not a great deal is said if a batsman knowingly nicks it, but isn't given out by the umpire, and remains. How different is that to Kartik's actions? Kartik worked within the rules and exploited the stupidity of the batsman to leave his crease while the ball was in play to take his wicket, whereas the non-walkers of this world willingly break a rule (that they are out if they are caught after hitting the ball) in order to continue batting. While there are differences (the non-walking batsman can claim that it's the umpire's fault for not spotting the edge), those who refuse to walk are very rarely given the kind of stick that poor Murali Kartik has had from the cricketing world today.

And deception of the umpires generally often goes unpunished from the guardians of the spirit of the game - wicket-keepers appealing after knocking off bails themselves (step forward Matt Prior), fielders claiming bump balls (Pragyan Ojha) or even AB De Villiers literally the other day lying to the umpire in order to grant himself a reprieve. But why do none of these acts of actual, against the laws treachery carry the same level of outcry as the totally within-the-laws Mankad?

For generations cricket has prided itself on being the noble sport where nobody breaks the rules and everyone plays fair, and often lauds itself over other sports because of it - but is that really the case? Contrast this example from football, where Paulo di Canio refuses to score when the opposing keeper went down with an injury, to Paul Collingwood's moment of shame in cricket, where England ran out Grant Elliot after a collision with Ryan Sidebottom. The spirit of cricket, while noble, can be used as a stick to beat teams with even when playing inside the laws, as seen in the Ian Bell run-out last year, where India, despite being well within their rights to keep the appeal, decided to withdraw it, and ultimately lose the game, thanks to pressure over the spirit of cricket. But in this era of big bucks and high pressure, is the spirit still relevant? Surrey, in a tumultuous season, are in a real relegation battle, and need all of the help they can get. So when Kartik, inside the laws, ran Barrow out, surely they would have been even more foolish than Barrow himself to allow him to stay, and possibly play an innings that might send them down? While I'm not telling cricketers to cheat as badly as Pinky the Panther did during the Mascot Derby, I'm saying that it would be naive to expect teams to not take advantage of the rules when they're available. At the end of the day, the spirit of cricket doesn't pay the bills, and while romantic fans like to think that cricket is the noblest of sports, in reality, it's just as bad as the rest of them.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Strauss announcement

Written before the ECB press conference, so most of the content of this is based on spurious rumours and gossip from Twitter. If the ECB announcement turns out to be about a move from Buxton water to Evian as the sponsor of the drinks break, please ignore below.

So the ECB are calling a press conference at 12, and without wanting to pre-empt anything, it looks like it will be dealing with the future of Andrew Strauss. As much as it pains me to write, it looks like Graeme Smith has claimed the scalp of yet another England captain, and Strauss is to step aside as England skipper. But is Strauss leaving his post the right thing to do for the England team?

Well, initially, it depends on how exactly he decides to leave. The first option would be the outright, effective immediate retirement from England duty. No last hurrah. No rejoining the ranks. A swift clearing of the locker and out. This would in one fell swoop rid England of not just their captain, but one of their openers, with an incredibly tough tour to India only months away and nobody with any experience ready to step into his shoes. While a re-jig could see Trott move up to the top, more likely would be a youngster like Joe Root or Alex Hales (or because I'm biased, Joe Denly or Sam Robson of Middlesex) thrown straight into the deep end of what is probably cricket's toughest tour. So not ideal then for Team England for Strauss to chuck it in then.

So what if he went the Ricky Ponting route and fell back in line as one of the foot soldiers? Well, for one, is he good enough to justify his place in the team as a batsman alone? Strauss' record over recent years has been sketchy to say the least, and it could be argued that he's only been able to keep his spot because he is the captain. Can England afford to carry an underperforming player who may well be past it with India this winter and an Ashes series next summer? And while the young pups may not have much experience, as Alastair Cook showed back in 2006, being thrown in at the deep end can reveal a player's true class. Who's to say that someone like Root, who was identified as a talent long ago and brought through the England Performance Program wouldn't excel from the off? But then (just to be awkward), what if unburdened from the captaincy, Strauss refound the form that followed him for the first few years of his test career. One of Strauss' finest hours in an England shirt came on the last tour to India - a tumultuous tour that followed a home South African defeat and the resignation of the captain. Who's to say that he couldn't do it again?

The elephant in the room, and quite probably the reason Strauss feels he needs to call it quits, however, is Kevin Pietersen. Strauss may feel that the divisions between Pietersen and himself are irreparable, and knowing that long-term Pietersen will score more runs for England than he will, has decided selflessly to step aside to help ease KP's return to the fold. But then again, if that is the case, would the fractions between the anti-KP and pro-KP camps in the dressing room (the pro-KP camp would just be KP) become even more irreconcilable if he is directly to blame for the loss of the well loved and well respected leader, making it even less likely that Pietersen can ever succeed as part of an England team again?

I really do hope Andrew Strauss doesn't give up the England captaincy, simply because it just shouldn't end this way. Strauss was meant to keep going for another year, win his third Ashes series as captain before handing over the reigns to Alastair Cook, who'd then go Down Under and win them again. Strauss is a captain that did win back-to-back Ashes, as well as leading England to number one in the world, and history will judge him as one of England's finest captains ever, and it's so undignified for such a good, decent man to have to leave over some texts and a parody Twitter account. But whatever happens to Andrew Strauss, one giant problem in the England camp needs to be decided. Back in early 2009, Strauss took over the job after a fall-out caused by Kevin Pietersen. In August 2012, it looks like Strauss will give up the job after a fall-out caused by Kevin Pietersen. As talented a batsman as Kevin Pietersen undoubtedly is, can England afford to have him causing so much damage any longer?