The first Ashes Test between England and Australia featured some fascinating cricket, but all the talk has been focussed on one incident rather than the fantastic individual pieces of cricketing skill we saw from both teams. When Stuart Broad refused to walk when he was caught by Michael Clarke at first slip, he reopened a fascinating debate on morality in sport.
I've always maintained that sport is more than just about who won and who lost; it’s about skill, determination and the will to succeed. These are very noble things, and therefore, Sportspersons have always been feted; their names sung by grateful fans, generations weaned on stories of fantastic performances on the field of play. So when an issue of morality is raised, it is deeply troubling to the human psyche which is accustomed to treating Sportspersons with a great deal of respect. There are some who will argue that this logic cannot be extended to modern day sports. Today, the business of sports is just as important as the action on the field of play, probably even more. Keeping with the theme of an age where the market extends to every part of human life, sports today is a very “corporate” being. Like it or not, “Karbon Kammal Sixes”, “Aon Training Centre”, “Etihad Stadium” and the rest of it are a here to stay. In an age where who sponsors whom is just as important as the players on the field of play, can we really expect Sportspersons to behave in a way their predecessors did? When love for the game results inbeing robbed, why should we expect sportspersons to be bound by a moral code that simply does not exist?
That does not mean it can be argued that anything goes on the field of play, as long as you win. Winning may be more important than it was in the past, but there are limits to the complexity of this debate: match fixing, doping and the like cannot be justified. The fact is that sanctimony is always directed at the opposition. When Greame Swann calls a Sri Lankan player a cheat for not walking and defends Broad for the same, he is doing what we all do. I laugh when a Man United player “dives” in order to get a penalty, but scream obscenities at the referee when the boot is on the other foot.
Therefore, the Gary Neville argument in his master class on diving is probably more apt than the moral pronouncements that have been expressed since the Broad incident. To quote Red Nev, it would be very harsh to call these players cheats for not abiding by somewhat dubious expectations with regard to morality. They work so very hard for one moment; that moment will provide judgement on years of hard work. Can we then expect them to throw it all away in order to abide by some unrealistic standards of morality? Of course Broad would eke out the smallest advantage; he’s there to win matches for his team, not the Fair Play Award. It was the job of the Umpire to judge whether he was caught or not. When the Umpire is not sure, can we really expect Broad (or any other sportsperson for that matter) to go back to his teammates and say that Fair Play is more important than winning the game?
There are some who say that Sportspersons are idols and therefore, will always be expected to have higher standards of behaviour than us mortals, lest our kids be taught that it’s OK to cheat. That argument certainly has traction when it comes to match fixing or doping. Is diving or not walking when you are out as bad as doping or match fixing? I don’t think anybody is saying that diving or not walking is a virtue, it’s just a part and parcel of the modern game. It will happen, it cannot be stopped. Fighting it is a lost cause. We would be better off evolving a mechanism to deal with it. The “Spirit of the Game” is tosh; it exists for everybody but our team. When England were at the receiving end, they were fighting for this infinitely virtuous quality. When they stand to gain an advantage, they forget about such sanctimony and try to win the game. Let us not pretend that the rest of us are any different.
In football, if a player dives, he/she is in danger of receiving a yellow card. Cricket has a similar precedent of players being banned for not walking when they are clearly dismissed (or so the web tells me). Let the authorities apply this penalty when such an incident occurs so that it is dealt with, instead of mourning endlessly for a quality which belongs to the past. By holding sports hostage to qualities of a bygone era, we are deluding ourselves. Sportspersons are products of our society. Expecting them to abide by a moral code none of us would follow if we were in a similar position is unrealistic to the extreme.