The other day a very successful cricket coach vehemently reminded me “cricket, my friend, is no more a gentleman’s game”. The recent emotional encounters between players during India and Australia’s visit to South Africa proved him correct. The International Cricket Council (ICC), governing body for world cricket, has been trying very hard to bring in the ‘spirit of cricket’ amongst the players. Unfortunately, the high stakes and the importance of winning at all costs have taken precedence. Players are being put under severe pressure to perform and the exuberance they exhibit after they win looks out of context. These acts of celebration are as harmful to the game of cricket as a verbal dual between two individuals on the field.
The Australian’s visit to South Africa had all the nasty ingredients of a big verbal battle between the two sides, even before the first ball was bowled. This was identified earlier as tactics to get upmanship on the opponent.
This is where the match referee needs to act. He needs to anticipate such possible problems even before the start of the match. It is essential to stop such encounters and incidents even before it starts budding.
Cricketers are always in the limelight because of the television coverage and the adulation they get as stars. Every move of them is under severe scrutiny and so they need to understand the impact of their deeds. This needs to be collectively addressed on both the sides, as the game should not in any way be put under disrepute.
Sledging has been a part of cricket for quite a while now. It is the advantage gained by insulting or verbally intimidating the opposing player. The purpose is to disturb the concentration of a person thereby, causing him to underperform. In terms of cricket ‘welcome to the big league’. The friendly banter was, at times quite humorous, as long as one is not at the receiving end, but the problem begins when it starts to get personal. This is precisely what took place recently between David Warner and Quinton de Kock. This sort of an incident has a cascading effect as then it gradually gets under the skin of every team member.
One could see a similar fiery attitude and behaviour of the Indians when they played against South Africa after they lost the first test match. Kagiso Rabada sledging Virat Kohli was one such incident and now the world’s best-rated bowler has been penalised for two test matches because of his encounter with the Australian captain, Steve Smith. Rabada is young and rather immature, but blessed with immense talent as a bowler. He needs a senior player or official who can take him under the wing and keep him under check. He needs to become a silent killer like the West Indian fast bowlers of the past, rather than being a brash youngster. A stare was all that a West Indian fast bowler gave one when instigated. That was sufficient enough for a batsman to cool his heels and take his stance quietly. It will be very unfortunate if Rabada is kept out of the series against Australia, as for South Africa to succeed they need him in their midst. A scuffle between players is not pleasant, but a strict reprimand, I feel, is enough to forget and forgive the incident. The better way would be to play him on an understanding that any unpleasant behaviour during the match would result in him being sent off the field permanently.
Playing any sport at the highest level is a high-pressure job for an individual. The hardwork, sacrifice and the constant chase to success can become quite emotional and stressful for a sportsman. One can, therefore quite easily get carried away by uncontrollable behaviour through frustration and anger if things are not going one’s way.
The negative points and punishment is an easy way to handle unruly and bad behaviour by a cricketer. But the ICC, along with all the cricket playing nations, should look at how they can solve it before the situation worsens. A cricket encounter between two teams will always be a war where one side will win. Therefore, curbing emotions will always be a challenge. The various 20-20 leagues around the world is a good start to spread friendship. There needs to be more comradery between players and this can be done through better interaction between teams and players before, during and after the match.
The behavioural improvement in cricket can only be done if one gets support from the top. The cricketers playing for their country have to realise that they are the brand ambassadors of the game as well as the country. One does want to see them playing the game hard, but with ground mikes and cameras around and on the field, they should realise that every movement and expression of theirs is recorded and beamed to millions of viewers.
The cricketers have a responsibility to the youth as they emulate their behaviour. The spirit of friendship and sportsmanship needs to once again come in quite strongly the way it was prevalent in the past to prove to the world that it is once again a “gentleman’s game”.
(The author is a former India cricketer)