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February 14, 2000


Gentlemen, play!

Ashwin Mahesh

It is the morning of the second Test in the Ansett Australia series between India and the world's best. With the score reading 300+ for 5, the two overnight not-out batsmen, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, both in fine nick, walk to the crease looking to take Australia to a position of strength. A combination of inspired bowling and out-of-character good luck, however, helps the Indians and conspires against the pair, and before long they are both back in the changing rooms. And very soon after, Australia's last legitimate hope of adding runs to the total is dashed as well, as Shane Warne is taken behind the wicket, leaving Damien Fleming and Brett Lee to wave their bats airily and entertainingly at the Indian bowlers.

As an Indian fan, I applauded the early overs, seeing in them the opportunity of a better contest, a crack in the door through which India might sneak back into a game and a series hitherto - and since, unfortunately for me - much with the Australians. But I had more than this to celebrate, for in the quick passing of the early wickets, we were witness once more to a vanishing image, as Warne walked while the umpire's decision remained unmade. Quietly acknowledging that he had nicked the ball on its way past him, he quickly turned toward the pavilion and was on his way. And just as solemnly, I hoped, fans of the sport who were witness to the wicket applauded.

For cricket, we are told often, is a gentleman's game.

Let's nod first to the asides, however, which a number of you are sure to point out. Warne is by all measures of sportsmanship a controversial figure and not the best to uphold in a discussion on propriety, on or off the field. His involvement with Indian book-makers, splendidly managed by the Australian Cricket Board, must rate a definite blemish on his record, however impressive it is. More recently, there was the question as to whether he said ungraciously of a teammate that "he can't catch, and can't bowl", once again silenced by a combination of media and cricket administration, to all appearances. And yet, the man has been known to retain the down-to-earth spontaneity that endears him to so many, most recently witnessed in the deeply humanitarian fund-raiser he put together in Zimbabwe with Steve Waugh.

But Warne isn't the issue here, at any rate -- I merely picked him to begin with because he embodies the vacillating nature of the sport on media as readily as anyone else. Human fallibility, which we readily accept in every profession bar none, is hardly likely to be missing in sport; it is no surprise that the odd deviance from the norms of the game should take place, and that the usual and predictable excuses that all sportsmen offer should emanate from cricketers too. In a sense, then, Warne is just one of the guys out there, no more or less prone to the attacks on conscience and character that everyone else must endure. As with some, perhaps many even, he might have stepped over the odd line, sullying the game's public reputation.

But what of this reputation itself? Is cricket really a gentleman's game?

Perhaps owing to its embrace by the English upper crust, cricket finds itself anchored in a self-professed tradition of respect for the game and its institutions. The sport is also almost entirely devoid of physical contact between opposing players, permitting at least a tenuous link to these original moorings. Of late, however, the guise of professionalism is increasingly wearing that link thin. The visage of modern cricket shows sportsmen who are into sledging, a cricket board grappling with ongoing racial bias, fans throwing bottles, umpires confronting players outside the playing arena, and a new committee for discipline every few months. This is hardly the the face of the well-mannered. What gives?

Is it time to accept that the game is no longer cast in the mold of Grace and Hammond? Is the controversial and accomplished sportsman of the day, a la Ponting, inevitably an unfortunate combination of combative sportsman and bar-room brawler?

Maybe the trouble lies in imagining that cricket is somehow different, whether or not it ever was. At the very least, it must be obvious that there is very little to cricket today that is inherently elevated above the norms of any other sport, and of most professions. Crooks and samaritans alike populate most human enterprise. Whether cricket is a gentleman's game, then, is not a question that can be answered in the affirmative merely from a consideration of the sport and its rules. Instead, as with everything else, the answer must stem from the people who play and administer the game, and in their willingness to profess and maintain a standard higher than those they otherwise might. When gentlemen play, it's a gentleman's game. When the boorish and boisterous take to the same field, it is not the game that is brought into disrepute, for that would argue that human activity can have character beyond that of those who participate in it. That's humbug.

Clearly, it isn't that the game has changed much, but that the external environment in which it is played has altered dramatically. Money, television, travel, these impositions on the modern game have taken their toll, and changed what is visible on and off the field. As if these pressures were not sufficient counter to the image of a game steeped in grace and sportsmanship, the administrators of the sport have added further misery, especially in India. From Jagmohan Dalmia to the lowliest functionary in the BCCI, up or down depending on your view of the chairman, every administrative facet of cricket in India is a uniform disgrace. Players appear to react to the politicization of the administration by abandoning any recourse to principles and professionalism, and rely instead on a combination of cronyism and media management to retain the goodwill of fickle higher-ups.

And that's why it is up to us, the fans, to recognize this, for the glorious traditions of any game are apparent only to the diehards. Every cricketing contest will have its frozen moments of sporting honor - when a batsman decides to walk knowing he is out, or even more in those moments when he leaves the crease at the umpire's instance, certain that he isn't out, or when fielders who take "catches" on the half-volley are the first to indicate so. Our memories of sporting encounters must include these as much as they include the batting and bowling skills on show. If it should so transpire that midway through a riveting and well-contested afternoon, a gentleman like Courtney Walsh graciously chooses not to Mankad someone out, let us remind ourselves that some of those who play the game embody its traditions better than others.

Sporting achievements are to be rightly lauded, for they signal the very best that today's professionals can produce on the field. Nevertheless, it is true that the overwhelming majority of the records set on the field will find their equal or better in time. The character that a fine sportsman brings to the game, on the other hand, is never surpassed.

Mail Sports Editor