Hard but Fair

Last night, Annie and I had a long chat on the phone. I had been working all day and was only just home and she had had Lucinda and the mighty Bertie over for morning coffee. ‘What,’ she asked, ‘are you going to write about tomorrow?’

I wasn’t sure but ‘cheating, probably,’ I replied.

I have known Annie for over or close to 35 years and we were married for around 25 of those. I feel good about introducing her to running and then the gym, but she was never a big sports fan. For a time, Ben and I had season tickets at Crystal Palace and I only offered my ticket to Annie once. The disdain and incredulity that my offer engendered was clear. If a face could say, you go and watch the football and I will enjoy the peace, then the look I got, said it all.

This lengthy preamble is to frame my surprise at her reply to my idea for today’s topic. An already lengthy call was extended by another 10 minutes as Annie railed against Australian cricketers. Cheating Australians had become front page.

I am going to take a stab in the dark and guess that Sasha, like many others of you who have never played or followed cricket, are now scratching your head. Here is the crux of the controversy.

Simply, a bowler hurls the ball at the batter from 22 yards. The skill of the bowler is in his speed and more importantly guile in the flight by making the ball curve as it gets to the batsmen. This is called swing. Swing is enhanced when one side of the ball is much shinier than the other.

There are legal ways for the bowler to build up the shine such as rubbing it on his shirt or trousers. There are also illegal ways and that is what happened this weekend.

Australia are playing South Africa in a cricket test match and the Australian rookie, Cameron Bancroft was spotted by one of the many cameras tampering with the ball to roughen one side with some yellow tape. He knew he had been seen as he quickly stuffed the offending tape down his underpants!

In later press conferences, the captain and the leadership team admitted that it had been planned and they had coerced a new and young player to commit the felony.

It was deliberate cheating and the overflow has left the narrow confines of cricket to become the main news story.

Cheating and skulduggery are expected in business and politics and when they are uncovered there are knowing nods. When they are uncovered we can still be shocked, as with Watergate, but we are not surprised. But sport? We like to think of sport as pure and the pinnacle of human endeavour.

Like a son looking up to his hero father we are always disappointed when we discover, just like any mortal, our sportsmen have feet of clay.

It has always been so. In the marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games New Yorker Fred Lorz, was first home in 3 hours and 13 minutes. Lorz was just about to receive the gold medal when it became clear that he had covered 11 of the 26.2 miles in a car.

Canadian Ben Johnson had his world record of 9.79 seconds revoked along with his Gold Medal from the 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. His urine samples were found to contain stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.

Anyone remember Lance Armstrong, Ukrainian fencer Boris Onischenko, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin, allegedly Tom Brady and footballer Diego Maradona? They have all been found out cheating. The list goes on and on and we could add almost anyone who plays professional football for diving to the ground to win fouls and penalties.

Why is this latest misdemeanour so different?

First, we like to think of cricket as the sport that embodies fair play. We use its lexicon to colour our daily lives. We answer difficult questions with a straight bat, we ask difficult questions by bowling him a googly, when a friend does something untoward we gossip that, it just wasn’t cricket.

Secondly, it was the Australians. Cricket is their national sport and they have a reputation for hard but fair play. It is their national characteristic. It’s not just the way they play cricket, but it is how they conduct trade, relate to the world, and entertain at parties. If an Australian gives his word, then it will happen.

It has hit at the very psyche of the nation. Malcolm Turnbull the Australian PM was on the television within 24 hours when he said,

“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating. After all, our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play. How can our team be engaged in treating (cricket) like this? It beggars belief. A lot of disappointment.

“It’s their (Cricket Australia) responsibility to deal with it but I have to say that the whole nation, who holds those who wear the baggy green up on a pedestal – about as high as you can get in Australia, certainly higher than any politician, that’s for sure – this is a shocking disappointment. It’s wrong and I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon. I think I speak for all Australians in saying how shocked and disappointed we all are.”

As the football World Cup starts in a couple of months I know I will be back on this subject as state jingoism collides with the beautiful game. Putin will stand surveying the scene just as he did at Sochi where he was so keen for victories that Russia sponsored extensive and planned doping of athletes.

On the lists of greatest sporting cheats, the Australian cricketers and their captain will get a top 10 entry.

It will give me something to tease and rile Australian friends but in the scale of world events, it will be seen as nothing more than a passing pimple.