That’s enough about the spirit of cricket
A great Ashes test match was overshadowed by a furious debate about out-of-date gentleman’s ethics.
Cricket. Bloody hell! If the rest of the Ashes series provides a fraction of the thrills and spills of the first test at Trent Bridge, we’re in for one hell of a summer. It’s just a pity that such a marvellous game of cricket was overshadowed by the controversy over Stuart Broad knowing he had been cleanly caught by Michael Clarke but refusing to walk – or ‘Walkgate’ as it has been dubbed (further proof that the Watergate metaphor really is well past its use-by date).
To walk or not to walk? Depending on which side of the debate you stand, Stuart Broad is either an Ashes hero or, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a ‘revolting cheat’. The England all-rounder refused to walk despite being clearly caught at first slip. You didn’t need video replays or Hotspot – the snick-detection gizmo – to tell you that Broad should have been given out. The players on the field of play could see it. TV viewers could see it. Yet, incredibly, umpire Aleem Dar missed it. It was the mother of all umpiring howlers. Some players might not have waited for the umpire to raise his finger. But Broad stood his ground. And since the Aussies had rashly used up their quota of two unsuccessful challenges, the decision could not be referred to the third umpire. Although Broad was perfectly entitled to let the umpire make the decision, his refusal to walk has been branded unsporting.
Cue the predictable howls of disgust. The spirit of cricket is dead, we were told. Again. Oh please, somebody change the record. It’s a lament repeated more frequently than Father Ted re-runs. Whether it is ball-tampering, sledging, excessive appealing or refusing to walk, every high-profile incident of gamesmanship is greeted with the same handwringing moral guff. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel wrote: ‘It does not make a man a fiercer competitor if he plays to the bitter letter of the law. It is not always up to the umpire to make the call. There is such a thing as basic, common decency.’ In a similar vein, the Independent’s James Lawton felt that Broad’s behaviour was further proof that cricket had lost ‘any sense that it was the game of manners and superior sportsmanship’. Daily Express cricket correspondent Colin Bateman described his actions as ‘simply embarrassing for all England supporters’ – a sentiment clearly not shared by the Trent Bridge crowd who gave Broad a standing ovation when his innings finally ended.
The plain truth is that Broad did what most professional cricketers would have done in his position. He stood his ground. Unsurprisingly, many former players spoke up in his defence. ‘Every Australian I’ve seen and played with, maybe with [Adam] Gilchrist the exception, they believe in standing and it’s up to the umpires to give you out’, said BBC summariser Geoff Boycott. ‘Let’s not have any moralistic views about the fact we’ve all got to walk, we’ve all got to be nice’. Ian Botham was similarly forthright: ‘What was all the fuss about? Stuart Broad did absolutely the right thing in standing his ground after that edge. Broad was entitled to stay put, he did not try to influence the umpire in any way, he just stood there and waited for a decision.’ Former Aussie wicketkeeper Ian Healy ridiculed the suggestion that Broad was in the wrong. ‘Walk in an Ashes Test match? Only if the car runs out of petrol!’, he quipped.
The cricket world is clearly divided, but who is right? Firstly, we need to debunk the notion that the spirit of the game has been damaged. Refusing to walk isn’t a modern aberration, a product of our amoral win-at-all-costs professionalism. Refusing to walk is the spirit of cricket. It has been ever thus. If there was an Age of Innocence, before gamesmanship corroded the sporting ethos, when did it come to an end? Was it at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1962 when Bill Lawry failed to fess up to treading on his stumps? Or perhaps in Brisbane in 1946 when the great Don Bradman clearly edged a catch to the slips? The umpire didn’t raise his finger, Bradman refused to walk and he went on to score 187. Or maybe the spirit of cricket was extinguished in the nineteenth century by the iconic WG Grace, whose reluctance to walk was the stuff of legend. ‘Play on’, the good doctor supposedly declared after being clean bowled. ‘They’ve come here to see me bat, not you umpire.’ On another occasion, after a ball dislodged a bail, Grace is said to have told the umpire: ‘Twas the wind which took thy bail off, good sir.’ If Stuart Broad violated cricket’s unwritten code of chivalry, he stands in very illustrious company.
The moralistic censure of Broad for not walking betrays cricket’s patrician origins. The Victorians not only codified the rules of modern sport but regarded it as an instrument for moral improvement. It’s tempting to see the practice of ‘walking’ as part of an ancient sporting code of honour that dates back to cricket’s inception. But Gideon Haigh, cricket columnist for the Australian, refutes the myth that ‘walking’ has always been a moral imperative: ‘In Simon Rae’s excellent history of unfair play, It’s Not Cricket, he finds negligible evidence for walking before World War II, and concludes that the custom was only a vogue in English cricket for the two decades after, where he suspects it represented a last efflorescence of gentlemanly conduct as the distinction between amateur and professional narrowed to vanishing point.’
Cricket needs to get over itself. The spirit of cricket is not the glue that prevents the social fabric unravelling. It is just a game, not an arm of social policy. Stuart Broad’s refusal to walk was neither alien to cricket nor symptomatic of the sport’s decline. What he did was to bend the rules to gain an advantage. Just gamesmanship. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t immoral. It wasn’t sinful. Nobody was hurt. Society hasn’t descended into barbarism. Now can we please stop all this moral posturing and just enjoy the actual cricket.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.