It has been said that there is no fairer sound than the gentle thwack of leather upon willow. No better way to spend an afternoon than sitting in the pavilion watching the age-old rivalry between the British Empire and their colonial counterparts from down under, competing for the fabled Ashes. Any game that has two tea breaks and requires that players wear cardigans surely must be a civilised affair. The game of cricket, it has been said, is a gentleman’s game.
In the strange and convoluted world of cricket, full of obscure rules that relate to the obscure mentality of the British upper class, there is one common thread. Adhere to the spirit of the game. To further explain this point, one must understand the idea behind the sporting competition. All across the globe, all across the length and breadth of time, we have sport. From the Aztec ball game of ullamaliztli to the Ancient Greek marathon runners, from football to rugby, human beings have long participated in games that may mimic war in mentality, but is not. This is important, often sport has been used to resolve conflict and bring people together. Think of the spirit of the Olympics (but don’t ask the Russians for their opinion, apparently). Honest competition between teams or individuals, sport satisfies the inherently competitive nature of humanity without the unnecessary bloodshed. However, the key to the success is that one contentious word, honesty.
As can be understood, wherever there is something at stake then there will be someone who does not play by the rules so that they may gain an unfair advantage. They say that all is fair in love and war, but sporting competition is not supposed to be either. Yes, it involves both but, at the same time, it is neither. The idea being, at the end of the day, it is just a game. Of course, rivalries are fierce and quite rightly so. Pride is at stake, be it national, regional, individual. Competition, fiery competition, is why we get involved. There are those who burn with competition in their hearts and these are the men and women who make watching athletic endeavours so enjoyable. A fair and honest representation of the human spirit. Many great names come to mind: from Pele and Ronaldo to Messi and Bolt, from Billie Jean King and Serena Williams to Marianne Vos and Paula Radcliffe, from Nadia Comaneci to Fausto Coppi, these are human beings who have embodied the heart of athletics.
But somehow, somewhere, Steve Smith, the captain of the current Australian national cricket team, seemed to be elsewhere when this lesson was taught. In a recent Test match (a five-day game, one of those obscure cricket rules I’ve mentioned. For your sake, I won’t go there), Australian rookie Cameron Bancroft was caught tampering with the ball. Explained in brief and basic terms, in a five day game of cricket, the ball sees a lot of abuse and this physical abuse changes the flight pattern. Therefore the strategy of the bowler must change with it, adapting style to match conditions. This is an accepted part of the game and often team strategy revolves around it. In a recent Test match against South Africa, the Australian side found themselves on the wrong side of this and the results showed. South Africa had the upper hand and the Aussies found themselves on the back foot. And so a little doctoring went on. Bancroft was caught out doctoring the ball with some sandpaper, to change the flight pattern of the ball and so wrest some control back for his team. Not only illegal under international rules and regulations, but also highly immoral. In less poetic terms, he cheated. Smith, at a post-match conference, confessed to orchestrating the incident and using Bancroft, his bowler, to execute the plan. Deliberately planned and executed cheating.
Now, as a cyclist, I am no stranger to seeing cheating in sport. Anyone who has ever heard of the Tour de France has heard of cheating in cycling. Blood doping, EPO, testosterone injections, methamphetamine, alcohol, cortisone, salbutamol, tainted Spanish steaks, sticky bottles, weighted bottles, shortcuts, tacks in the road, throwing elbows and butting heads…we have seen it all. We have even seen mechanical doping. In 2016 a Belgian cyclist, Femke van den Dresse, was caught with a motor inside her bicycle. That’s right, a motor. Which goes entirely against the spirit of the bicycle race, which is quintessentially self-powered. Now, we have many cases of cheating but we also have a system of banning cheats. A pretty standard state of affairs is the two-year ban for performance-enhancing drugs. Riders may see a ban of a few months, be handed a retroactive ban and have titles stripped, or in the case of a loudmouth from Texas, stripped of seven Tours de France and handed a lifetime ban from any internationally sanctioned race. All of this has slowly but surely led the cleanest peloton in the modern era. Small steps, but steps nonetheless. To be denied of one hundred race days is no joke, and not a prospect that any professional athlete could possibly hold a margin of enthusiasm for.
But this is the punishment for cheating, for not upholding the spirit of competition. For dishonesty. Which brings us back to Smith and the sandpaper debacle. There are some who cheat on a larger scale than others, but when we start splitting hairs over dishonesty then that’s a slippery slope to be dancing upon. Cheating is cheating, no matter the form it takes. You break the law, and you are punished accordingly. But this seems to not be the case with Smith and the Australian cricket team. After having admitted to a deliberate display of dishonesty, Bancroft was fined 75% of his match fee and handed no ban. Smith was fined 100% of his match fee and handed a ban for a single match. On top of that, he has not been stripped of his captaincy, indicative that the powers that still consider him worthy of the leadership of the national team. Bluntly put, that he is still worthy of being a man that the youth of Australia can look up to. A role model. This I find to be highly disturbing. Femke van den Dresse was handed a six-year ban, effectively ending her career due to time and reputation lost. Lance Armstrong will forever be remembered as the guy who cheated his way to seven consecutive Tour titles. Maria Sharapova served her sentence for her PED infraction. Michael Johnson did his time. Cheating is cheating, but apparently not in cricket.
Our journalist, Michael, has always had the passion for cycling and has been riding his bike since he was 8 years old. After graduating from high school in South Africa, he received an athletic scholarship and went to the United States, in North Carolina, to race.
As a passionate athlete and fan, I understand the desire to win. In racing, we call it white line fever. The all-encompassing desire to be first. As the great Ricky Bobby once said, if you ain’t first then you’re last. But to what ends will, and should, one go? When did cheating and dishonesty not only be a part of athletic life but also effectively sanctioned by the governing bodies? Smith will have a reputation, for sure, but he retains his place in the side as the best batsman and as the captain. At the moment, he is enjoying his extra, unplanned, lie-in. Extra sleep in the morning, a tough consequence of influencing an impressionable young man to break the rules in order to gain an unfair advantage. Is this what the time-honoured game of cricket has become? In the 21st century, is it no longer admirable to be a gentleman, one who adheres to the rules for the spirit of the game? And when does the line between the field and daily life start to blur? These are questions that need to be asked. Asked by everyone who still enjoys that sound of leather on willow under the shade of the trees on a Sunday afternoon with a cold beverage in hand. I know I do. I’ll see you at my old primary school back in ‘99, when we didn’t even know what cheating was.