Cricket a gentleman’s game? Pshaw! — Flip Side by Kunal Pradhan

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick that cricket ever pulled was making the world believe it’s a “gentleman’s game”.

The blame for this elaborate deception lies not with the sport, but on how it was used at the time of Empire — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it came to both crystallise and symbolise the “English way of life”. In cricket, the world’s foremost colonisers saw an opportunity that far exceeded the influence associated with sport until then.

They realised that the systematic takeover of foreign lands for domestic gain — an endeavour steeped in violence and the subjugation of peoples — was best carried out in the garb of bringing civilisation to the natives. And cricket played an important role in this exercise — through it, the locals would be shown how proper English gentlemen behaved; the locals would slowly be allowed to play the game so they felt that they, too, could be like proper English gentlemen one day; and the locals would be soundly defeated every week to demonstrate that they would always be inferior to the proper English gentlemen they now so desperately wanted to be like. If armies crushed rebellions, cricket was used to crush the spirit.

Ironically, this deadly cocktail of aspiration and insult was masked by statements such as “spirit of the game” and phrases such as “it’s not cricket” that demonstrated propriety and fairness.

This, I reiterate, is not cricket’s fault. It is a simple game of bat and ball — made interesting by the nature of the pitch, the deteriorating state of the ball, and strategic field placements. Various permutations of these factors form a line of attack for the bowling side, and evoke a counter-offensive from the batting unit. If you strip it down to the bare essentials — to where its idea perhaps germinated — you could picture a man with a stick in his hand flicking away a stone hurled in his direction.

Cricket is not, and need not, be different from any other sport. There is no need for it to take itself so seriously that it has “laws” instead of “rules” and believes that it must be played with a superior “spirit”.

The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), founded in 1787 and housed at Lord’s since 1814, has an entire section on the “spirit of cricket” in the preamble to cricket’s laws. Drafted in the late 1990s by former England captains Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey, it says: “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

It is in this grand, aristocratic backdrop that we must look at the raging controversy surrounding Ravichandran Ashwin running out Jos Buttler, who was backing up too far down the crease in an Indian Premier League match on March 25. Cricket’s pundits — including the MCC, of course — have said it violated the “spirit” of cricket, and what made it a gross violation of this amorphous spirit was that it may have been premeditated.

The form of dismissal, perfectly legitimate as far as the rules of the game go, is called Mankading — after one of India’s greatest cricketers, Vinoo Mankad, who dismissed Bill Brown, a member of the Australian Invincibles, in a similar manner at Sydney in 1947. Brown’s captain — Don Bradman, inarguably the greatest player ever — had said at the time that there was nothing wrong in what Mankad did, and wondered what the fuss was about.

Meanwhile, in football, the other sport that England loves, players pretend to writhe in pain at the slightest touch to get their opponents kicked out of the field, and dive unabashedly in the box for penalties. Does that make football any less than cricket? It doesn’t appear to, considering football is played in every country in the world as opposed to cricket, which is played in barely a dozen.

So, here is my submission. Let’s break the shackles of history. Let’s stop this “spirit” hogwash. And, as the first step, let’s not call it Mankading any longer. If it has to be named something, let’s go with “Browning”.

First Published:
Mar 30, 2019 18:06 IST

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