A Critical Appraisal of the Gentlemen’s Game of Cricket

Sarath Gamini De Silva, in Island, 6 June 2019 where the title was different**               

I am an ardent cricket fan, being educated at a school giving pride of place to cricket. The annual “Big Match” was one of the most looked forward to events in the calendar. My own experience in the game was limited to playing with the soft ball in the backyard with my friends. Whenever time permits, I watch cricket on television but only occasionally do I go to see a match. I am overjoyed to see Sri Lanka winning matches, which unfortunately is a rarity now.

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In the early eighties, during my postgraduate training in the United Kingdom, the Scottish consultant I was working with asked me what I was doing that particular weekend. I told him about my plans to watch a cricket match on television. He had a hearty laugh and asked me who could have designed a game where one person plays against eleven others at any given time!  With tongue in the cheek he said “Only an Englishman could have done that.” This started my rethinking on the game. The random thoughts I pen below may draw the ire of my cricket mad countrymen. However, I feel a critical analysis of the game is warranted.

We can be world champions in a game played in only a handful of countries. Yet, as Sri Lankans, with the second lowest population among the countries playing test cricket, we all should feel proud that we have become the world champions twice (world cups in 50 over and Twenty20 formats) in a team sport. We have not achieved such success in any other sport. This however should not make us blind to the fact that cricket is one of the most peculiar games ever played in the history of mankind

As our Sri Lankan team did not do well in the recently concluded World Cup, the following may sound like sour grapes. but the truth has to be told.

Cricket was introduced to their colonies by the Englishmen in the 19th century. The subjects who were keen on standing up to their colonial masters took to the game like ducks to water, despite the fact that the warm climate is not suitable for this game. The game survived in the former colonies as at that time it was one of the few ways where one could do better than the colonial masters. It is said that the Australians still regard Sir Donald Bradman as the greatest Australian ever purely because he symbolized the only way they could stand up to the Englishmen at that time! No wonder the few countries who have taken to cricket in the recent past are only those with a sizeable population of immigrants from South Asia already addicted to cricket.

It appears that the game was designed as a way of sunbathing during summers in the cold temperate climates like in England as, at any given time, most of the players are just standing in the field in the hot sun. Many in the audience can be seen reading books or indulging in knitting and other activities sitting in the open. However, any possible health benefits in exposure to the sun are negated by being fully clothed, application of sun creams and playing mostly in the afternoons.

In contrast, many players spend more time in the dressing room waiting for their turn to bat. When one team bats long and puts up a high score and the other team gets bowled out twice over in a short time, most players in the winning team may have spent as much as fifty per cent of the match duration in the dressing room!

In any competition, sports or otherwise, one would expect the outcome of a game to be decided mainly by the skill and application of the players. All extraneous factors should be minimal and affect both sides equally. However in cricket this is far from reality. As the game is a protracted one played over up to five days, changes in the weather are to be expected. I need not elaborate how this can alter the playing conditions to a great extent with the batting or the fielding side affected differently. A short spell of rain could change the outlook for one side considerably. With day night games this disparity is magnified with dew and artificial lights making a big impact on the outcome.

The toss at the beginning often decides the result to a very significant extent. In the recently concluded World Cup 2019, it was a foregone opinion that the team who wins the toss and bats first had a much higher chance of winning. As it happened more than 70 % of the matches were won that way. Even in the balance 30% it was the weaker team that batted first and lost in most matches.. In a five match test series earlier I remember one captain won the toss on four occasions and won all four games. Only time the other captain won the toss, his side were the winners! How unfair? A better arrangement would be to allow the visiting captain to decide whether to bat or ball in the first match and then alternate it with the other captain in the subsequent matches thus removing the vagaries of the toss to some extent.

The likely winner is often obvious halfway through the game. After that it becomes just marking time till the inevitable happens. Very occasionally an unthinkable may happen to make it exciting. There are a very few matches that were decided in the last over or in the last ball. Such glorious uncertainties in cricket people talk about so much happen only rarely to make the game any more exciting. Just imagine a game played over several days ending up in a draw, and the ability of the players to work towards such a “no result”!

In any life situation, a person should be given a chance to correct his mistakes and go on to achieve results. However, in cricket it is a “perform or perish” situation. Even the best batsman can get out and thus be removed from proceeding any further purely on the faulty twist of the wrist for example. A single batsman can score a century and win a match while most of the others in the team have not contributed much. The best bowler or batsman can get injured early on in a match and become unable to play any further. His replacement (substitute) is not allowed to ball or bat. The whole team is thus adversely affected by an injury removing one good player. Thus cricket is a team sport where the result of a match can be decided to a great extent on the performance of only one or two players in a team of eleven.

The host country preparing the pitches to suit their players is an accepted practice. Often Asian countries prepare pitches to suit the spinners, while outside the sub-continent they make them easy for their pace bowlers. This of course varies with the abilities of players in the team With their natural bigger built, taller players, those outside the subcontinent would be at an advantage in producing pace. Smaller made Asians would go for wily spin. Thus it may not be fair for one team to blame the other for preparing pitches that favour their bowlers. Recently a visiting team in Sri Lanka blamed the hosts for not giving them adequate facilities to prepare themselves. The so called “home advantage” makes the visitors to be treated as aliens rather than guests coming for a friendly sports encounter.

The umpires play a big role in the game. They are fallible human beings who are expected to consider many factors within a few seconds and give a decision on an appeal. One can imagine how many wrong decisions would have directly impacted on the results of matches before the Decision Review System (DRS) was introduced. Even after the DRS, a team loses the opportunity for review after two unsuccessful attempts. In a “leg before the wicket” (lbw) decision, the umpire’s call of ‘not out’ is  upheld if, on review, less than 50% of the ball hits the wicket. However if the umpire’s call was “out’, then that too will be upheld if on tracking, the ball is seen to just scrape the wicket or the bail!  Also, why should it be not out if the ball tracking shows it hitting the wicket irrespective of where the ball pitches before hitting any part of the batsman other than the bat or the glove?  However it so happens that if the batsman gets bowled, it does not matter where the ball pitched.

It appears that safeguarding the umpire’s reputation is considered more important than implementing the correct decision. Should not the third umpire initiate reviews even without the players requesting it, in doubtful situations like the lbw?

The so called gentlemen’s game is now fully swallowed up by financial interests. The day night games with so many disparities already referred to were planned not to improve the quality of the game but to increase the television audience and hence the financial returns. One cannot think of any other game that can be, and has been, subjected to match fixing, ball tampering and other frauds as often and as easily as cricket. We remember only too well how a leading country connived with umpires and even politicians to no ball our champion bowler and remove him from the game for ever. Very recently, the captain and another player representing the same country were caught red handed while tampering the ball after much planning. Yet, after only a year of “suspension”, they are back again playing at the World Cup! If the same offence (a well planned fraud by the captain and vice captain) was committed by  players of a less influential country, it would have been a life-time ban!

How the big three teams in cricket gang up with plans to sideline the rest of the test playing countries to a secondary level purely for financial reasons is saddening. Now India, the powerhouse for financial returns, can single handedly decide the way cricket should proceed. In the recent world cup, there is a general feeling that India purposely lost the match to England to make sure that their rival Pakistan will not get into the next round.

Sledging, the lowest form of sportsmanship one can think of, is being openly condoned by some leading countries playing the game. “Spirit of Cricket” is unfortunately confined to words or to titles for lectures only.

Cricket has now become the happy hunting ground for book makers as well. Despite the best efforts of the administrators to curtail this curse, cricket offers ample opportunities for betting in the modern day with electronic communication. How does one ever know whether a good batsman getting out in the first ball he faces, a fielder dropping a simple catch or a silly run out are not all predetermined?.

Cricket is good for record keepers, commentators, and those involved in providing the expensive infrastructure. The detail records and other trivia are essential for commentators to fill in the gaps when often nothing exciting happens on the field. The exhaustive records spreading over hundreds of years do not mention the conditions like weather, who batted after rain or under lights or the pitch conditions that could have affected the recorded result in a big way. Records on individual performances do not give details of whether they were achieved on bowler friendly or batting friendly pitches. Some high individual scores were the result of dropped catches or other failures of the fielders, not necessarily the prowess of the batsman. Naturally runs scored on a larger field should receive more credit than those scored on a smaller playing area. It is strange that the size of the playing field has not been standardized so far.

The current chaotic situation in the Sri Lankan Cricket Board is beyond the scope of this discussion as it is no fault of the nature of the game itself. Suffice it to say that machinations of unscrupulous greedy men controlling the game and the reluctance of the spineless politicians with their own personal agendas to rectify matters have made them the laughing stock of the discerning public.

I wonder how advisable it is for school children to play serious cricket. The extensive hours of practising and time spent for matches every weekend and often during week days as well, could well be used for academic activity and less time consuming sports. The school authorities and coaches often induce the children to concentrate fully on cricket at the expense of classroom activity. It is worth analyzing how school boy cricketers perform at public examinations, which unfortunately is the only yardstick we have to assess academic performance, and how they fare later in life. Only a handful of them go on to have a lucrative life long career in cricket. Nowadays having played cricket at school does not necessarily guarantee good jobs for them as it used to do a few decades ago. It is worthwhile for the schools to carry out a survey to find out how their cricketers perform in life in the first 5 or 10 years after leaving school.

In the end cricket depicts the realities of life. Carefully drawn plans are disrupted by unforeseen forces of nature. Large numbers are watching while a few are acting with a purpose. Only a few plays a significant role in the action while many others take the credit. While applauding when the going is good, scapegoats are sought and blamed when things go wrong. The outcome is adversely affected when chances that come one’s way are not taken. Little attempt is made to correct the obvious errors. Records and statistics remain questionable and incomplete as always. The powerful have it their way most of the time. Though everything may appear nice and smooth on the surface, undercurrents driven by greed are the real players and eventual winners.

Cricket is certainly not a game suitable for many countries like our own. As it has become an integral part of our culture, let us continue to play and enjoy the game knowing all these shortcomings. Cricket should rank at the bottom of an index of fair play if there was one. Let us not be disheartened by losing a match in a very badly designed sport. But such sentiments should not be taken as an excuse for bad performance of the national team resulting from gross mismanagement and corruption in the cricket administration. I pity the cricket fans in some countries resorting to violence or even suicide when their team loses in a cricket match.

Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva. The Island 10.6.2019…. with highlighting in Black being his work and the est an imposition by The Editor, Cricketique

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