Thursday, 10 January 2008

it's just not cricket?

Photo: Morguefile. The Australian team at a Sydney match in happier times.

Cricket has been one of Australia's most popular summer sports for more than a century. It is supposed to be a polite game, played in the spirit of English gentlemen, but over the years it has had its share of controversies.

It began as a pastime for gentlemen, who played for fun and honour, not money, but money and gambling have long been part of cricket. And in the past few decades, it has become increasingly professional. Although players cannot earn nearly as much as professional golfers and tennis players, cricket provides a good income for the select few, and in many countries an escape from poverty.

Unfortunately, with increasing professionalism has come a deterioration in behaviour. Sledging (abusing the opponent, often in an attempt to gain a psychological advantage - I think sometimes called "trash talking" in the US) has become common, and the occasional source of confrontation between players.

For the past decade or more, Australia's cricket team has been pretty much the best in the world - and pretty much the worst at sledging.

It's no surprise therefore that things came to a head in the recent match in Sydney against India, a side not far behind Australia in ability and with a bit of form in sledging. Some poor umpiring decisions, some sledging by both sides, a close result (Australia won a five day match in the last 10 minutes) and some bad sportsmanship almost led to India cancelling the rest of the tour.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, the Australian sporting public seemed to agree with the Indians that the Aussie team had lost its way and had developed an unsportsmanlike culture.

Defence of the team, by some noted former players and the team captain was based on the concept that Australia play it hard but fair, and there was nothing to criticise in that. But critics feel that the team has failed to see the difference between playing hard and being unpleasant. The first is in the spirit of cricket, but the second is not.

Competitiveness, abuse, bending the rules (including illegal drug-taking) and ego are all unfortunate parts of modern sport, but most Australians feel that cricket should rise above most of this. If the players can't help succumbing, probably the rules will have to be amended to legislate a better standard of personal behaviour - a pity, but better than the alternative.

Is the world of 2008 a better place than the world of 1958? Hard to say, but it's doubtful that the world of sport is better mannered. And it seems likely that the stars' bad behaviour rubs off on the kids who are such avid fans.

Read about the cricket "crisis" from respected journalist and former English county captain Peter Roebuck, plus previous columns on the bad taste left by the match and his calls for the Australian captain to be sacked.

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