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Did You Break the Code?

17 January 2008.

Cricket, unlike other sports, lacks a code that – although not mentioned in any rule book – is universally accepted and lends the sport a commonness of purpose.

Every game has codes and customs handed down by the generations and honoured by tradition. Often it is these customs that supporters point towards when asked to explain their devotion to the game. After all, sport serves many purposes, releasing energy, providing competition, giving an opportunity for boys especially to soar without causing grievous bodily harm, testing courage and nerve, allowing nations to meet on fields of play and not battlefields where bodies are torn apart. George Orwell regarded sport as a mere substitute for war. That is also its strongest justification.

But sport goes further than providing entertainment and an outlet for youthful energies. It seeks to instil character in its charges, teaching them to take the rough with the smooth, showing them the importance of playing within the rules and giving them a chance to depart the world of mundanity and enter a finer place where the body can perform minor miracles, where effort is rewarded and camaraderie is paramount. At its best, sport appeals to mankind’s better part. From a distance a sporting contest may seem as heartless as the destruction of a building. Closer inspection tells another tale.

England vs South Africa 2005

South Africa vs England, at Newlands, Cape Town, Jan 2005, Test Day 3. Photo by Louis Rossouw / Flickr.

Otherwise the sight of a soccer player kicking the ball off the field when an opponent is injured could hardly be imagined. After all soccer is notorious for players diving to obtain free kicks, feigning injury to secure an advantage or being taken from the field on a stretcher only to return miraculously moments later. Yet even the most cynical defender or posturing forward will abide by this single custom. Doubtless self-interest has a part to play, but it goes further, towards honour, that most potent of emotions.

Otherwise prop forwards would not stop pushing, upon hearing a rival shout that he has incurred a neck injury. No prop has ever used this call to fool an opponent into holding back. It is not manly to break that particular code. Prop forwards are not saints. Almost everything else that happens in the inner reaches of a scrum is regarded as fit and proper conduct. Referees can take care of the rest. Rugby players accept their decisions better than almost any other sportsmen, another indication that the game has a civility that exists under the sound and fury. Otherwise golfers would not report themselves for having touched the sand or carried an extra club, or having accidentally tapped the ball in the rough. Woe betide a golfer breaking this code, for they will be drummed out of the game and mentioned only late at night when talk turns to the rare disgraces that have demeaned the good name of their favoured recreation. Of course it is easier to retain manners in golf because there is only the club, the course, the ball and that blessed little hole. The battle is internal, the struggle personal. Opponents are as much fellow sufferers as rivals. Confrontational games demand a higher level of restraint. All the more reason to apply a tighter code of conduct.

Most sports have in recent years turned away from their more obvious violences. Soccer has rejected the scything tackles that were a feature of the 1960s, the knee-cappers and bone-breakers that deterred the more skilful players from embarking on long runs upfield. Referees nowadays book players for even mild excesses that in the old days might have brought at worst a raised eyebrow. Likewise the balls are lighter and pitches drier, at any rate in the upper echelons. As a result fewer hard men stalk the midfield or marshall the defences. Notables 40 years ago, players such as Norman Hunter, Peter Storey, Billy Bremner, Dave Mackay and others of rawboned memory would need to change their approach to survive in the modern era.

Cricket’s primary problem is that it has not settled upon a universal code of conduct. It is one thing to produce a book of rules and guidelines, quite another to create common purpose. Australia, especially, have always played by their own democratic and downright lights. There was not much point going to such a harsh and remote continent and then living on the same terms as in England. As far as the Australians were concerned, cricket was not the gentleman’s game taken to other parts of the empire by way of instilling virtue in the natives. Gentlemen did not exist. They were a figment of the imagination, a ruse calculated to keep the lower orders in their place. Cricket was played as life was lived down under. Within the regulations, it was every man for himself.

Australians did not think much of walking, dismissing it as toffee-nosed poppycock likely to cause more problems than it resolved, owing to the man’s natural tendency to dissemble when the chips are down. At once the Aussies were at odds with England and also other nations more amenable to colonialist conviction. On the other hand the Australians did not tolerate the questioning of umpires with dirty look and other crafty practices. Admittedly this outlook has at time been more honoured in the breach than the observance, but all the same it expresses an attitude towards life itself. Nor could an Australian worth his beer claim as legitimate a catch taken after the ball had bounced. Indeed it was just such an error that cost Greg Dyer not only his career but for a time his standing in the community. That is why the row about low catches in Sydney struck such a chord among locals. Ricky Ponting was mightily offended when his word was questioned at a press conference. Honour works both ways.

Other countries have followed different traditions that express their own histories. South Africans routinely line up to shake hands with all and sundry at the end of a match, a custom that has taken hold. Australians regard the field of play as a separate place and become friendly the moment stumps have been drawn. Englishmen are more inclined to regard the field as an extension of life and therefore take matters arising on the park more personally. Indians are bemused by the way opponents are prepared to show integrity in some areas and not in others.

Diplomats are expected to understand and respect the cultures of other nations. With some tribes it is manly to offer a strong handshake, in others it is an insult. Some nations dine at 6pm, others at midnight. There is no right or wrong in any of it, just the probability of misinterpretation.

The accidents of history and the identity of the participants means that cricket has become an almost ungovernable game. As much as anything, events at the SCG were founded upon mutual misunderstanding. No longer is it enough to seek the lowest common denominator. Clearly that has not worked. The time has come to discover the highest common factor. In other words it is not enough nowadays to try to keep the peace. Cricket must develop a code chosen and applied by all parties in all countries. No longer the game of gentlemen and ruffians, always hard to tell apart, it must find a new approach understood by every player so that everyone speaks the same language and not merely use the same words.

This article was written for The Hindu.
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