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Cricket balls

From predictions about the death of sport to fears over Muslim alienation: the Pakistan cricket controversy has generated some crazy commentary.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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‘What a mess, what a mess!’ exclaimed BBC cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew as a test match was forfeited for the first time in international cricket history. This certainly was one almighty farce but the overblown reaction to the ball tampering row shows that our tendency to lose all sense of perspective is not just confined to football.

The Independent‘s James Lawton saw the ball tampering row as ‘cricket’s darkest hour; the latest installment in a dishonourable series of cheating incidents, along with failed drug tests and play acting in football, that is jeopardising sport itself. ‘[A] much wider question was provoked by the cheating dispute between the Pakistan team and one of the game’s senior umpires, the Australian Darrell Hair,’ wrote Lawton. ‘It asked if the collapse of a single match, shocking enough in itself, was not simply another pitiable example of a wider death throe. Were we seeing still another blind march to the point where the very meaning of sport falls into the most painful of ridicule?’ (1) More absurdly the ball tampering debacle has been crudely linked to the War on Terror by some commentators. A leader in the Guardian, for example, warned that the dispute ‘can only fuel the alienation felt by some British Muslims at a time of great strain’ (2).

Imagine you were an extra terrestrial who just happened to acquire tickets for the fourth test (implausible I know – tickets were like gold-dust). What would you make of the media reaction to the incident? You might be forgiven for believing that the act of ball tampering was a moral taboo on a par with bestiality or its alien equivalent. Consequently, to be unjustly accused of ball tampering must be the most terrible slur imaginable to humankind. (He might also wonder why male cricket fans dress as nuns but that’s another story.)

Although I’m a lifelong cricket fan I just can’t get that worked up about ball tampering. Sure, ball tampering is an infringement of the laws of the game – and a relatively minor infringement at that as the five-run penalty indicates. But breaking the rules of cricket isn’t a criminal offence. Police forensic teams weren’t brought in to examine the suspect ball. Nor, as far as I’m aware is ball tampering considered a violation of any religious codes or laws. ‘Thou shalt not alter the condition of the ball’ is not one of the Ten Commandments and to the best of my knowledge the Koran is also silent on the issue.

So, why all the fuss about scratching a cricket ball? Ball tampering is seen as a violation of that ethos of fair play; not just as an infringement of rules but an immoral act. ‘[C]ricket has carried its heavyweight moral baggage since it was regarded as essential to forming the moral characters of potential Empire-builders,’ explained Simon Barnes in The Times (London). ‘That is why, when the line is crossed from cleaning and polishing the ball to picking of the seam, raising the quarter-seam and roughing up the ball, the offence is regarded as destructive not just of cricket balls but of cricket – and, by extension, of morality itself’ (3). The Empire may have gone but it’s clear from the handwringing reaction in many quarters that cheating in sport is still regarded as corrosive of the moral fabric of society.

Pakistan cricketers are no strangers to ball tampering controversies. The 1992 tour of England was marred by persistent allegations that the reverse swing achieved by Pakistan fast bowlers was a product of ball tampering. Certainly there was a strong whiff of racism to the British media’s accusations of cheating. Australian umpire Darrell Hair is no stranger to such controversies either. Hair is widely perceived to be biased against south Asian teams following a string of controversial umpiring decisions. Hair was the official who infamously called Muttiah Muralitharan seven times in three overs for ‘chucking’ in 1995 prompting Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga to lead his players off the field in protest. It is therefore no surprise that the Pakistan players took particular umbrage to Hair’s decision to penalise the team for altering the condition of the ball last Sunday.

Somewhat tenuously, however, the dispute has been reinterpreted as the War on Terror Minus the Shooting by some commentators. Mike Marqusee, writing in the Guardian noted that ‘on the same day the Pakistanis were being called cheats at the Oval, two men of Asian appearance were ejected from an airplane in response to the racist paranoia of fellow passengers. With a one-day international series yet to play, no one can be sure what the repercussions of this affair will be’ (4). Simon Barnes in The Times (London) predicted that Hair’s intransigence would ‘add to the tensions between Muslims and white Westerners’ (5).

I doubt whether the actions of one officious Aussie umpire are going to ignite a race war in England. It is true that the Pakistan team were booed when they walked out on the pitch after their tea-time protest but it was fairly tame stuff. Relations between the players and fans of England and Pakistan have been notably free of bad blood during the series. Moreover, what was striking about this latest ball tampering controversy was the broad consensus in Britain that umpire Darrell Hair was in the wrong. Former England captains were queuing up to express support for Pakistan. ‘If I had been captain and my team had been accused of cheating in this way then, as long as I was sure of our innocence, I would have done exactly the same thing as Pakistan. I wouldn’t have come out after tea, either,’ said former England captain Nasser Hussain while Ian Botham and Mike Atherton echoed these sentiments.

The ball tampering dispute has brought to the surface the simmering tensions within international cricket. But do the politics of international cricket have any bearing on British society? I don’t think so. We should stop kidding ourselves that what happens on the cricket field is going to either heal or inflame racial divisions in this country. A couple of weeks ago the media was celebrating Monty Panesar as a role model for multicultural Britain. Now they’re fretting that a row over a scratched cricket ball will spark race riots. I think it’s time for a reality check. Western civilisation won’t collapse because someone picked the seam of a cricket ball. Ball tampering might not be cricket but cricket is only a game – and, in England, a minority game at that.

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Cricket’s Darkest Hour, Independent, 21 August 2006

(2) It’s not cricket, Guardian, 21 August 2006

(3) Moral maze at the heart of one man’s small judgment, The Times (London), 21 August 2006

(4) The Pakistanis were right to protest at a rank injustice, Guardian, 22 August 2006

(5) Hair today, gone tomorrow – at least we hope so for sake of game, The Times (London), 22 August 2006

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