Stuart Broad, the spirit of cricket and ethics in sport
Anyone who thinks Test cricket is dead wasn’t following the events at Trent Bridge over the last five days. The first of ten Ashes Tests spread over two series was so outrageously unpredictable that if it had been proposed as a screenplay, it would have been rejected as too implausible and lacking in direction. But that’s exactly why I love sport.
Now that the match is over and my pulse has returned to something approaching a normal level, I hope it’s possible to examine the controversial events of Friday evening calmly and dispassionately. For the benefit of anyone who wasn’t following the match or just doesn’t care about cricket, England’s Stuart Broad nicked a ball and was caught, via the wicket keeper’s gloves, at slip. Out. His innings was over. But he didn’t walk, and the umpire, for reasons best known to himself, didn’t give him out. Australia were furious, but Broad batted on, adding sufficient runs to make the difference between the teams at the end of the match.
In the wake of this, various people of a Bufton Tuftonish tendency spoke of their disgust that an Englishman wouldn’t walk in such a situation, owning up to having hit the ball and saving the umpire the possibility of an embarrassing mistake. The mythical spirit of cricket was usually invoked (ask W.G.Grace about that), and some went so far as to say that they hoped Australia would win the match, or even the series, rather than such behaviour being allowed to prosper.
The irony of this last wish is particularly amusing. In fact, Australia’s captain, Michael Clarke, was guilty of a virtually identical misdemeanour (if misdemeanour it was) in the previous Ashes series in 2010/11, when batting to save the match in Adelaide. He also attempted to have his dismissal yesterday reviewed, when it was clear that he hit it. And most ironic of all, the very last act of the entire match involved a video review of a thin nick by Brad Haddin, an Australian batsman who didn’t walk.
“But they do it too” isn’t a strong ethical defence in general (although it’s a good reason not to switch your allegiance based on an incident like this), but in the case of sport, it’s possibly a rather better argument, as ethics are determined by a combination of the rules, culture and other players. I once had a teacher who complained that all footballers are cheats because whenever the ball goes out of play from a challenge, both players invariably appeal for the throw-in. From a narrow perspective, he had a point, but no footballer would agree with his assessment – that’s just how the game’s played, an unspoken addendum to the laws of the game. No one feels cheated – no harm, no foul.
Cricketers are also more or less united these days in their acceptance that a batsman has the right to stand his ground. Sometimes you’ll be given out lbw even though you know you hit it, runs the argument, so why should you incriminate yourself when there’s a chance to even up the scores a little? What caused such consternation over Broad’s non-dismissal, unlike Clarke and Haddin, was that he got away with it. But the reason why he got away with it is, I believe, key to the shift away from the fabled spirit of cricket.
In an attempt to prevent matches being decided by poor decisions, Test teams are currently permitted to review an umpire’s decision twice in each innings, only losing their reviews if the umpire’s decision is upheld. When this was introduced, there were dire warnings that umpires would lose respect or be undermined. I believed then (and I still do) that these fears were largely unfounded scaremongering, but I nevertheless think this change has had a subtle influence in shifting the ethics of the game.
When Clarke didn’t walk in Adelaide, England used a review to reveal the inside edge, and he was eventually sent on his way. But when Broad nicked the ball, Australia had already used up their reviews on hopeful but incorrect challenges of the umpire’s decision. In a sense, they were the architects of their own downfall. And with teams now entitled to review decisions, the argument becomes all the stronger that batsmen shouldn’t walk.
If he was clearly out, the fielding side should review the decision. If they can’t, they shouldn’t have been so cavalier with their earlier reviews. To always walk would be to free the opposition from the consequences of their actions; not walking has become part of the game. Test batsmen generally wait to be sent on their way because they know the opposition have the opportunity to correct any incorrect decisions.
I have a theory that the more independent arbitration there is in sport, the less “sporting” players’ behaviour will become. We’ve all known people who spoil friendly games by bending the rules, and we generally try to avoid playing with them because it spoils it for everyone. In the absence of a referee, a game only works with a level of honesty and fair play on both sides. But once there are independent judges, such an approach is unnecessary as well as against your own interests. It’s also very tempting to say it’s their job to get it right.
While it would be unthinkable to conduct professional sporting events without someone on hand to rule in the event of a disagreement, the evidence suggests that social connection increases trust and cooperation. This implies that independent arbitration may actually breed unsporting behaviour, rather than controlling it, due to the increased distance between the sides. That doesn’t say whether Broad should have walked, but it’s an intriguing thought.