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.

Cricket BallIn 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.

CricketWhen 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.

Images courtesy of rainbowj and billingham, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “Stuart Broad, the spirit of cricket and ethics in sport”

  1. Neil Rickert says :

    I’ll be an agnostic about Cricket.

    I grew up in Australia, during Donald Bradman’s heyday. But cricket always seemed too slow and boring to count as a sport. It seemed to have more to do with the social graces of the aristocracy.

  2. Arkenaten says :

    And how must we regard Thierry Henry’s disgusting handball incident during his World Cup qualifier? Not once but twice?
    This is the era of the seriously professional game. Be it Cricket Football or whatever. We have TV and super slo mo cameras. The Nick-ometer and a variety of technological gizmos to eradicate poor decisions, genuine mistakes and outright cheating from most forms of sport.
    An incorrect decision can cost a player or his opponent big time. Maybe even his livelihood.

    What will a player like Maradona likely be remembered for? His brilliant skills, yes, but just as likely ‘The hand of God’
    If the technology is available, use it all the time.
    It levels the playing fields , raises the ethical standard of the game and makes it more enjoyable all round rather than having endless debates about minutiae aspects of the law.
    Personally, if Broad knew he nicked it than I reckon he should have walked. My lad plays cricket and he says most times a player is aware.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think Henry’s handball is particularly interesting, not just because it’s the referee’s job (a concept that’s hammered into players at the very youngest age when they’re told to play to the whistle), but because once the ball had gone in, there was a very small window for him to say (if he wanted) that it wasn’t a goal. Even a couple of seconds after the incident, it would become incredibly difficult for him to own up without losing face. Having instinctively celebrated (which may reveal a culpable mindset in itself), you could generously view his actions as damage limitation. It seems a clear-cut decision, but intent matters, and maybe he felt that it hadn’t been deliberate. We can’t know.

      Not that I like it when there’s sharp practice (at best) going on, and if I’d been Australian I’d have been furious, because he clearly knew he’d hit it. But it’s not as black and white as it tends to be painted, and there’s a lot of humbug and hypocrisy flying around, as well as some very dodgy arguments. Mostly, I’m intrigued by the way expectations have changed as a result of greater technology. Not long ago, it was accepted that line calls could be wrong because umpires are fallible. Now, a marginal stumping call that could go either way fills the back pages. If we didn’t have endless replays, Hot Spot, Hawkeye, Snickometer and everything else, poor decisions would be part of the game. Now, they’re a cause of outrage. But it’s especially interesting that teams are allowed to effectively tell the umpire that he’s got it wrong. Umpires are still human and fallible, but the expectation is now that every decision should be absolutely correct, and I think that has a huge impact on how the game’s played and what is/isn’t ethical.

      • Arkenaten says :

        There is also the match fixing to consider, but that’s a whole new bucket of shark chubb. TV can spot things the naked eye will miss.
        But if the laws are in any way ambiguous it makes it all the more difficult for the player to be as honest as he may want to be. Maybe his captain has said “Stay put until the ump calls it…no matter what.””

        I would hate to have that type of ethical decision to make.

        Thus the law should remove that from the game and all ”Out”calls should be referred.
        Nobody really argues about hotspot and if utilized in the Test it would have removed any need for debate.

        As for Henry’s handball. He used his hand twice. He was an icon to me until that moment. And the cameras caught it. If it had been relayed to the ref, who knows what might have happened?
        Playing to the whistle is right, but the ref cannot have eyes in the back of his head.
        It is no different to Maradonna’s hand of god or Messi’s famous and blatant hand ball goal. Remember that one?

        Now that TV is ín your face and up close and personal I am all for using every scrap of available technology.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Hot Spot didn’t help Jonathan Trott, and video evidence didn’t settle the argument about Ashton Agar’s non-dismissal. Technology is good, but it changes our expectations and subtly affects the ethical considerations. As you suggest, reputational damage is one of the main reasons for being honest, which is pretty cynical when viewed like that.

        Not touching match fixing, which is a separate issue born of people not meeting the most basic expectation of playing to win, but Dinesh Ramdin is another interesting case study. He claimed a catch when the ball had bounced, and was banned for cheating. Fielders and batsmen are clearly held to different standards, but whether that’s because if the finality of a wicket or just the old class structure which had the gentry batting and workers bowling, I wouldn’t like to say.

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