Monday, 2 April 2018

Ball tampering- the Australian way!

If cricket is a religion in India, then its a way of life down under. This is a country which prides itself in the raw and in-your-face brand of cricket that it plays. A country which sets the bar and stews in its own arrogance for so long, that the bar is now invisible to it. There is nothing gentle, or pristine about the way the Aussies play their cricket. They are brash, they don't mind some verbal abuse, or 'banter' as they apparently call it, and take the occasional sojourn to the dark side. When Australia toured India in 2017, and Steve Smith had his 'brain fade', many people interpreted it as an honest mistake; a momentary lapse in concentration. But it was representative of a much bigger strand of DNA that the Aussie cricketers imbibe. A trait of entitlement, and an air of superiority over the other cricketing nations. But pre-meditated ball tampering is a different animal altogether. This ongoing series between South Africa and Australia was dubbed as the dual of pace. With a literally seducing roster of players on both sides, this might have ended up becoming one of the most competitive test series in recent times. But instead, this series will be canonised for 'sandpapergate'. The distasteful footage of a novice in international cricket, tampering the ball with a pre-determined plan, and then shoving the tool of mischief inside his trousers will haunt every cricket fan alive. But is this the first time a cricket ball has been tampered with? Is this the first time a captain had been in the know-how about such a dubious plot?

Ball tampering is as old as the game itself. While the modern day cameras and ever-vigilant officials have made it a dangerous affair, one would imagine that in the good old days of un-televised sports, it was a regular affair. But that does not make it right. Indeed the sight of reverse swing is glorious. The red cherry darting in late and castling the batsmen is what made legends out of Akram, Waqar and even young Starc. Make no mistake, reverse swing is one of the most febrile aspects of test cricket, and if executed properly, pristine to watch. But does that make ball tampering alright? Surely you can't give A B De Villiers two wickets just because the fans love watching him bat! There are legitimate and proper ways to make the ball reverse. None of them involve sand paper! Even the South Africans managed some reverse swing when they were bowling; so surely it wasn't so unobtainable. The truth is, that the mental state of most of the Aussie players was mixed up. Smith has been churning out hundreds with alarming frequency, yet this series had been a bad harvest. Warner has been in the news, but for all the wrong reasons. The Australian side which had made the English team look like a bunch of schoolboys, was struggling! The odds of going down 2-1 seemed all too real. And tampering the ball, seemed all too easy. To say that Warner was the chief conspirator wouldn't be far fetched. He has had a dismal series, he isn't new to controversies, and his mental state is vulnerable given the vitriol he has received from the African public. To say that Smith was probably unaware of the entire plot, also seems plausible. But would the number one ranked Test batsmen, with half a dozen good years of cricket left in him, take up the blame for a plot he had no clue about? Many players have been caught while tampering the ball, but none of their captains have taken responsibility for their actions. So why would Smith make the ultimate sacrifice? And why would he burst into tears of guilt for a crime he didn't commit? Smith is definitely to blame for the atmosphere that prevailed in that Aussie dressing room. The game of cricket is the true representation of the English culture. It is played in a very punctual and orderly fashion, with neatly pressed whites and tightly combed hair. A sport, where contact between the players is frowned upon (imagine football) and where courtesy and graciousness accompany failure. Cricket truly is a gentleman's game. And this is where Smith failed as a leader. Winning is the ultimate goal, but competing is the true objective. The Aussies got so held up in winning the prize, that they never realised what they were giving up-the unflinching pride of the Kangaroo nation.

Cricket has survived two world wars, many economic depressions, the fall of its maternal empire, and the hegemony of a behemoth called soccer, all due to the unwavering army of fans that the game boasts of. One can describe basketball fans as deeply analytical, soccer fans as die-hard, but there is only one word for a cricket fan- pious. There is a reverential relationship between a cricket fan and the players. Sachin is indeed a god to many, in the sense that he represented the best of India. But when gods are caught cheating, the blow might be too severe to recover from. One thing about India and Australia is that we take our cricket very seriously. We disregard a life-taking drought to water the plush grass at Wankhede. We disregard our exams in the hope of seeing Kohli take apart bowling attacks. And i have seen that very zeal in the eyes of my Aussie counterparts. The passion and vigour, as they furiously wave their hands and spill the fizzy beer that they later down in joy! Aussie fans are a religious lot! So what happens when a guy who holds an office older than that of the country's Prime Minister's owns up to cheating. Pandemonium! From scathing tweets to public protests, the Aussies were up in arms. Even the Prime Minister got involved. At this point, there was very little that Cricket Australia could do. The world was baying for blood. They wanted a high profile casualty, and that happened to be two blokes who accounted for more than 40% of the runs that Australia had made in recent times. The entire world, which now apparently means only social media, is now batting for Steve Smith. While a one year ban does seem a bit harsh, it was also a bit hurried. If Bancroft was given a lesser sentence because he was only doing the seniors' bidding, shouldn't Smith also have been given a reduced sentence, considering even he wasn't the agent provocateur? There is, or was mischief in the Aussie dressing room. Whether it was Warner or Smith, or both of them together who hatched this conspiracy, the pride of the game has been stained. Steven Smith is too good a batsmen to miss out on one whole year of international cricket. And he doesn't need a lawyer to convince Cricket Australia, as the current crop of Aussies playing in his place, are doing it for him. The sentence will be reduced, and Smith will be back, with his awkward stance, and leg-side flair. But will the world see innocence in his idiosyncrasies, or will they see the shadow of a man who once betrayed their trust?

What happened in South Africa is a message to the world. No one is incorruptible; and not a 100 year old wine, but the winners' champagne is the tastiest drink in the world. Sports shall always be marred with questionable choices and regrettable decisions. The yearning to win will again drive many sportsmen to explore the boundaries of 'what is legal' and 'what is illegal if caught'. But in the name of victory, values must never be compromised, ideals must never be forgotten, and the baton which legends have so gracefully carried.....must never be dropped!

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