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Monday, January 07, 2008

Cricket: State of the Game

The state of the game of cricket - emotions run high and perspective is lost

Cricket is a not a topic that we cover very much here at The Science of Sport. Most of our readers probably don't follow it, but being a South African, where cricket is one of the big three sports, I had to do a post on it today, and tie it into something I was writing the other day about team sports, character and moral fibre of champion teams. So even those who wonder what cricket is (Robin Williams called it "baselball on tranquilizers"!) do read on, there's more to this than simply a cricket discussion.

Australia beats India, and all hell breaks loose

Those who follow the game will have seen that Australia won their 16th consecutive test match yesterday, beating India in what was one of the most incredible and dramatic finishes to a Test Match that we have ever seen. The Indians, batting last, needed to survive the final day and fell about 7 balls short of doing so. It was magnificent entertainment and a great advert for the game.

However, no sooner had the Australian champagne corks fallen to the floor and the accusations began to fly. The allegations are numerous and varied, you can read them here if you wish, but basically, they revolve around two or three contentious incidents during the match.

The incidents - interpreted in the eye of the beholder

In the first incident, Ricky Ponting took a catch but the TV replays showed that the ball had touched the ground while in Ponting's hand. According to the rules, this is not a fair catch. Now, thankfully, the batsmen was not given out in this situation, and so the incident is argued distinct from the result of the match.

Not as distinct is the second incident, where the Australian fielder Michael Clarke claimed a low catch off Sourav Ganguly, and amidst doubt over whether the ball had been caught, it was Ponting who informed the umpire that the catch had been taken. This after Clarke had clearly indicated that he believed he had caught the ball. Nothing remarkable here, until you know that before the matches began, the Indian and Australian captains had agreed that they would follow an "honesty" principle when it came to these catches. Therefore, both captains agreed that they would be honest when it came to low catches, so quite why the Australians are now being accused of cheating is beyond me. For what it's worth, TV replays were inconclusive, as they usually are, but certainly do not suggest that the catch was unfair, as is now being claimed.

But more importantly, can you think of another sport where there is a verbal agreement between opposing teams that an "honesty policy" is implemented? Our readers in the USA, can you imagine if a batter would volunteer to give himself out if he felt the pitch was over the plate? Or that a wide receiver would admit to being out of bounds when he made a catch? Of course, it's a ridiculous notion, precisely because it gives the loser a platform to complain from. The winner will always enjoy the honesty system, the loser will resent it. And hence we have these accusations.

A justified disappointment, but irrational reactions

It simply does not add up. Now, one is tempted to dismiss the Indian rants as those of bad losers. But one does have to acknowledge that they do have a right to feel unhappy and upset about the result against Australia - the umpiring was poor and India deserved to get out of the match with at least a draw. Australia were, to be blunt, lucky. But how about this reaction from an Indian "expert" in a TV debate following the game:

"If Steve Bucknor walks the streets of Mumbai he would not be alive after an hour."
Come again? Did I read that right? Are we saying that a game of sport is so serious, so important, and human error so bad, that people will be killed for their mistakes? In my country, when people get mugged and killed for 100 dollars it would be considered an outrage, never mind over a cricket match.

And if you thought it was just some fans who were unhappy, the Indian team then threatened to pull out of the Tour to Australia based on the perceived injustices, including the 'incompetent umpiring'! This all against the backdrop of one of the Indian players being suspended for alleged racist remarks against Australia's Andrew Symonds, which is also threatening the status of the Tour.

When people react in this way, it's difficult to listen to anything else they say. For the Indians, their reaction displays a hypocrisy of enormous proportions, because rather than playing in the spirit of the game, they are holding their team to ransom, issuing death threats against umpires who "cost them the match", and generally behaving like 11-year olds after a school match gone wrong.

And so while the Australians are wrong to fight back, and don't endear themselves to anyone with their sometimes righteous attitude (it is of course easy to be perceived as righteous when you're winning all the time). This is where I do think that the Australians could take a lesson out of the professional book of behaviour from the NFL teams, who, as mentioned last week, have recognized that it's the TEAM character and virtue that is key to success on and off the field. It's all good and well to talk about individuals and their integrity, but it's the collective team integrity that is not optimally managed. I personally believe that Australia have this more correct than any other team (the sight of Andre Nel, Dale Steyn, Smith and Mark Boucher of South Africa verbally screaming at and abusing batsmen this past weekend was frankly embarassing and typical of the boorish attitude they have shown for years). But take a leaf out of the book of the Patriots, Packers and Cowboys, and we'll all be better off.

So let's hope that common sense prevails and people learn to be a little more analytical and thoughtful about sport, which is, after all, just a game.



Varun said...

I am indeed apalled by the bucknor-will-be-killed-in-mumbai comment but you still have a very different notion from what originally happened. Wrong umpiring decisions happen virtually in every match, and are considered part of the game. But in a game with no less than 10 (yes, TEN) wrong decisions, and 9 of them against India, you clearly see that the Aussies purely won on sheer luck. In addition, with the players claiming catches which were grassed (if evidence in inconclusive, the benefit goes to the batsman), the game was won by a mix of sheer luck and deceit.

As 'outdoor enthusiast' points out, Aussies would have hardly scored 250 in the first innings and India could easily have batted another 20-30 overs in the second if not for the cheating and poor umpiring. That pretty much means India were well on course to winning the match, if not eking out a draw!!

Poor umpiring is something players cannot control, but cheating by the aussies was something very shameful and derogatory to the game. Especially when they indeed are the best team in the world.

About Harbhajan, I do not support him because i saw him beckon Symonds and say something, but a 3 match ban on poor or no evidence is a bit too far-fetched.

I hope it is clear to you that the Indian team's reaction is not far-fetched. I appreciate your interest in and analysis of this game and the service you do to sports being sports-scientists.

David said...

I know nothing about cricket, however, I can name another sport that uses an "honesty policy"-- curling. Players are expected to call their own fouls. Granted, in international competition there are sensors in the rocks to judge hog line violations (holding on to the rock for to long) but, players call illegal touches on their own.

Anonymous said...

Dear, dear . . . 'outdoor enthusiast' is suddenly an expert on the game yet he admits he saw none of it. Of course the Indian press would never be biased eh?

I saw most of the game on tv. Yes there were some crook decisions as in every game but 9 bad decisions against India as Varun claimed . . . give us a break. That's trash.

And I saw the stumping replay against Symonds and it was clear that he should have been given the benefit of the doubt. I didn't even think it was that close. His heel had dropped behind the crease.

Regarding the alleged racial incident and Symonds, the crucial bit for me was that Symonds tried to walk away and Harby followed him aggressively. I like Harby, he adds a lot to the game, but you can't let this sort of thing get out of hand.

Imagine if South Africa was playing India and a lone black player was subject to anything like a racial taunt. All hell would break loose. Proctor would have understood that perspective and that's why Harby got the works.

As far as the inane comment about an umpire and threats to his life, that commentator deserves to lose his job -- right now!

Anonymous said...

Ha. Despite your opening defensive argument Outdoor Enthusiast, I sense your reply was not as un-biased as you try to imply it is.
There were umpiring decisions that were detrimental to the Australias cause as well...for instance Ponting in the second innings LBW after he hit the ball.
Arguing over what the outcome might have been is pointless. Who is to say what a new set of circumstances might have brought to the game, and to say that India outclassed Australia...you can't be serious? Yes I would have to agree that they outclassed Australia for most of day 1 but then it was a tight tussle till the end.
Everyone needs to calm down and accept that this game was based mainly on luck, which happened to favour the Australians in this case. Here's hoping the tables swing in the next match (if there is one) and the luck falls India's way. Then we will really see what Australia is like under pressure. ;)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Everyone

Thanks for your comments and debate on the issue at hand. I really appreciate this kind of debate, because I think it advances understanding.

Yesterday I received a very scathing and hostile email with the subject line "Australians are born cheats". Now that, to me, moves us backwards, because it displays a kind of implicit racism and intolerance - how can one label ALL people cheats based on the actions of a few, which is effectively what this person was doing.

But this discussion is far better, and I enjoyed reading the back and forth arguments. It's quite clear the issue will divide people - I actually think that's great, provided we remember we are still talking about sport here. So let's be divided (it's good to be divided because it shows that we are committed to supporting one team or the other and that is good), but let's keep the division about cricket, as it has been so far...!

Anyway, just to respond to some of the questions:

My post was not really about the umpiring decisions so much as it was about the reaction that has followed. As I wrote, I do believe that Australia were very lucky when it came to umpiring decisions.

I would caution against saying that "India would have won", because the entire dynamic of the game changes if Australia makes 220 in the first innings. For one thing, Ponting would set more defensive fields, for another, a different match situation develops. India's batsmen suddenly come under a very different pressure, the bowlers are bowling in a different match situation. And also, don't forget that Australia were effectively about 380 for 4 in their second, and could well have made 500 batting second had they needed it. That may have shifted the entire balance of the game. All I'm saying is that every time you say "if Symonds was out/if Hussey was out", then you introduce a new variable - in science, there is something called the uncertainty principle, and I feel the same can apply to sport of any kind.

So in sport, I think it wise to avoid "ifs and buts". I do however agree that India deserved a draw (at least) and may have drawn the game apart from the bad decision against Dravid.

However, the decision against Ganguly was fair. Remember, the players had agreed to the honesty policy before the series. Now, I can appreciate the consternation of people having been on the wrong side of it. That's why I don't think it should be agreed upon in the first place - the losing team will always have grounds for complaint. That was a key point I tried to make in my post. It wasn't about whether Ganguly was out or not, it was about the principle of the matter.

The actual details of the match were of lesser importance to me (many of our readers are in the USA) and so I don't go into huge detail because it would alienate many.

But the bottom line in the post, in my opinion, is that what we're seeing now is an opportunity for India to emerge from this situation with the moral high ground rapidly disappearing. It's difficult to take the management and team seriously when experts and people in India are displaying 0% rational thought and 100% emotion, burning effigies and calling humans donkeys in the national media! That's not just against the spirit of the game, it's against the spirit of the human race!

And it's not the players, I have utmost respect and sympathy for them (apart from silly comments that have been made), it's the media and management that are doing their national team no favours at all. They had a chance to hold their heads high, earn everyone's respects and admiration for their behaviour in response to a situation that was very unfair against them. But instead of focusing on constructive discussion about umpires, we've had unfortunate "near riots" in India attacking the person, not the mistake.

That's the situation I'd like to avoid.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Everyone, and let me echo Ross in saying that I have been really pleased with the debate here. In most forums these debates deteriorate into name-calling and mud slinging after the first comment, and here both sides are coming with reason-based and logical arguments. Great stuff!

What I would like to add does not concern the behaviour of the athletes (which is to be abhorred), but is more about this idea that Australia were lucky with the bad calls.

Last season one of the refs in the National Basketball Association here in America was caught betting on games, which is strictly prohibited according to his contract with the league. Worse, he bet on games he officiated. The league assures us he was a lone wolf and acted on his own, although I am not sure there is enough proof to really confirm that.

The point here, however, is that with regards to the "bad" umpiring in this match one cannot rule out that the umpire(s) were fixing the match. Even after all the fallout following the Hansie Conjie issue, there is no evidence to suggest that match fixing has been eradicated in cricket.

With Australia being the top team in the world, I am not sure if India would have been favoured even at home, but examining the odds for the match might be a useful exercise.

Finally, bad calls, even in the volumes that allegedly occurred in this match, are unfortunately part of all sports. It is part of the dynamic of the game, and in fact this dynamic (and the game) would likely change if we had perfect officiating. India had exactly one chance to behave in a professional manner while still being critical of the officiating, yet unfortunately for them they squandered their opportunity.

Thanks again for this debate!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Golf is a a sport that has an honesty policy. Numerous examples of golfers penalizing themselves over silly rules and disqualifying themselves.

Anonymous said...

MONKEY is racist as it relates to 'white' people being supposedly more evolved (and therefore explicitly better) than 'black' people who are supposedly closer to our ape ancestors of 500,000 years ago. Sportspeople have a distinct responsibility not to perpetuate this fallacy in the public domain. India feel hard done by the poor umpiring - surely they can only claim 2 obviously poor decisions and the serious sledging from the Australians - significantly degoratory comments on all aspects of personality but not crossing the line of racism. I do feel for the Indians as they gave their all for 5 days and should have got away with a draw and remained alive in the series, however the game cannot be replayed, India need to get over it and move on. Australia showed their collective team character on the last day using intimidation to get wickets without caring whether or not the the batsmen were actually out, the winning is everything mentality that takes away from the enjoyment of the competition and the spirit of the game. Yes they have equalled the record for successive wins, but have they earned any respect - NUP. At the end of the day - as in life - it doesn't matter if you win or lose ........

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if people posting on these forums have actually ever been involved in the hurly burly of team sport. Cricket may have had an aura of being the last bastion of polite sporting conduct, but looking back at the bodyline series, and even the tied Indian test, it's just a myth.
Agro goes on in football, hockey, basketball, baseball (at least there are no punchups in Test cricket), so let's not get too precious about "cricket" for a start.

And look, Proctor had a lot more facts available than anyone posting here, and he also had a QC beside him to advise. His decision certainly was not taken lightly because he would have realised the furore it would create.

Malcom Conn writing in The Australian this morning says that Symonds actually went to the Indian dressing room during the Indian tour and asked Harbhajan not to use the term 'monkey' because he found it offensive. Apparently Harby agreed.

That was the old-fashioned way to deal with this -- man to man -- and Symonds is to be congratulated for his demeanour through all of this.

On the Times Online forum, a poster makes this point: Go and sit in a Chelsea football crowd and fling two types of abuse at Ashley Cole : 1) insult him non-racially or, 2) call him a monkey. His view was that the second insult would bring upon the insulter dire consequences in comparison with the first. There is a huge difference between sledging and racial taunt and insult, especially when it encourages crowds to mimic that behaviour.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey again

Thanks for the continuous comments on this controversial issue.

I'm very pleased to see that the Tour of Aus will continue, though the means by which the temporary 'truce' has been achieved is very concerning.

To change an umpire because a team is unhappy with decisions (yes, they were bad, but that happens) is a wrong move by the ICC, and it has eroded their power over the game. It's quite clear that if a team shouts loudly enough and makes a big enough threat, they can get away with changing the rulings by officials.

now, that won't go down well, I'm sure, but the reality is that India (be it management, or media) have held their own players and their own tour hostage, and won. I can't see how in the long term, that's good for the game. But let's hope the next two tests are played hard, but fair.

Just to comment on the latest posts by Paul and Onimod - agreed on both counts regarding the ICC ruling/Proctor's decision and the impact the term may have had.

I think that people should remember that the Symonds-racism/monkey incident is not once-off, it came up in India where Symonds was taunted by crowds as well and so I think the situation was "primed" for that exact term. Considering that Symonds also requested that the term not be used, for it to then be thrown out is really not smart. I'm not going to say that Singh is racist - I don't know him and my speculation adds little to the argument and is not constructive, so I won't. But if he did in fact call Symonds a monkey, it's pretty silly to do,considering.

As for the ruling by Mike Proctor, no one, and I mean no-one, would be able to be as senstive to the race issue in cricket as Mike Proctor. Remmber, this is a man who lost a good chunk of his international career as a result of race-related controversy and being South African, he'd be especially "tuned in".

Now, again, my speculation about what happened on the field is unlikely to be constructive, but I will say that for the umpires to cover their mouths to prevent cameras and viewers from lip-reading does NOT suggest a throw-away, frivolous incident. It suggests a very serious allegation and one that deserved the post-match procedure. As for what went on during that procedure, who knows what evidence was heard and what proof they may or may not have had? I have seen many reports about the lack of proof, but I'm not sure all are grounded or accurate. If anyone knows what proof there was, please let us know!

Finally, two very interesting articles that I read yesterday on Cricinfo are worth mentioning. One dealt with the possibility that much of the tension between the sides is due to differences in culture and that is certainly a possibility. It doesn't condone either side's errors and comments, because part of the challenge is that you should seek to understand that culture, but it was Alan Border who was making the point that perhaps a good deal of the problem is cultural.

Then the second article dealt with sledging and how we should be trying to eradicate it from the game. It was a really well written piece (available on Cricinfo.org) and made some excellent points. I don't think that the complete removal of sledging is realistic, nor should it happen, but I do wonder how other sports compare - when you're playing rugby and about to hit up with the opposition front row in a scrum, what gets said there? And so is cricket being evaluated differently from other sports? One analogy that springs to mind is dissent towards officials. in soccer, every decision in challenged and often the abuse hurled at a referee is very obvious on TV and very aggressive. In cricket, a batsmen who stares at the umpire is in danger of dissent charges. And yes, I know, it's a different sport, the gentleman's game, but are we seeing sport as a mirror on society, which seems to be heading that way?

Certainly, the Aussie players seem bemused at the reaction to all this - I think they genuinely believe they were just playing hard cricket. Yet one man's "hard" seems to be another's "dirty". Point is, you can't enforce rules to ban sledging for fear of depersonalizing the game, and nor should we all sink to the lowest common denominator on perceptions of sleding/hard cricket.

It's certainly a tricky issue, but maybe this spotlight will help clear it up a little.

But now, moving forward, the opportunity exists for the Australians to step forward and say that we respect the Indian's perceptions of us, we overstepped the mark (whether or not this is true is irrelevant - they have a chance to rise above that) and we will clean it up for the remaining two games, which we'll try to win fairly and with good grace.

Let's hope for that.

jock.c.murray said...

Despite the outcome of the game, the media outpourings and the overzealous reaction of Indian cricket fans there stands one shining light: the BCCI.

I'm so proud of their tough stance against the imperialistic attitudes of the Australian cricket team, the ACB and the ICC. They did the only conscianable thing that a sporting body could do: resort to blackmail.

I even loved it when they took the olive branch offered by the ICC and reiterated the blackmail. Awesome stuff. No wonder the fans on the street are burning effigies and carrying on like class clowns.

If I were in Malcolm Speed's shoes I would have been straight onto WebJet to help organise the Indian cricket team's flight home. No questions asked, no parlance given.

There's no place in world sport for the BCCI or any other sporting administration body to act in a manner that brings the game into such disrepute.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Note to non-cricketing readers:

The BCCI is the "Board of Control for Cricket in India," and is essentially cricket's governing body in India.

See the Wikipedia entry for the BCCI here.

Interestingly, the BCCI is about the become the richest national cricket board with income over $150 million. . .and certainly then they carry with them quite a bit of clout, which might explain the behaviour jock.c.murray described.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Outdoor Enthusiast

If you’re going to have an almighty whinge, you might want to at least get your facts straight…

Ponting has NEVER advocated walking, you’re thinking of Adam Gilchrist and he’s never said that others should do it, it’s just his personal choice. Given he’s pretty much the ONLY person in world cricket who does it, I guess it’s not a widely held popular opinion.

Now, the umpiring. Shall we just ignore the fact that when Ponting was given out, he actually wasn’t out? How about the ludicrous Brett Lee LBW when he was cruising on 59. What about the plum LBW’s against Tendulkar and Laxman before either had passed 50?

Ponting’s edge down the leg side WASN’T OBVIOUS. Only after 3 replays did people start to think that he may have got a touch on it. The Symonds one was a shocker, but no worse than the Ponting LBW. Neither of the Symonds stumping were out (have you heard of benefit out the doubt?), besides he as already on 130 for the second on. Which Hussey ones? I haven’t even seen those mentioned before. Dravid wasn’t out, Ganguly was out – as very eloquently describe by the blog author.

Point 2, did YOU see what happened? You continently ignore the fact that Harbhajan made deliberate physical contact with Lee, it was after that that Symonds had a go at him. Harbhajan is hardly a shrinking violet.

Fact of the matter is, Inda had an 80 run lead and weren’t good enough to bowl Australia out for less than 400. That is why they couldn’t win the game. Then, they couldn’t survive two sessions with the bat (losing 6 wickets to part time bowlers). That is why they lost the game. All this umpiring nonsense (and spiring of the game allegations) conveniently deflects attention away from what was a very poor performance by the Indian team on the last 2 days of the test.

You have 5 days and 20 wickets to hold and 20 wickets to get, if you can’t afford to get a few dud calls (which has happened in every game of test cricket for the last 100+ years), you don’t deserve to win.

Celebrate the the great cricket - 100's to Symonds, Laxman, Tendulkar, Hayden and Hussey. Amazing victory in a match that went down to the wire, after 5 wonderful days of cricket.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem going on here is what I believe to be the vast scale between the differing offences and the 'neo-con' method of arguing against them.

It's not like two dodgy lbw's are worth one racist insult or that 5 bad umpiring calls give you a free pass to hold the international administrators to ransom, and yet that's what's being argued. It's either ignorance to the issue of racism, or it's tacit approval of it. The sense or proportionality is just all out of whack.

The tide has turned a little against the Indains now in the Australian press. As is typical of the modern day mainstream press, it's been reported as a black and white issue - pick your side and so on. Now that the context is being examined a little deeper and the biases of commentators are exposed I hope we get back to the principles of the matter. As the stories of the reaction in India filter through (tshirts and the like), there's plenty of behaviour I'm not proud of as a human; no matter which country I come from.

In political terms the wedge has been driven by the BCCI and I wonder how much it has to do with the rise of an alternative series there?

Sledgehammers are obviously a poor implement for swatting flies.

Anonymous said...

Guess this comment is late by over a year :) but that comment about Steve Bucknor risk being killed on the streets in India within an hour is total nonsense. No cricket fan in India would do that. Whoever said that was just making things sensational. Television does that.