I still play cricket. These days, I play in the West of Scotland fourth division league, which is pretty much the bottom of the pile. The side I play for has a few decent players, but if they don’t ‘come off’ in a particular match we tend to lose, sometimes badly. Still, I love the game in all its forms and played on Saturday even though an injury meant I could only stand at slip whilst fielding and to try (and to fail) to score only from boundaries whilst batting. Despite this level of foolish addiction, we had a thoroughly miserable game, not because we lost (we did) but because of the attitude of the opposition. It has been on my mind ever since and so I decided to park some thoughts here on my blog. That is what blogs are for, after all.
Why do I play cricket? Besides a love of the game, there is the companionship, the exercise and just being ‘outdoors’- these are all good things but I also feel a commitment to some things that are harder to define. Firstly, in our culture, most collective activities are on the decline, from sports clubs to going to pubs and of course, going to church. We do very few things together any more, apart from ritualised constructed commercial events. Cricket is my way of bucking the trend, in spite of my own social awkwardness and introversion. Our club is made of up of the usual ramshackle mix of ages, body shapes and personalities but by and large, we get on with one another. Of course, there is the inevitable tension at a dropped catch or a careless waft of the bat but I think that mostly we enjoy one another’s company, in that profane, abusive and protected way that most blokes do friendship.
There is something else about the game too that I love. There is this mythological thing called ‘the spirit of the game’, which suggests that cricket should be played in a fair and gentlemanly kind of way. Of course, this has always been a rather flexible principle, from W G Grace’s refusal to be out (claiming that the crowds were there to see him, not the bowler) right through to the current Australian side’s use of sandpaper to alter the ball to make it swing. You would think that at our level of cricket, this would be an easier thing to defend. Here though are a list of things that have happened over the last few games (please note that I am being deliberately vague about WHICH game these occurred in because it would be be not be appropriate to enter into any kind of debate about specific on-field disciplinary matters on this blog);
- Challenging umpires decisions. In lower league cricket the batting side also supplies the umpire (or referee.) This happens in no other game as far as I am aware- effectively you are asking a team to regulate itself, and trusting that it will be OK because of the spirit of the game. This has led to several incidents in the last few games and one in particular on Saturday when bowler might shout and rant about a decision that has not gone their way, sometimes over an extended period.
- Calling players ‘cheats’. This follows on from above. In cricket there is a faint tradition of batsmen ‘walking’ (giving themselves out without awaiting the umpire’s decision.) in reality, even those (like me) who do it sometimes do not do it all the time. Sometimes you just want to believe you are NOT out so much that you can argue with yourself. Those who seem to hurl the word ‘cheat’ most readily seem the least likely to walk themselves however.
- Smashing a hole in an artificial playing surface when given out. This happened when a member of the opposition was adjudged ‘run out’. After damaging our surface he shouted ‘You should have got a fu**ing decent pitch’ as if this was the cause of his run out. Incidentally, the playing surface cost over three thousand pounds.
- Constant abuse of opposition players. There is a lot of talk about ‘crossing the line’ in cricket when ‘sledging’, which is the art of undermining the opposition with snide comments. This can at times be funny and appreciated by all sides. Sometimes though it is just bullying and abuse. For example when a fielder screams that a batsman is a ‘fu**ing disgrace’ because he refuses to take a run, or when he constantly makes foul remarks about his appearance. I was flabbergasted recently to hear a white haired old man on the opposition describe our club as ‘unfriendly’, as if we deserved the abuse he and others were giving us. I can only say that we had done our best to be welcoming and pleasant to the opposition. It is also perhaps significant that they were losing the match at the time.
- Physical contact. Not long ago, William was shoulder barged by a bowler as he was taking a quick single. The bowler elbowed him in the neck and knocked him sideways. He managed to make his ground but was hurt. The opposition did not apologise, and pretended it was an accident. I should add that William is 18 years old and although he went on to get a century, was genuinely shaken by the experience.
- Spitting. An opposition player spat on the ground in front of me as I walked off after getting out. He had been increasingly abusive prior to this as we were piling on a good score. Of course he denied that he had done this deliberately.
- Not understanding the rules. I was umpiring and an opposition bowler was bowling from off the artificial wicket- i.e. to one side of the prepared surface, which would be regarded as a ‘back foot no ball’. There had already been comments about how the surface of the wicket was slippy (he was probably wearing the wrong shoes as I did not find it slippy.) I decided not to call no ball, but to talk to him about the infringement. He immediately bristled, saying ‘he had never been called for a no ball in his whole career’. I tried to calm him down but he was not willing to listen. He then abused me throughout the rest of the match, including by telling me that I had dementia.
What do you do when faced with this kind of behaviour? The temptation of course it to respond in kind- which becomes a race to the bottom. On Saturday, whilst umpiring, I stopped the match and asked to speak to the opposition captain. He did nothing to change things whatsoever. Many of the things I have mentioned above are breaches of the league’s disciplinary codes, but even if we took the trouble to refer them to the league, there is the feeling that we would be winging, and anyway, it would be our word against theirs.
I find that my own response is to become rather troubled. I do not easily brush past conflict and aggression. Possibly this is because of my own vulnerabilities- past experience of bullying and abuse. I am also gritting my teeth at the injustice of it all, and the feeling that something I love is being trampled under foot by people who really should know better.
I am left thinking about the way teams (and other human collectives) form their own culture. Not all the blokes in the team we played on Saturday were unpleasant characters. Perhaps even none of them are in a different context. However, in the context of the game, they were all willing to follow a couple of their players down in to the gutter. There were few, if any, attempts to suggest to their own side that they were taking things too far. Unfortunately, too their tactics might be regarded as being successful, in that they worked. Our batting wilted in the face of some bad bowling, so the aggression and abuse achieved it’s purpose.
Does this matter?
I think it really does. I am sick to death of hearing that in order to succeed, you have to trample on those who get in your way. Our team are genuinely considering leaving the league and only playing ‘friendly’ fixtures. Some players are considering packing in altogether as they have had enough.
Cricket prides itself as being different, in offering a better way to hold ourselves individually and collectively. Without this, even at the bottom of the league, it just creates a race to the bottom.
I know next to nothing about cricket, but did have an understanding that it is a game based on fairness and gentlemanly behaviour. So I feel sad reading your piece (perhaps the world in general is racing to the bottom), and really hope that somehow changes (for the better) would occur.