The spirit of cricket

Nader Rahman

THE International Cricket Council (ICC), like most other governing bodies for international sports, has the amazing ability to pat itself on the back in self glory, without giving it a second thought. The ICC Cricket Awards are the best and most recent example. In an effort to "revamp" its image and "modernise" everything related to the game, for the last two years they have held the ICC Cricket Awards.

Photo: Star
Can cricket fans get anymore colourful and boisterous than the Bangladeshi ones?

This idea was conceived in the 21st century and one that is supposed to keep cricket firmly in the forefront of world sports this millennium. Just to make sure they had not moved too far away from the heart of cricket, that is to say that "Cricket is a Gentleman's Game", they decided to create an award called the Spirit of Cricket Award, ostensibly for the team that has best conducted itself, "on the filed within the spirit of the game" and its traditional values. This award alone seems to be cricket's one remaining tie with its glorious past.

With Twenty20 cricket, super substitutes etc. etc., the Spirit of Cricket Award is the last link to the great game that once was cricket. In an attempt to crossbreed the Oscars and the Laureus Sports Awards into their own cricketing extravaganza, and with the aim to keep up with the time, in a glitzy night of self praise, the ICC gave away the most important prize without even noticing it, to the flavour of the week. The award may have been given to England but not earned by them. After avenging the Ashes, the Sprit of Cricket Award went to English euphoria.

The question to be asked, should rightly be, who really displayed the spirit of cricket, whose conduct best deserved it, against insurmountable adversity and with the utmost humility. The rather unlikely answer is Bangladesh!

Bangladesh, why on earth would anyone say Bangladesh? Have a good laugh and scratch your head all you want, but if the ICC were really to give the award to the team with the most courage and conviction in the spirit of the game, rather than the team of the moment, then Bangladesh was the one to give it to. Another missed opportunity for the ICC to show the world that these new awards really stand for something positive and progressive in the interest of international cricket and its future.

Consider what Bangladesh has had to go through in the past one year, and amazingly they have come out of that year with victories against three Test playing nations and have won their first ever Test match. The only time one ever heard about Bangladesh in the recent past was when people were constantly questioning the logic behind giving them Test status and whether they still deserved to be playing them. Funnily enough no one said the same of England during the dark days of the 90s or in '99 when they sank to the bottom of the Test table.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, went into the New Year with a victory against India. What made the victory even sweeter is that it came after they were drubbed 2-0 in the Test series, that too, by an innings each time. Coming back from embarrassing defeats and constant criticism, that is the Bangladesh brand of the spirit of cricket. After the elation of beating India, any respect for Bangladesh in the cricketing world and media was brief and backhanded, patronising at best. Bangladesh then faced their biggest challenge yet in international cricket, the tour by Zimbabwe in January. Finally they would face a team against which they could really harbour the ambitions of winning a Test series, let alone a single Test. A little over a year before Bangladesh played Zimbabwe at home, the late David Hookes predicted that Australia would beat Bangladesh in the world's first one-day Test match. That was the propaganda, derogatory and demeaning, and since then doubt and ridicule has dogged Bangladesh, to the point that its future as a Test playing nation was in real peril.

On the 10th of January 2005, everyone was obliged to eat their own words when Bangladesh won their first Test match. The underdogs showed the world the spirit of cricket. They went on to win their first Test series and yet people still put that down to playing a weak Zimbabwe team. But if that was not enough to show the spirit of the Bangladeshi team, then the one-day series was where the spirit of cricket was really to be seen. After going 2-0 down Bangladesh amazingly rallied back to win the series 3-2 and became only the second team ever to do so, and all this while they were still being publicly criticised at home and abroad. To come back from 2-0 down and what must have seemed like the world against you, if that does not show heart and spirit, then the ICC needs to rethink what they mean by the spirit of cricket.

Just before India toured Bangladesh, England finally left for their tour of Zimbabwe. A tour that went sour 18 months before it actually ever happened, with England not willing to play Zimbabwe in the 2003 World Cup. England took the moral high ground saying that a tour to the Mugabe-governed Zimbabwe would be unethical. Andrew Miller said it best in his article on the 21st of January 2004, "Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head when he said 'Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people whom we personally dislike'. This issue has nothing to do with cricket, and everything to do with Mugabe and his repugnant regime." Many a time sport is what has bridged two nations, just as much as it has separated them. In the 1998 Football World Cup in France two of the world's greatest political enemies played each other, they were the United States and Iran. But unlike England in the 2003 Cricket World Cup they managed to put aside their rather enormous political differences and got on with the game, thus elevating the game above politics. England could have done that, but instead they reduced the tour to a political farce. England by politicising their tour to Zimbabwe, promoted politics above the game. Unlike England, insignificant Bangladesh took the game to its just level, above everything else.

At the same time as the celebrations in Bangladesh, England were in South Africa and they played out a one-day series that will be remembered as one where the spirit of the game was insulted and more importantly absent. When Kevin Pietersem scored his century in the second ODI in Bloemfontein he openly taunted the crowd by extravagantly kissing the English badge on his shirt and helmet, and when he took a catch in the third ODI at Port Elizabeth, he arrogantly pointed towards the grandstand at St. George's Park, traditionally viewed as the spiritual home of black cricket in South Africa through the dark days of apartheid. One would have thought the great political minds behind English cricket would have foreseen that, to make matters worse his behavior never eased up. By turning their back on him when he scored his century, the South African crowd reciprocated England's spirit of cricket.

SPREAD ASHRAFUL: Batsman Mohammad Ashraful is on cloud nine after his valiant century against India at the MA Aziz Stadium in Chittagong in December 2004.

The Spirit of Cricket: preamble to the laws says, "Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself." The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.

The Spirit of the Game involves respect for:
* your opponents
* your own captain and team
* the role of the umpires
* the game's traditional values

What we would like to know is how Michael Vaughan took the majority of the responsibility when he was fined for his comments towards the on-field umpires at the end of the second day of the Johannesburg Test. That, I take it was what the England team meant by respect for the role of the umpires. After a disciplinary meeting Clive Lloyd, the match referee, said, "As the captain, Michael Vaughan should be aware of his duties and the rules under which he is plying." After the hearing Lloyd went on to say, "It is a serious offence to make such comments about the match officials." Vaughan was fined his entire match fee and was accused of being "rude and dismissive". An infuriated Lloyd went on to say "I would have given him a lesser fine if it were not for that, but I stopped short of banning him for the last Test. I have respect for the England captain and I expected the same from him." He went on to say, "If he doesn't respect me he should at least respect the position (of match referee), but he made matters worse for himself with his dismissive and rude attitude."

As far as "respect for your opponents” is concerned, I am sure that's exactly what England had in mind when they sent a weakened team to Zimbabwe, a team without Flintoff, Harmison and Trescothick. I am sure they respected their opponents when Andrew Strauss, England's opening batsman and barely a net bowler, bowled the last over in the 4th ODI at Bulawayo. For the team that has won the Spirit of Cricket Award their lack of respect for their opponents is reason enough for them not to have won. If England left the moral high ground at home and just agreed to play cricket and not think of politics then they might possibly claim some justification for such an award. If behavior like this is what warrants the award, then let us say, Bangladesh is better off without it.

For me, Bangladesh's finest moment ironically enough came in England. After being pummelled in the two Test match series they had the unfortunate task of taking on the top two international teams, Australia and England, in a one-day series. The experts called for their heads again, they were completely and utterly outclassed by England in the first two Tests of the summer and now they had to face the world champions Australia. Geoffrey Boycott and Richie Benaud were just two out of a long line of eminent cricketers who questioned whether Bangladesh should be playing cricket at all. Boycott, in true fashion, in a speech at Lord's said that even his mum could score a hundred against Bangladesh while Benaud would just have been happy if Bangladesh didn't embarrass themselves and stopped playing cricket. There could not have been a worse prelude to a match against the might of Australia.

But once again, Bangladesh did the impossible. After a month of heavy defeats, even against weakened county sides, they came back to stun the world champions. That victory against Australia, against all odds, against all detractors, against all reasons, against all the humiliation, was the one moment of triumph in a year of cruel and crushing defeats. After years of unwarranted criticism from all quarters, Bangladesh turned the tables on the whole world.

In sharp contrast to the Royal Bengal Tiger, the large hearted lions of England, in the spirit of cricket, rejected Ricky Ponting's goodwill catching deal, where the batsmen would accept the word of the fielders, and would leave contentious decisions to the umpires. Ponting might, I add, have offered that deal in an attempt to "lift the spirit of the game", a thought that Vaughan would most certainly hold dear. The English didn't stop their spirit of cricket there either, they openly stated that they would bowl short stuff at the Australian tail-enders in at attempt to break the fingers of a few fast bowlers. England were the team that went to Zimbabwe without its top players and had only political motives in mind. They were the team that had Kevin Pietersen booed at every ground he went to in South Africa, they were the team to have their captain fined his entire match fee for misbehaving with umpires, and being "dismissive and rude", they were the team who wanted to break their opponents' fingers, they were the team that rejected a goodwill catching deal which was supposed to "lift the spirit of the game". In the last one year England never had the world against them, they never came back when everyone said there was no way, they didn't have to prove themselves and their famous Ashes victory came after the July 31st deadline. Even after all this, the ICC decided that England was the team that embodied the spirit of cricket more than any other.

During the same period Bangladesh came back from the harshest of criticism and the worst morale in the world to first beat India at home, then beat Zimbabwe in a Test series, then come back from 2-0 down to win the ODI series 3-2 and finally after the whole world had counted them out, came back to beat the world champions. Courage in the face of adversity, belief in oneself when no one else does, that is what the spirit of cricket really is. The spirit of cricket isn't Andrew Strauss bowling the last over of a one day match to embarrass your hosts, the spirit of cricket is a scrambled run where the "worst" in the world beats the best in the world and sends your country into celebrations that make the Ashes euphoria look like a retirement party. The spirit of cricket isn't misbehaving with the umpires, the spirit of cricket is being sixteen years old and making your debut at Lord's. The spirit of cricket isn't defiantly kissing the English badge, simply to enrage the crowd. If these demonstrate the spirit of cricket, then from the day that England invented bodyline bowling some seventy-five years ago till now, England had indeed earned the Spirit of Cricket Award.

The spirit of cricket are the tears of joy of a young hopeful from the backwaters of Bangladesh after scoring his first ODI hundred against the champions of the world. What indeed is the spirit of cricket if not this? It is about knowing your opponents, respecting them, and wining or losing with honour and sportsmanship.

©, 2006. All Rights Reserved