International Cricket

The Anger Games: Is cricket becoming too ill-tempered for its own good?

Today’s cricketers are angrier than before and ready to lash out at the simplest provocation. And it doesn’t bode well for the game.

Victory laps are ubiquitous to sport. And in the last few years, the Indian cricket team has made quite a habit of going on these laps, such has been their consistent success in recent years.

But it’s not often that they perform a victory lap with another country’s flag.

Perhaps the only sight more surreal than Dinesh Karthik’s madcap last-ball six against Bangladesh on Sunday in the Nidahas Trophy final in Colombo was the crowd’s spontaneous and heartfelt joy. Betraying all possible talk that the turnout would be low since the hosts were not involved, the Premadasa Stadium saw a full house. And unfailingly, they all cheered for one team: India.

In a way, Bangladesh (or put it better: a mutual hatred for Bangladesh) had pulled off an extraordinary feat. In a nation which has seen periods of stark anti-India sentiment ranging back to a dark history of terrorism, sectarianism and bloodshed, the Bangladesh cricket team had actually managed to get the Sri Lankan capital’s cricket-crazy droves to unflinchingly embrace the Rohit Sharma’s band of travellers. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs could do worse than pick up a few tips from Shakib Al Hasan and Co.

Bangladeshi boorishness

Bangladesh, of course, brought it upon themselves and they can have no excuses. For far too long now, have they suffered from a crippling victim mentality, a constant sense of “us against the world”. They have been allowed to get away with amateurish and cringe-worthy behaviour for far too long now, and the damage is done. All those snake-dance celebrations were boorish, but they could have perhaps still been considered grudgingly acceptable, in the same way that we have quietly accepted cricket’s recent fall of behavioural standards.

Bangladesh’s immaturity and their almost loutish behaviour though cannot be condoned. Fighting umpires and opponents, and destroying stadium equipment, is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you lose the respect of even your most ardent well-wishers.

In the matches preceding the final, Sri Lankan cricket fans were subjected to Bangladesh’s biggest names disrespecting and disgracing their hospitality, their cricketers and the country itself. The outcome was an immense rage felt by Sri Lanka’s supporters. So furiously were they hurt that they came back to take revenge by embracing India, keeping aside the fact that Sri Lanka went through an ill-tempered tour of the same country just a few months ago.

Bangladeshi players smashed the dressing room window after beating Sri Lanka and qualifying for the tri-series final in Colombo (Image: AFP)
Bangladeshi players smashed the dressing room window after beating Sri Lanka and qualifying for the tri-series final in Colombo (Image: AFP)

This was a series that had high-quality cricket. From Washington Sundar’s coming-of-age, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah’s death-over brilliance, the two Kusals’ (Mendis and Perera) flamboyance and finally Dinesh Karthik’s last-ball six, there was so much entertainment. And yet all the narratives after this tri-series revolve around the unsavoury and the sordid. “Naagin” dance. A captain wanting to call his team off because he disagreed with an umpire’s decision.

The mythical line

But it would be a mistake to feel that this is a one-off. Across the ocean in South Africa, a tense, high-profile Test series is taking place between the hosts and Australia. The bowling from both sides has been world-class, the batting perhaps not so, and yet it has still featured one of AB De Villiers’s best-ever Test knocks.

Yet the narrative has more often than not been about the off-field drama: a heated, bad-tempered stairwell “stoush” between David Warner and Quinton de Kock, and more recently, the issue of Kagiso Rabada’s continued transgressions. The fact that he has managed to escape a two-Test ban for an alleged shoulder-barge to the Aussie captain Steve Smith shouldn’t take away from a larger issue: the debate over a hypothetical line has often descended into the ludicrous.

Sample the line of arguments this series has seen recently: Is calling someone a “sook” all right? Is getting personal all fine and dandy? And perhaps the most ridiculous: can I pass comments about my opponent’s wife’s sexual habits? And if I do, is the person allowed to react?

Surely, at some point, you have to say enough is enough?

Of bust-ups and fights

But then what really is “enough” is no longer simple to answer. Over the last couple of years, everyone seems to be taking turns to stamp over that line. Virat Kohli, the champion that he is, abuses, yells, performs send-offs but has only received one demerit point since the system came into effect in September 2016; perhaps his vantage point from mid-off helps matters considerably.

A running feud with Steve Smith erupted when the Aussies when they toured in 2017, spoiling a highly enjoyable tour. The Aussies, of course, duly took offence and happily played the part of a victim.

But when the flagship Ashes arrived though, later in the year, the Australians ensured they were more aggressors, even predators, rather than victims. Right from the build-up when David Warner promised “hatred” and “war” (a moment’s pause, while we mourn the dearly departed soul of the “spirit of the game”) to even the normally affable Nathan Lyon publicly hoping for the end of some English careers, the Ashes weren’t really as feisty as they were ugly.

Ugliness though seems to be the general tone of the game now. A lot of experts don’t seem to see it that way – they argue on vague notions such as “passion”, “commitment”, all the while, rhetorically asking us if we want to see “robots” on the field. But perhaps somewhat unsuspectingly, they fail to realise the downward spiral cricket has found itself in.

A contact sport

We often hear warnings from certain quarters that if this kind of rash behaviour is not nipped in the bud soon, the day will soon come when cricket will become a contact sport. Perhaps, what we don’t realise is, in many ways, cricket has already become one.

Go through the list of players who have been handed out demerit points by the International Cricket Council and count the number of transgressions due to “physical contact”. Players are routinely bumping into each other, squaring each other up.

Players are routinely bumping into each other, squaring each other up (Image: Reuters)
Players are routinely bumping into each other, squaring each other up (Image: Reuters)

Rabada is a frequent offender on this list – that much is known – but it is also interesting to know that the Steve Smith incident wasn’t the first time he was punished for “inappropriate physical contact”. In 2017, he was found guilty of a similar offence against the Sri Lankan wicket-keeper Niroshan Dickwella, who also appears plenty of times on this list.

Do today’s bust-ups just receive more attention because of the hyper-connected world we live in nowadays with its many intrusions? That is an argument made by many, more recently Sanjay Manjrekar who suggested that things were much the same earlier; it was only that they received lesser attention.

The point is valid but it works both ways as well. Michael Holding’s famous moment of fury in 1979 when he kicked down the stumps or Mike Gatting’s infamous standoff with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana in 1987 were every bit as ugly, but they happened in a day and age when the stakes were much lower. Audiences were smaller and the coverage was simply not as ubiquitous as it is now.

Simply put, cricket’s reach is wider and far more instantaneous. The tiniest details reach millions of people, endlessly being replayed across the thousand media platforms which operate today. This is an age of instant gratification – judgement and opinions are made immediately, without much room for subtext and depth. And maybe, that is precisely why players must be a little more circumspect and smart about how they conduct themselves once they step onto a cricket field.

Where do we go now?

Today’s cricketers seem angry. They seem angry to the point of explosion. Their anger seems to bubble inside, growing only stronger and darker till release. And at the point of release, it bursts forth in red stream of uncontrollable rage, a dark haze of fury which could very easily lead to potentially disastrous consequences.

Anyone who saw David Warner’s furious outburst on the CCTV cam in the stairwell incident, his eyes blazing with a mad, inhuman rage towards Quinton de Kock, would know that if there was no one to stop him that day, there would have been violence. And at the risk of sounding fatalistic, the raging anger levels of cricketers today makes it increasingly likely of blood being shed on a cricket field.

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Troublingly enough, even cricket fans are getting influenced by this new fad of hate going around. Players are now subjected to more and more abuse from crowds – Moeen Ali was recently asked when his “kebab shop” opened during the recent Ashes series.

In a stunningly shameful incident in South Africa following the Warner-De Kock episode, fans arrived at the venue of the second Test wearing masks of a rugby player David Warner’s wife was once alleged to have been romantically involved with, in an effort to taunt the Aussie opener. To make matters possibly even cruder, officials from Cricket South Africa even decided to pose with these fans. It bears repetition: How far have we sunk?

Who knows where cricket will go? Perhaps, this is a reflection of the world we live in now – an angrier world, a frustrated world, a world where hate is normalised, a world where attitudes are hardened based on your sense of victimhood. This may be the new normal, but cricket will lose an essential part of what made it so special – a beating soul with kinship and brotherhood at its heart.

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