Howzat? Bloody marvellous, thank you: or that is how I suspect all English cricket fans are feeling after the tormentingly tense victory over the Australian XI in the first Test of the 2013 Ashes series. Well, not quite all. The press pack have found the 27-year-old Stuart Broad guilty of being a cheat, a besmircher of the spirit of the game, the cause of sourness in the moment of victory. And that’s just the English newspapers. For some of the Australian journalists, his behaviour was “disgraceful” and “immoral”.
The facts, for those of you who had better things to do over the weekend, are these: at a critical moment on Friday, Broad edged the ball, via the knee of the Australian wicketkeeper, into the hands of the Aussie skipper, Michael Clarke. So clear was the deflection from Broad’s bat that the Australians didn’t even appeal. Then they noticed that the 6ft 5in Englishman hadn’t walked off in the direction of the pavilion. So they asked the umpire, Aleem Dar, to confirm the obvious, that Broad had been caught.
The Pakistani shook his head, almost imperceptibly, to indicate that, in his opinion, Broad had not hit the ball. Cue chewing-gum spitting volleys of what we might politely term incredulity from the Aussie captain and his colleagues. Well, you couldn’t blame them for that. And, as it turned out, the ultimate margin of English victory was smaller than the number of extra runs Broad went on to score after the woeful misjudgement by the man in the white coat.
That, however, is the point. The umpire is the sole arbiter, for right or wrong, under the laws of the game. If he says it’s out, it is – even if he’s made a mistake; and the same goes in reverse (which Broad exploited to the full). It’s true the modern international game allows for two appeals per innings to a higher authority – a third umpire with access to slow-motion replays. But here too, it is only an umpire who determines the outness or not-outness of the batsman. Strictly speaking, it is no business of the players at all.
This may help explain the stark division between commentators who have been professional players, and those sports writers whose participatory experience of the game has only been at amateur level. The former, to a man, regard Broad’s conduct as unexceptionable – with even a sneaking admiration for the way he managed to keep a poker face while all the hullabaloo was going on. The latter have invoked “the spirit of cricket” and the good old days when a chap knew he should “walk” if he nicked it.
The truth is that players at county and international level had decades ago – with a very few exceptions – abandoned the approach that the game should be played in the spirit with which a Catholic enters the confessional. About 15 years ago I had a conversation with the late Colin Cowdrey, a man seen as exemplifying the noblesse oblige style of the glorious English amateur. He told me, quite jovially, that before a certain Ashes series – one now more than half a century ago – the England captain of the day instructed his team that if the ball whistled very close to the bat of one of the top Australian players on its way through to the wicketkeeper, they should to a man leap up and appeal for a catch. (This would actually be a breach of the International Cricket Council article 2.2.11, which forbids “deliberate attempts to mislead the umpire” – something of which Broad was not guilty.)
When I asked the staunchly Christian Cowdrey if he had fallen in with this pre-conceived plan to deceive the umpire, he said he had. “It was the skipper’s orders.” This is the real spirit of international cricket. It is not the good of one’s immortal soul that is to be preserved at all costs, but the interests of the team – which take precedence over any moral vanity on the part of the individual. Thus, when one leading Australian sports writer declared that: “Broad has made certain that he will be remembered more for his moral judgment than his cricket”, the response of professional cricketers (Australians as well as English) would be A) “What pompous claptrap”; and, B) “No – he will be remembered as a cricketer who put the interests of the team first, as he should.”
In fact, it is Australia which made Broad the ferocious competitor he now is. His former skipper at the Australian club side Hoppers Crossing revealed that: “He came to our club as a very nice 18-year-old out of private school … our guys soon sorted him out.” Broad gave a concurring account of his cricketing education: “I went over as a young kid, public-school cricket, all nicey-nicey…. They taught me a toughness: ‘I’m not getting out to him’.”
There has always been a bit of a myth about the decent upstanding English public school-educated cricketers in the amateur tradition versus the unyielding hard-eyed bruisers from a country once a dumping ground for our recidivist convicts. In fact, this contrast was drawn more to console ourselves that we were virtuous in defeat, against representatives of a more unscrupulous national culture (though tell that to Aussies on the receiving end of “Bodyline”, the brutal physical assault devised by that archetypal public-school amateur Douglas Jardine, back in 1932).
Well, this England cricket fan for one got fed up with that pathetic and self-serving faux moral supremacy – especially as our losses in Ashes series piled up with impotent inevitability. I recall with especial shame sitting next to the great Aussie swing bowler Alan Davidson (by then in his 70s) during a typically weak-kneed England batting collapse in the second Test match of the 2001 Ashes series. He sighed and said: “I just wish your lot would give our fellas a proper match.” That hurt.
Now we have learnt from the Australians, beating them at their own (tough) game. For this they will respect us much more than if we had remained losers with a moral superiority complex – otherwise known as whingeing Poms.