Leading Article: A disturbing trend, or just a handful of dust?

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EVEN if Mike Atherton broke none of the hallowed laws of English cricket during the inglorious Test match against South Africa, the affair of the ball, the mud, the England captain and his trouser pockets did no credit to the game. It all seemed, well, rather unsporting.

The idea that a player might try to tamper with the ball would have been a source of scandal to generations of schoolboys brought up on the notion that the important thing is to play the game, not just to win. Such a philosophy, unfathomable to many beyond these shores, goes a long way to explain why cricket has become so infused with the gentlemanly values and customs of Britain's sunlit imperial afternoon.

Inevitably, perhaps, a left-wing American writer, Mike Marqusee, has this summer produced a book intended to show that much of cricket's history is an aristocratic myth and that the malaise of the England Test side is - yes, wait for it - linked to our decline from Empire. There may be a little truth in this, but only a little.

Cricket was a popular 18th-century sport, adopted by Victorian schoolmasters and colonial administrators as a perfect method of exercising mind and body. It was governed by arcane codes and regulated by a strong sense of honour. Its beauty often eluded outsiders.

To draw a parallel between national fortunes and luck in the Test match is, however, a dubious proposition. The most disturbing aspect of much professional commentary over the Atherton incident is the common assertion that interfering with the ball is a practice so widespread among bowlers that it barely invites comment. A sad but likely explanation is that the low standards of other sports, driven by ambition, greed and an obsessive pursuit of victory, have now invaded the cricket pavilion.

It would be melancholy indeed to accept that cricketers indulge in malpractice as readily as one recognises that sprinters will swallow steroids, jockeys will drug their horses, Argentine soccer stars will punch the ball and ice skaters may arrange for their rivals to be beaten up. The very welcome first appearance in so many years by South Africa at Lord's should have been an occasion to observe cricket at its finest. It is a shame that a handful of dust should have been thrown in the eyes of its admirers.