Friday, June 13, 2008

A good walk spoiled...

When Andrew Symonds stood his ground after blatantly punching one down the leg side earlier today and was astonishingly reprieved by umpire Benson, the final Test Match between Australia and the West Indies saw what could well turn out to be its single most defining moment. At the time the big man was on a mere 14 and his side struggling at a shaky 133 for 5. After his let-off Symonds was at his belligerent best in guiding Australia to a much more competitive first day total of 226-7, contributing a vital fifty in the process.

This is of course not the first time Symonds has escaped his rightful fate this series. In the 2nd Test in Antigua he was also given not out after being strangled down the legside. There his vigorous head shaking was worthy of the stage and suggested a career in acting is a possibility once he quits cricket. ‘Roy’ is perhaps an extreme case: such is his brazenness one gets the feeling that even were his middle-stump uprooted he would still be sure to wait for the umpire’s finger. He is the walking definition of a ‘brass neck’. Even so, he is the extremity of a huge and long-standing iceberg.

Walking is naturally a controversial subject, and there seem to be two main schools of thought in approaching it. The first group claim that the umpires are there to do a job and if they prove not to be up to the task then it’s not the batsman’s fault. He is there to score runs and is beholden to his team to do everything in his power to do so. Walking is seen as a sign of mental weakness and even a dereliction of duty. Furthermore, one is bound to cop a few poor decisions over a career and so can’t be blamed for trying to even up the score. Unsurprisingly, most batsmen and Australians fall firmly within this camp.

The other view holds that the batsman still has an obligation to own up when he gets an edge, doff his hat to umpire and bowler and quietly trudge back to the pavilion. Bowlers of course tend to be the loudest voices in the choir preaching such moral rectitude. Perhaps it is all too easy to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude from the comfort of one’s own armchair when one’s livelihood isn’t at stake, but it does seem as if they have a point. Once a batsman knows he has edged a ball and makes out otherwise he is simply being dishonest. Attempting to trick the umpire quite simply is cheating and arguments to the contrary smack of obfuscation. If Tiger Woods nudged his ball out of a dodgy lie in the rough it wouldn’t be acceptable behaviour just so long as he got away with it. Were he caught one wouldn’t hear too many voices saying “unlucky but fair play for trying.” Such a situation is of course purely hypothetical because neither Tiger nor any professional golfer would dream of descending to such sharp practice in a bid to get ahead. Why then is it acceptable and indeed expected in a sport whose very name entered the language as a by-word for fair play?

Walkers in modern cricket have been few and far between. Adam Gilchrist has been showered with most of the plaudits for his consistent honesty (in front of the stumps at any rate), but Brian Lara, arguably the greatest batsman of his generation, was also quick to turn on his heel when his edge was found and the catch taken throughout his long career. For some reason the media was by and large less inclined to notice, but then again it’s easy to be overshadowed by something as odd as a Steve Waugh era Aussie walking. Such players are very much the exception to an overall rule in a hard-nosed professional sport populated by hard-nosed professional sports-men. Lamenting this face of the modern game, numerous former players look wistfully back to bygone era where gentlemanly behaviour and rigorous honesty were supposedly the hallmarks of cricket. But just how rose-tinted are their spectacles?

Lest we forget, walking controversies are by no means a new phenomenon. As far back as 1928 the great Don himself caused something of a furore when he refused to leave his crease after apparently snicking one into the slips. Wally Hammond, the English skipper, reportedly spat “A fine bloody way to start a series” when his vociferous appeals were brushed aside. Colin Croft recently commented to the effect that Ian Chappell was one of the few batsmen to regularly make the umpire’s task easier in the 1970s. Regular cricket followers will know to take anything big Colin says with a grain, even a sack-load of salt, but his anecdotes do serve to remind one that the game may not be all that different to what it was 30 years ago.

The issue today is however complicated in that every decision now is under far more scrutiny than ever before. Each time a batsman pulls a fast one innumerable replays, Snicko, Hotspot etc are all wheeled out to determine the extent of the player’s perfidy. The situation has become farcical because everyone can see what is going on barring the umpires on the field. The technology debate is one for another day, but suffice to say that the position at present serves only to make officials look foolish, fans apoplectic and ultimately cheapens the sport. Much like the aluminium bat and flares, walking isn’t about to make a comeback anytime soon. Twenty and thirty years ago non-walking and poor decisions had to be accepted as part of the game simply because nobody had any recourse to remedy such anomalies. But times have changed and now administrators have the means at their disposal to solve a burning issue. Why don’t they use it? From a West Indian perspective at the very least we might see less of this Symonds chap…

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