The idea of sportsmanship, as opposed to gamesmanship, often seems like a nostalgic dream from the early days of amateur sports — not really relevant to today’s win-at-all-costs professional mentality. Most players in most sports would want to win fairly if they could, but the winning part is far more important to them than the ethical bit. If you have to resort to dirty tactics — and I’m not specifically talking about cheating, but about playing tricks on the opposition and bending the rules — to secure victory, then so be it.
But perhaps there is still hope for fair play. Events last Sunday in the international cricket test match between current world No. 1 India and heir-ascendant England were an ideal example of why cricket, though now very professional and subject to the same capitalist pressures as other major sports, is still regarded as a gentleman’s game. There’s even a phrase for it: “It’s just not cricket” refers to an action that, though not expressly illegal, is still simply wrong.
The story started with England fighting back into contention after a pretty abysmal start and looking increasingly likely to win the match. Batsman Ian Bell was leading the charge with well over a hundred runs, and India badly needed to get him out. And that’s when it played its trump card, an astounding piece of gamesmanship that saw Bell walk from the field believing the ball had gone dead and that it was time for tea — yes, cricket really does have tea breaks — when in fact the game was still live. Practically off the pitch, he was easily run out, though even the umpires didn’t realize this when India first appealed.
After several replays, the horrible truth dawned on the England camp and its assembled fans: according to the regulations, Bell was out. But it didn’t feel right. That sort of trickery just wasn’t cricket, and as the players headed off for their break, the throng in the stands vented its anger at both the officials and the Indian team. And they weren’t alone in their thoughts; even the Indian players didn’t feel comfortable with what had happened, and during the pause, they unanimously agreed to ask the umpires to reinstate Bell. What looked like a dark day in the relations between the two countries became a shining example of sportsmanship by India.
Giving up perhaps the one chance to turn the tables in the game it duly lost, India won a lot of respect. The game won’t be remembered for the result, but for this odd little episode. The man of the match award went to England bowler Stuart Broad for first scoring crucial runs to keep his team in the game and then taking vital wickets that reversed India’s fortunes, but the honor could just as easily have gone to Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Not for any on-field success — his statistics were far from impressive — but for the truly honorable decision to hand a reprieve to Bell.
It would be a lie to claim there is no gamesmanship in cricket; in fact, some players are renowned for the practice of “sledging,” attempting to distract opposing players by verbally abusing them. But I’m not sure many athletes in other sports would give up a legally obtained advantage on the basis that it just wasn’t fair. I don’t know if a football player would ever be able to convince his opposition that a ball had gone dead when in fact play was still alive, but if he did, would he then turn to a referee and ask for the play to be reset on the basis that his actions weren’t within the spirit of the game?
Maybe other teams in other sports could learn something from all this. Just as taking illegal substances or cheating detracts from any success you might achieve, the way you play the game isn’t just an afterthought. I might be crazy, but I would rather play honestly and lose than win unfairly. The top athletes usually have supreme confidence in their abilities, in how they got where they are and how they can beat anyone. If that’s really true, they shouldn’t need to find any other way to win.
It’s time to read The Daily while you sit down to your afternoon tea…just kidding, Tom Taylor has tricked you into reading another column of his. File a complaint at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.