Macklin / How cricket lost its sense of honour and fair play

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I GUESS it’s not the end of the world – not quite, anyway. It just seemed that way when the news broke that the cricket captain of Australia, Steve Smith, conspired to cheat in a Test match against the South Africans.

Robert Macklin
Robert Macklin.

At first, like most Australians, I couldn’t quite believe it. Then the other shoe dropped and he and Cameron Bancroft, the actual perpetrator, confessed their sins at a press conference. And Steve had the temerity to say that he still felt he was the right person to lead the team.

Clearly, he was in a different world from the rest of us, a place where cheating is a mere misdemeanour deserving no more than a gentle slap on the wrist. He would soon learn better.

But before we consign him forever to the wasteland of broken dreams, perhaps we should try to understand how the great game lost its sense of honour and fair play. My view, for what it’s worth, is that the tragedy of Steve Smith can be traced back to the Ian Chappell era when aggressive “sledging” became an accepted part of the contest.

Those who call it “banter” and say “it always was” are not telling the truth. In the 1960s when I played at a reasonable level in Queensland – opening the batting at times with Sam Trimble, who captained the State team – it was regarded as being against the spirit of the game.

On the odd occasion it occurred, I stepped away from the crease, looked to the umpire who immediately intervened with the opposing captain. And that was the end of it.

However, the ultra-aggressive Chappell team ignored “the spirit of the game” in favour of “win at all costs”. The umpires of the day failed to take action and the practice filtered down to club and social levels till those of us who objected to it were “wimps” who “couldn’t take it”.

And, as new forms of the game arose like ODIs and the 20/20 Big Bash, the win became the all-important measure of success and the big money followed.

However, money and winning are not necessarily the harbingers of dishonour. Women’s sport is a great example. And there are even bigger prizes available in golf, yet players have resisted “sledging” opponents or quietly moving their balls to preferred lies. But perhaps they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For in other fields of endeavour standards have fallen just as dramatically as they have in men’s cricket.

In politics, for example, when did the last minister voluntarily resign in the wake of some scandal in his or her department? Yet this used to be a keynote of our Westminster-derived system. And what about that other captain of Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was so quick to condemn Steve Smith’s sporting felony.

He offered himself as a principled alternative to Abbott’s climate change denialism, and as a dedicated proponent of cyberspace best practice. Yet he now aggressively supports the opening of the biggest new coal mine in the world and has single-handedly wrecked the NBN. And all without turning a hair.

And what about the de facto captain of the Western world, that halfwit in the White House who has plumbed new depths of dishonour and disrepute, who sides with the gun crazies of the NRA while schoolchildren take to the streets pleading for no more than safety in their classrooms.

So while it’s not exactly the end of the world it does feel like the end of a world, the one where principle and honour and the spirit of the game meant something; where the phrases “fair dinkum” and “a fair go” were our guiding light. Perhaps the time has come to take a leaf from Dylan Thomas, and “rage, rage, against the dying of the light”. After all, what have we got to lose?

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Robert Macklin
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