Racism or tampering with the ball? Which is worse?
Think back just over four and a half years. The most notorious Test Match in recent cricket history. South Africa are playing Australia in Newlands, Cape Town. It is Day 3 of the Third Test. TV cameras pick up Cameron Bancroft, one of the Australian fielders, polishing the ball before transferring an object from the polishing hand to inside his trousers. When challenged on this by the Umpires, Bancroft claims it was the case for his sunglasses.
The problem with this excuse is that it is not a particularly sunny day, and Bancroft is not wearing any sunglasses. Realising the cover story has not staved off trouble, Bancroft, captain Steve Smith, and vice-captain Dave Warner, decide to confess.
At a press conference at the end of the day’s play, they admit that the object Bancroft was concealing was a scrap of sandpaper. It emerges that they were trying to rough up the ball illegally, to make it swing more for their bowlers.
The news is around the world quicker than the truth can get the sandpaper out of its trousers. Cricketing nations are as one in uproar. So every Test Captain in the world puts the boot in on Australia. For that, no one can blame them, for the Australians have been quite boorish and pompous about “The spirit of the game,” for many years. After so many moral lectures, the rest of cricket is happy to give them a return dose of superiority.
But more persistent, and louder, is the outrage in Australia. The scandal has rocked the country, and the public are as angry with the team as anybody. The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, leads the chorus of condemnation for the Australia players. The three guilty men, Bancroft, Smith and Warner, are all put in front of press conferences and publicly shamed. They all receive hefty bans, and Smith loses the captaincy.
Whether one agrees with the bans or not, one can hardly accuse Cricket Australia of ‘under-reacting.’
Yorkshire racism scandal
But now, with the racism scandal at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, a contrast in cricket’s attitudes has been laid bare. Compare the above with the club’s reaction to finding numerous examples of racist misconduct towards Azeem Rafiq when he was on their books. They were able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that eight instances he had cited of racial harassment were genuine; the other allegations they could not prove, but none could be discounted. But Yorkshire’s decision about what to do next stunned the sporting world. The club announced, with the sort of cool confidence that only tone-deaf stupidity can deliver, that no action would be taken against anyone involved.
Where does cricket get its priorities from? How is an attempt at cheating, however flagrant, ever ‘worse’ than explicit racist abuse? A culture of win-at-any-cost aggression is damaging and always needs addressing. But does it really need addressing with greater penalties than ethnic slurs should merit? The report commissioned by Yorkshire dismissed such slurs as “friendly banter,” a euphemism straight out of the dark side of the 1960s if ever there was one. Friendly banter? If that was friendly banter, what should we call the ball-tampering? Laterally-incentivised physical projectile cajolery?
Urinating on a team-mate or scraping the ball with sandpaper?
Allegations surrounding Yorkshire include players actually urinating on team-mates. That is completely vile and outrageous behaviour even when it has not been racially-motivated. When it is racially-motivated, it is frankly Medieval. Former England batsman Gary Ballance has admitted, albeit with regret, that he used to ‘rib’ Rafiq by instructing players not to talk to the “P-ki.” Regret is all-well-and-good. But Steve Smith sounded more apologetic when confessing to leading the ball-tampering conspiracy, and he still got a year’s ban.
Why has Gary Ballance not received a ban at least as long? Why were other players and staff not placed on immediate suspension once the report was in? Why have figures across the English game, who were so disgusted at Bancroft and the sandpaper, been so much slower to offer condemnation for racism?
The ECB intervenes
You might counter that the England & Wales Cricket Board intervened and made sure Yorkshire did not just brush all this under the carpet. “This is not a problem all over cricket, it’s a Yorkshire problem!” Sadly, I cannot agree. That the ECB even had to intervene in this day and age suggests an ethical and tone-deafness problem all across the English game. Otherwise I cannot imagine Yorkshire making such an obviously crass and immoral decision. It would have been ‘trained’ out of the club by interactions with other teams.
Cheating is wrong and it needs stamping out. But it does not need stamping out as the highest possible priority. Any sport that has years of sanctions for cheating, but can choose to take no action against racists, is a sport that has its priorities completely wrong.
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