Any cricket historian worth his salt will tell you with a chuckle that history has a knack of repeating itself when it comes to the so-called gentleman’s game.
When England’s Ian Bell was run out and then recalled under controversial circumstances by India’s captain MS Dhoni last week at Trent Bridge, the closest parallel was from a Test match in 1974 at Port of Spain, involving England’s Tony Greig and West Indian batsman Alvin Kallicharan.
But cricket and controversy have been uneasy bedfellows since the dawn of the game and few epitomised this rocky relationship more than England’s WG Grace, cricket’s first superstar.
It was Grace’s underhand tactic of running out Australia’s Sammy Jones in 1882 when Jones had innocently stepped out of his crease to pat down the turf which led to a chain of events culminating in the creation of the mythical ‘Ashes’, ever since a symbol of supremacy between England and Australia. It happened at the Oval and Grace’s action so incensed the Australians that they vowed revenge.
“We can do this thing,” said their champion fast bowler Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth to his fellow Aussies. Fired up, he blasted out the English batting in their second innings for a paltry 77 when the victory target was just 85. Spofforth’s match figures were magnificent — 7 for 46 and 7 for 44.
Cricket was struck by its greatest crisis in 2000 when South African captain, the late Hansie Cronje was revealed to be on the take from illegal bookies. Cronje, India’s Mohammad Azharuddin, Pakistan’s Salim Malik and others were banned by their respective boards for their alleged role in match-fixing and the scourge of corruption continues till today.
But they were not the first to be so punished. That ignominy befell the champion batsman of the day, William Lambert, way back in 1817. The evidence against Lambert was circumstantial (no sting operations those days) and he could well have been the fall guy. But corruption was rampant till the mid-19th century with travelling pros playing high-stakes winner-takes-it-all matches, a format ripe for corruption. Lord’s was rife with bookies and violent brawls often broke out at matches around England. After Lambert’s ban, the clean-up began and bookies were evicted from the grounds, only making a comeback in 1973 under strict regulations.
The Indian Premier League and before that the Indian Cricket League, cricket in Sharjah and Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket brought big money into the game, leading to tags of mercenaries and freelance cricketers.
But guess what? Cricket had its fair share of sporting impresarios and businessmen paying the pros big bucks going back to the early 18th century as teams rode on horseback from village to village around England. There are a series of matches on record in 1700 where the winning team for each game received the-then princely sum of 10 pounds Sterling. The advent of the railways in the 1830s led to the wider spread of the game with even more money coming in.
Today there is a new wave of jet-set cricketers who are either not skillful enough or simply not interested in playing for their countries and are busy plying their trade in the numerous cash-rich Twenty-20 leagues that have sprung up around the world following the financial windfall of the IPL.
And while Packer was thought to have been the first to bring coloured clothing into cricket in the late 1970s much to the horror of the traditionalists, cricket teams going back centuries wore coloured shirts of various hues to distinguish their villages.
None quite as tasteless as some of the IPL outfits though.
( The writer is Delhi-based freelance sports journalist and writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal