The cricket captain moulds a team’s culture
The punishment to Steve Smith brings into sharp focus the power imbued in a cricket captain, and why his responsibility should be commensurate with thisanalysis Updated: Mar 31, 2018 08:20 IST
Debate rages in the cricket world on whether the one-year ban imposed on Steve Smith and David Warner (nine months for Cameron Bancroft) by Cricket Australia in the ball-tampering case is not too harsh. A majority of former players – not all Australians – believe it is.
Going by precedent, the punishment would appear disproportionate to the crime. Ball tampering has existed since cricket started, and there have been instances when players have adopted diabolical methods, including using bottle caps or even biting the ball!
The worst any player has suffered in the past is Shoaib Akhtar, who was banned for two ODIs and fined 75% of his match fee. Two other Pakistanis, Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi, have copped match bans too.
Among those who’ve come under the scanner are stellar names such as Michael Atherton, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Faf du Plessis. They got off with just fines, suspended bans (subsequently lifted on appeal) or had no charges pressed against them.
However, this dichotomy must be seen in perspective. Cricket Australia has gone beyond the punishment prescribed by the ICC Code Of Conduct (one match ban and fine for Smith, fine for Bancroft, no action against Warner) and acted by its own standards of ethics.
The scandal has dismayed Australians perhaps more than any other, held up a mirror to their sporting culture, demolished the façade of playing tough, but playing fair, which they’ve bragged about for decades.
Cricket Australia has factored public outrage in taking the unprecedented action against Smith, Warner and Bancroft, the immediate major repercussion being that the first two named have been dropped from the Indian Premier League this season.
While cricket Boards are not beyond insidious politicking and powerplay to acquire greater control of the sport, sensing the mood of fans across the globe, they have chosen to close ranks. The collective missive going out seems to say ‘enough is enough’.
Fact is, cricket has been hit by too many scandals, but over the years too little has been done for course correction because the authority is fragmented, lacking in focus and purpose. While the MCC is custodian of the laws, governance is vested in the ICC, with the cricket Boards — more often than not — functioning as independent fiefdoms interested only in their own welfare and clout. In trying to keep different Boards above perpetual conflict, the ICC’s task is thankless, but has also shown up its limitations. In implementing the code of conduct in particular, it has been inconsistent in interpretation and namby-pamby in approach, especially when dealing with major countries and their players.
In the aftermath of la affaire Smith, the ICC has decided to review its own systems and processes and has convened a special meeting with current and former players to provide inputs for a more robust and practicable code.
It remains to be seen what they come up with. But Cricket Australia has shown a way by deciding that David Warner, who was vice-captain, will never get any leadership position again, and Steve Smith the captaincy only if the Australian fans and public are willing.
The significance of this goes beyond just the recent controversy. It brings into sharp focus the power imbued in a cricket captain, and why his responsibility should be commensurate with this.
A cricket captain is a unique entity, without parallel in any other team sport. In football or hockey, for instance, the coach/manager carries the most clout, and captaincy is notional. In cricket, it is emphatic, all pervasive, sweeping in scope and dispensation.
The cricket captain masterminds everything that transpires with his team on the field. Strategic inputs at a particular moment can come from one or more players but the final call is always the captain’s. And this influence is not restricted to just tactics. It extends to how players think and react — individually and collectively — in the course of a match, series or even a longer. As custodian of the side, the captain shapes the culture and ethos of the dressing room, which is then reflected on the field.
Overt aggression, casualness, meekness in team behaviour reveals the personality of the captain and the standards he sets. In the context of how the sport is played and evolves, this is more important than the runs he scores or wickets he takes. In 1960-61, for instance, rival captains Richie Benaud and Sir Frank Worrell agreed to play hard, but cleanly and entertainingly. The result was a magnificent series and Test cricket’s first tie. This is just one of many examples that abound.
Conversely, there are enough unsavoury episodes, too, which have left a bitter taste in the mouth: Bodyline, sledging, the unsporting underarm delivery, spot and match-fixing, not to mention cheating by tampering the ball.
Almost every major inflection point in cricket, whether glorious or ignominious, can be traced to the captain, directly or obliquely. Without the complicity of the captain, in thought if not in deed, very little is possible.
As an old Italian proverb goes, to know how good or bad a fish is, look at its head.
Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist who writes on sports and other issues
The views expressed are personal