The question isn`t `was it out?`. It was. The question is whether it could be labelled ‘unsportsmanlike’ or not. Believe me, the consensual answer again appears to be yes. Cricket undoubtedly puts a high premium on the notion of sportsmanlike conduct, but draws short of punishing actions that are within the laws even if they are contrary to the elusive concept that is `the spirit of the game`. Methinks, it is a voluntary rather than a mandatory code, unless the umpires decide otherwise.

“Time for everyone to move on,” declared Joe Root. But how exactly does cricket move on if it fails to address one of its most fundamental failings? It is one that has been levelled at just about every player involved in the Lord’s Test, but might equally apply to every stakeholder in the game today.

You may ignore for a moment the conciliatory sounds coming from down under, where Pat Cummins and Ben Stokes appeared keen to move on swiftly days after the disquieting second Ashes Test that led to long and loud booing from the Lord’s faithful. Instead, let us consider all the recent blather about the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, the holy ghost of sporting concepts and one so ethereal it is no wonder the players, sentient beings who inhabit the real world, struggle to live up to it. As Mike Atherton once claimed: “No other sport, save golf perhaps, sees itself in such pure, mythical terms.” It clearly doesn’t.

From the start, it just didn`t seem cricket: rowdy ‘Just Stop Oil’ protesters invading the pitch and battling with security guards (even players), and later, temper tantrums by Ollie Robinson and his sweary dismissal of Usman Khawaja only made it appear more translucent.

But the summerlong series of matches between England and Australia did not really reach critical mass until two weeks ago, when the second meeting of the summer exploded in a burst of sensational newspaper headlines. “BAIR FACED SNEAK,” read the headline for Mirror Sport. The chants of “same old Aussies, always cheating” heard from the stands were echoed in Daily Star’s headline: “SHAMELESS STUMPING STORM. SAME OLD AUSSIES”.

The moment that sparked the ill feeling occurred with Australia chasing victory on the final day and the captain, Ben Stokes, partnering Jonny Bairstow. Cameron Green bowled an uneventful final ball of his over to Bairstow, who briefly grounded his bat behind his crease and walked down the pitch towards his batting partner.

Also Read: Blunders, thunders in these Ashes!

As he did so, Australia’s wicketkeeper Alex Carey rolled the ball at the stumps, knocked the bails off and appealed. The umpire Ahsan Raza had not yet, as is the custom, called ‘over’ to signify the end of that passage of play. Australia chose to enforce the strict liability option of appealing for Bairstow’s dismissal as England’s batter mistakenly assumed the over was done and the ball dead.

Jonny Bairstow reacts to escaping with a lucky edge on day four of the third Test (Pic: AFP)

Bairstow was adjudged out after a review to the TV umpire, and correctly so on the rules of cricket. At which point: enter the unwritten rules. As a visibly irked Stokes leaned on his bat and exchanged fiery words with his opponents, as the crowd booed and roared, Bairstow was forced to trudge off, unable to comprehend what had just happened.

It was here, in the moments following the incident, that there was an opportunity for Cummins to play the gentleman and recall Bairstow to the wicket. But he didn`t.

Moments later, a rancorous outburst in ‘the most evocative four walls in world cricket’ didn’t seem so out of place as to be faintly ludicrous. The usually tranquil long room became a seething cauldron of hate as Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members abused Australian players returning from the field during lunch break, with reports of ‘physical contact’ initiated by the red-trousered ultras.

But how many fans are `sportsmanlike` anyway? As fans, our notions of sportsmanship are easily distorted.

We will go on demanding complete commitment, we will go on criticising batsmen for getting out and bowlers for sending down half-volleys. We will call them disgraces to their respective nations and we will make sure damn sure they do not want to fail. We will publish columns tittering at sledging. And then we will invoke the ‘spirit of cricket’ when the players fail to live up to a set of ideals that are written in our ‘preamble to the Laws’.

An embarrassed MCC later issued an ‘unreserved apology’ to the visitors, with club secretary Guy Lavender adding three members ‘directly involved’ in the lunchtime flare-up had been suspended immediately pending an investigation. Lord`s had seen nothing quite like it since the 1980 Centenary Test between England and Australia, when umpire David Constant was manhandled on his way into the pavilion by members angry at a lack of play following several rain delays.

Few sports make such a fuss about the `spirit of the game` as cricket. MCC remains deeply concerned as it still retains worldwide responsibility for cricket`s extensive rules, or Laws as they are known, even though it is more than 50 years since it ceased running the English game.

The Bairstow row was a classic of the kind, with even England captain Ben Stokes accepting Erasmus had made the correct decision but questioning whether Australia ought to have proceeded with the appeal. Built in 1889-90, the Lord`s pavilion remains one of the most famous buildings in world cricket. Portraits of the game`s greats from WG Grace to modern-day heroes adorn the walls of the Long Room, which spans almost the length of the ground floor, and hence its name.

Beyond the temper tantrums about etiquette, the heart of the controversy between the sides involved the uncanny ability of Australia`s best bowlers to throw the ball past England`s best batters. Australia, despite a stunning 155 from Stokes, eventually won the match by 43 runs to take a 2-0 lead in the five-match Ashes series. What else could explain it, the Aussies muttered, except that the English were somehow struggling at their own backyard.

England vs Australia in cricket may be one of the oldest sporting rivalries, but it is hardly the most chivalrous. Rather, it is when this ‘oh-so-civilised’ game truly reveals its nasty self.

A heated exchange between Marylebone Cricket Club members and both Australia`s Usman Khawaja and David Warner during the lunch break on day five of the second Ashes Test at the Lord`s Long Room (Pic: Twitter)

Cricket may be the only team game in the world in which it is entirely legal for a player to make a move whose only purpose is to hurt, if not hospitalize, an opponent. In cricket, this is not a foul; no penalty is awarded, or score deducted.

Perhaps what constitutes unsportsmanlike behaviour in cricket, is framed by decades of unquestionable superiority largely rooted in the self-delusional mindset of colonial custodians of the sport, that is, in turn, reinforced by a willing coterie of journalists, writers, and an assortment of cricket commentators or even former players.

There is something quintessentially English about a gentleman’s agreement that tempers sporting conduct based solely on self-serving perceptions of morality, ethics and fair play. But remember, there is no ‘Geneva Convention’ for the sport and so one has to rely on traditional standards of virtue embedded in a colonial past that contemptuously dismisses the conventions of the once-subject classes.

Cut to present. Let us hope the same two teams, dressed in whites, will go about their business at the Old Trafford with a decorum that spoke (and appeared), whether they are conscious of it or not, of an inherent respect for ‘the spirit of the game’. Having clawed the series scoreline back to a 2-1 deficit with two more matches to play, Brendon McCullum and his men will hope luck is in their favour this time, while Aussies need one more win to clinch the series and a draw to retain the urn.

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