pitchforks and torches

AS MAD A SEVENTY-TWO HOURS AS AUSTRALIAN CRICKET HAS EVER SEEN AS ONE SMALL SPARK IN SOUTH AFRICA THREATENS TO BURN DOWN THE ENTIRE HOUSE. AND, YET AGAIN, IT’S SENSE OF OUTRAGE ONE, SENSE OF PROPORTION NIL.

Not since David leveled Goliath with the best beamer in history has a sports story punched quite this far above its weight. Stickygate, Gritgate – take your pick – has now formed the basis of a parable on the betrayal of Christ on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Thought for the Day’; it’s led Radio and TV news bulletins across – what were once – the pinker parts of the globe and left an entire nation flat on the floor blinking beneath the smelling salts.

It’s given us the cheerless spectacle of ‘the greatest Australian batsman since Bradman‘ sobbing in the stocks; prompted a statement from a portentous Prime Minister on the corruption of national morals and, last but not least – never, ever least – bowled social media the kind of fat, leg-side long-hop for which it was – seemingly – invented: this, to pick one at random, being one man’s reply to @bbctms on the back of Steve Smith’s sobering news conference: ‘Just for a weenie second, I felt for him’, he said, connecting briefly with a soul in torment. ‘Then I remembered. Fuck him.’ Bless.

Do we realise, I wonder, just how lucky we are to live in an age where we seem to have nothing more pressing to do than mawkishly indulge ourselves in inconsequential melodrama? The Three Amigos cook up a gormless con; they DIY the ball in front of twenty TV cameras at a Test Match, they get caught, they tell fibs, they cough, they’re cuffed whereupon they’re hoiked out of Africa and stripped of their bats and baggy caps.

Even in the grand scheme of cricket – if such a thing exists – this is flimsy stuff and, if it isn’t, then why, pray, is the ICC sanction for ball tampering nothing more than a flimsy fine? Yes, we can all marvel at the bovine stupidity, enjoy a quiet moment of whatever the Australian is for ‘schadenfreude’ and – let’s be honest – treat ourselves to a glorious guffaw at the hubris of the irredeemably boorish David Warner: thus does the whirligig of time bring in its revenges. But we can do all that in thirty seconds can’t we, and then move on to what’s happening in the real world? Er, well, no. Apparently we can’t.

In fairness, I should declare an interest here, or, more honestly, a complete lack of interest here. I hate cricket. It’s smug, it’s impenetrable and it spends hot summers walking around in long trousers. It’s stops for cake and for rain; it has someone at ‘deep backward square leg’ and ‘silly mid-off’, both of whom – mercilessly, it seems given this is ‘a gentleman’s game’ – sledge the batsmen and shout aggressively at the umpire despite the fact that he’s holding their sweaters and sunglasses.

The players are about as athletic as arthritis and they spend half the match sitting in the changing room doing crosswords, smoking or bitching about the captain. And the people who gather round to enjoy this so-called spectacle – generally through binoculars a postcode away – are almost exclusively the kind of dweebs who openly delight in the fact that everyone else – rightly – despises their arcane, hidebound little game. Sport – proper sport – does not come with lunch included. Enough already.

Yet this one hapless, pratfall in a game of cricket in South Africa – together with the inverted pyramid of piffle that’s taken shape around it – seems to have left Australia clutching its pearls and mourning its lost innocence. Forgive me for dredging up the bleeding obvious but this is a country that was once a penal colony. Do Australians seriously – and I mean, seriously – believe that it’s only other teams that tamper with cricket balls? Or is it the fact that while tennis fixes matches, football takes a dive, cycling snorts EPO and rugby – quaint, little rugby – eats fake blood capsules, none of this cheap behaviour is quite ‘cricket’? Well, bugger us all, it seems that (a) it is and that (b) it has been for a while now. Probably for about as long as there’s been a ball.

Undeterred and deeply unimpressed, Cricket Australia has swapped its own baggy cap for a black one and all but handed down the death penalty to the Cape Town Three; year-long bans, community service, loss of IPL contracts and all this on top of a steaming stigma that’ll probably never scrub off no matter how many public showers the three players take.

Swept away too has been the architect of the team’s supposedly strutting culture – the Coach, Darren Lehmann – who resigned roughly twenty-four hours after telling the world that, er, he wouldn’t resign. Why, you ask yourself? Did no one at CA believe he didn’t know? And if they didn’t believe he didn’t know, was he handed a pearl-handled revolver and a stiff whiskey and ushered into the library? Search me. Perhaps he really did jump. Or perhaps there was a feeling that a few more ropes on the gallows might give the vultures enough dead meat to satisfy their sanctimonious appetites.

In short, are the investigations, the punishments and the recriminations here proportionate to the crime or are they proportionate only to the hysterical, hand-wringing reaction to the crime? South African Faf du Plessis was done for ball tampering two years ago and was duly fined in line with the rules and regulations of the game; a man, as I understand it, who had ‘previous’ in the murky world of ball tampering. By contrast Smith, Warner, Bancroft are all first offenders – as far as we know – yet are hooked on a nebulous, Draconian ‘disrepute’ charge and appear set to pay with their careers for a crime that cost the South African his match fee.

It would appear that the Outrage Culture has struck yet again; the mob-handed media – print, broadcast, social – fuelling each other’s hysteria while no one in Australia, it seems, has either the authority or the balls – tampered with or otherwise – to stand up and insist on a little perspective. And we’re way beyond both cricket and Australia here. As has been endlessly pointed out in recent years, being offended has almost become more of an issue than saying or doing something that might be considered offensive. We live in a world of pitchfork and torch.

What, incidentally, did all these self-righteous ‘spleen venters’ do before social media? I’ve forgotten. Did they write letters to ‘The Times’? Did they bore the taproom rigid down at the Rat and Drainpipe over a pint of mild and pickled gherkin? Did they even ring up some dismal, twilight local radio phone-in and share their bitter prejudices with like-minded insomniacs? How very yesterday and how very much more wonderful is this Brave New World where we can abuse someone in tears in Australia at the push of a small button. The five-cent sound-bite has comprehensively superseded the dollar discourse and – alas – we’re all the poorer for it.

Look, stop stooping to these people and, if you’re Cricket Australia, stop feeding the flames. Who exactly thought it’d be a bright idea to stick Smith and Bancroft on the coconut shy in Cape Town, then do the same to Lehmann (‘I’m not going’) then to Smith again at Sydney Airport for crying out loud – literally for crying out loud – and then Lehmann for a second time to contradict what he’d said the first time (‘actually I AM going’)? Hello? The media beast is devouring you whole here and you’re feeding it? That’s even more laughable than belt sanding a cricket ball in the middle of a Test Match.

Cricket Australia appears to have its opinions delivered by the paperboy. Why on earth complete an entire judicial process in the space of two minutes? Why run at the media’s pace? Find a bucket of cold water – ice-cold, ideally – and tip it over ‘Twitter’. Then, behind closed doors when the pulse rate’s back to normal and the children are in bed, think it through, sleep on it and make your call. In other words, pretend you’re an adult.

Looking on, what’s totally baffling here is why so many knickers are getting twisted over this. If the ICC thinks ball tampering is as heinous a crime as Australia seems to think it is, then it should find a punishment that fits it. Alternatively, Australia needs to find a higher hem-line and wear a little less lavender. And in the wider context, if sport – any sport – wants to tolerate cheating, then stick with the status quo; if not, then get serious and start handing down some lifetime bans. It’ll be carnage for a year or so but life will smell a lot better afterwards.

And the rest of us? Well, the rest of us need to realise that (a) newspapers, television and radio don’t report news, they sell it and that (b) there’s no such thing as public opinion, just public prejudice, or more accurately, a tiny but utterly inconsequential chorus of white noise and witless wittering. By all means listen to it if you wish. Just – please – stop pandering to it.

30 MARCH 2018

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