In the cauldron of intense competition

Published : Aug 11, 2001 00:00 IST

STRIPPED OF all frills, sport is naked competition. To win you must defeat the other guy, the idea is to stay ahead of opponents. Pin them down and provide no chance to get up.

In this contest, the crucial issue is to employ acceptable means to achieve set goals. Which is why sport follows certain rules and competitions are carefully regulated. We live in a civilised society (at least this is what we like to believe) and this is an important consideration, without control and settled ground rules, sporting contests could degenerate into utter Gadar.

In cricket when teams face each other, the intention is to put rivals on the wrong foot and induce errors. It is a cat and mouse game between humans , and to be one up one needs to call upon a wide variety of tricks. Just look at the contest between bat and ball to see how intricate this game is. A pace bowler charges in, goes wide of the crease - and yet bowls a ball that holds its line instead of angling in. Brett Lee, all fury and fire, suddenly lobs a lollipop at 50 mph to disrupt the batsman's rhythm. Or take Chris Cairns who sends down a perfect offbreak in the middle of the third over with the new ball.

Spin bowlers have a much larger bag of tricks up their sleeve for deceiving batsmen. Leg spinners bowl balls that go the wrong way, Shane Warne takes Test wickets from bouncers bowled at Agarkar's pace. Kumble surprises batsmen by not bowling what he is supposed to be bowling. Offspinners are more wily than in the past: Prasanna floated balls that kept straight, or moved towards slip; Saqlain and Harbhajan bowl genuine legbreaks.

Bowlers are more innovative because of pressure from batsmen, instinct for self-preservation forces them to extend their learning curve. Due to relentless thrashing (from batsmen, in one-dayers) bowlers must learn new tricks, acquire fresh challenges to throw down the pitch. Their normal weapons are outdated and ineffective, they make scant impression on audacious players, in much the same way as police commandos can't fight determined terrorists with a 303 rifle.

Batsmen are also busy polishing past tricks in order to cope with the growing demands of modern sport. But their artistry is normally directed at tackling umpires, their game rests on avoiding lbws and catches close to the wicket. The general rule is no batsman is ever satisfied when adjudged leg before - the ball must have pitched outside leg, contact with the pad was outside the line, and wasn't there a faint edge on the ball as well? The disgruntled batsman shows his bat, pushes pad down the pitch or outside off to escape a negative verdict from the umpire.

Similar drama is involved in decisions involving catches. The batsman rubs forearm, remains unconcerned as fielders scream their heads off, is uninterested and wonders what the fuss is all about. The cardinal rule here is to avoid looking at the umpire - the anxiety in the batsman's eye is a sure giveaway.

To an extent all this is cute drama which unfolds during live action on the field. As this is within rules, it is acceptable gamesmanship. We want top players to play hard, in this battle of nerves the healthy use of chaal and tricks add to excitement and drama. Players know the limits, they exploit them fully and are careful about not overstepping. For them, sport is serious business because careers/endorsements/reputations/pride is at stake. Which is why no batsman walks (unless all stumps are flattened) and bowlers appeal so much they carry Strepsils in their pockets, not chewing gum.

With all performers constantly pushing the limits, there is a possibility some will leap over the top. This tendency is reflected in dissent because players, pressured by tension, lose control momentarily and react unsatisfactorily in what is called the heat of the moment. Thus Sourav shows his bat to the umpire, others smash the stumps with bats to indicate disgust. Bowlers display their emotions by directing smouldering looks at batsmen, cursing under their breath, letting umpires know in explicit (and uncouth language) how they feel.

Alarmed by these manifestations of boorishness, cricket authorities are now cracking the whip and sending out a clear message that the traditions of the game are paramount, they must be upheld. Like a stern schoolteacher, the establishment is keen to fix disobedient kids.

There is a feeling that TV encourages bad behaviour because it provides a convenient platform. A player can quickly demonstrate, try to convince viewers he has been wronged, create an excuse and shift the blame elsewhere. It is strange that the presence of 16 cameras at a cricket ground impacts players in so many different ways: the well-behaved behave better to reconfirm their class, the bad ones become worse to grab more attention.

The underlying reason for players' misconduct is we emphasise winning - at all cost. Playing for the sake of participation/fun/enjoyment is a complete no-no; as out of tune with contemporary reality as sending messages through kabootars in the age of modern communication. Today's ideology: sport is intensely competitive, the second best are second raters, professionals are paid big money not to play but to win.

While subtle trickery is an enjoyable part of the game, outright treachery is a different cup of poison. Bowlers chucking balls is cheating, they must be stopped. Shining/polishing the ball is ok but scuffing it with bottle tops/sand is crossing the limits. Appealing is fine but claiming catches on the bounce is not on. Poor Ridley Jacobs got slammed for an instinctive reaction, he did not even appeal but the umpire put his finger up without any hesitation. If such harsh penalties are handed out why not hang bowlers who appeal knowing the batsman is not out? Or fielders who ask the question when the ball is a mile away from the bat?

The true glory of sport lies in high quality players battling with each other. This muqabla produces riveting drama/entertainment, and this is the reason people pay to witness top sports events. Would the spirit of the game be maintained if the participants are dispirited?

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