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By Suresh Menon
The most tense period of play in the India-England series were the 20 minutes when there was no action on the field on day three of the Trent Bridge Test. Would Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni do the right thing and recall Ian Bell? Whatever the events leading up to the decision, it was Dhoni’s to make, and he made it in the manner that we can all be proud of. Cricket is nothing without magnificent gestures and sporting acts – regardless of what the television commentators think – and in the end Dhoni responded to a higher calling. And that must soften the blow of the inevitable to follow, with India knocked off the perch as the top Test-playing nation.
Ian Bell was stupid, and he was out. Most captains would have left it at that. Why should sport — widely believed to mirror society — answer to a greater morality than other fields of human endeavour?
Sport and morality have a special relationship. The very artificiality of sport gives us the right to inject it with a greater moral purpose than say, business or politics. Even politicians who cut corners or take bribes are expected to be honest on the golf course. Bill Clinton might have cheated on his wife, but had he cheated on a golf course, there would have been no redemption.
On television, two former India captains, Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar lost fans by placing winning and losing above everything else, and refusing to accept that ‘cricket’ means substantially more. It was left to a tough modern captain, Sourav Ganguly – surely one of the finds of this series – to put things in perspective. “This is just not done,” he said unambiguously, his tone measured, his intensity clear, and his hurt apparent.
If you love the game, you have to feel the hurt when – even without malice aforethought – something is done to its spirit.
The membrane that separates sport from real life is semi-permeable, allowing situations from the former to get into the latter. When Richard Nixon asked the moon-walking astronauts, “Did you get the results of the All-Stars game?” it seemed both natural and vital. Sport can seep into life, but when the reverse happens, as when the sharp practices of the real world enters the sports field, that upsets the natural order of things. Sport cannot be a mere reflection of society, it has to be a superior realm where there is always sunshine, fairness and due reward. It is a fantasy world, and in a fantasy world everything is perfect or should aspire to be.
If we cannot tell ourselves, at least in theory, that sport should somehow elevate itself above everyday life and sportsmen should be conscious of the moral and ethical issues on the playfield, then we have failed, and so has sport.
And that brings me to the gesture that was not made. Here was a wonderful opportunity for Bell to reciprocate – he was out, remember – by throwing his wicket away off the first ball he faced on resumption. A grand gesture matched by another grand gesture. After all, by batting on he was punishing the opposition for a mistake he had made.
In 1996, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty against Arsenal despite telling the referee that he had not been fouled in the box. Fowler made his point by missing the penalty.
Moral standards are not always attainable, but unless sport makes the attempt to reconcile what is with what ought to be, it cannot claim a special place. The dignity of sport comes from this attempt.
Macho posturing is not an indication of ‘toughness’. The best play hard but fair, conscious at all times of the spirit of the game. There are respectable players who think that Dhoni was wrong in recalling Bell. Shastri, Gavaskar, Nasser Hussain, Mike Atherton. These are some of the finest ‘establishment’ names in the game. Yet, interestingly, the mavericks have been the more clear-headed about the spirit. Men like Shane Warne and Sourav Ganguly.
Sharp practices will always be a part of sport. In this case, there was no deliberate attempt to take advantage of the rules. Once things are set in motion, they run their inevitable course. But unless you are trained to distinguish right from wrong and the almost right from the complete no-no, it is difficult to make the appropriate gesture. The sigh of relief when Dhoni got it right must have reverberated around the cricketing world.