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By Suresh Menon
Some cricket teams bond by playing soccer; others by indulging in ‘team-building’ activities that include competitions and sophisticated versions of children’s games. Still others visit places of historical significance. Steve Waugh took his boys to Gallipolli, and scenes of battle in the first world war which claimed nearly eight thousand Australian lives. “Our teams must visit Gallipolli before every Ashes tour,” Waugh suggested then.
And then some players bond by urinating on the pitch as the English players did at the Oval following their Ashes triumph.
‘Thou Shalt Not Pee on the Wicket’ is not among the ICC’s Code of Conduct. But it is a bonding exercise all right – even if there is a simpler explanation for it. Like the fact that the dressing rooms were a long walk away, and just then Kevin Pietersen and company did in a sense own the Oval pitch. Or perhaps they were merely marking their territory, and groundsmen in Australia where they play another five Tests in a few weeks’ time may consider themselves warned. For years victory has been the result of wet wickets; England have reversed that.
It is possible to read all kinds of sociological, anthropological, psychological messages into the essentially male gesture (and not one confined to human beings – elephants bond by standing around in a circle and urinating too). It is a gesture of ownership, of power, of propitiation to the gods, of equality… you can let the imagination fill in the rest.
Astronauts are known for urinating on the tyre – the right rear wheel, to be precise – of their transport vehicle, a tradition that was begun by the Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin probably did it out of necessity and for convenience, but it is a gesture that has been imitated for decades. The original reason has made way for all kinds of exotic interpretations.
Rituals across the world have incorporated such gestures. In Japan, the ‘Onda Matsuri’ or Rice Field Festival has, as part of its fertility ritual the intriguing urination on the rice offered up by kneeling priests in ceremonial dress.
And so we come to the activities of Messrs Pietersen, Broad and Andersen. What they did at the Oval had been done in the gardens of 10 Downing Street by another Ashes-winning England team. In 2005, following boozy celebrations and a victory parade through the streets of London, Andrew Flintoff could hold it in no longer. The Prime Minister’s garden served as the emergency urinal, for, as someone said, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Before this, the best-known incident of pitch-wetting took place in the last decade of the 19th century, and the man responsible for it never played for England again. This was Bobby Peel, one of the legendary Yorkshire left arm spinners who was banished from cricket for his act.
Peel's drinking had reached legendary proportions - and in time so has the story of his final moments on a first-class field. Not to put too fine a point upon it, he was thoroughly inebriated when he decided to urinate on the pitch in the presence of his captain, Lord Hawke. The cricket historian David Frith put it thus in The Slow Men: "His bladder may well have reached the point of painfully emphatic discomfort, which condition may have been coupled with a desire to recreate the awkward batting conditions at Sydney two or three years before."
That might well have been the case with the English cricketers (not the business about recreating the Sydney wicket, though), and the question now is: will they get away with it as indulgent authority looks upon the whole issue as one falling under the heading of ‘boys will be boys’ or will they have to pay a heavy price for it?
Did Pietersen and company bring the game into disrepute? Hardly. Is the fact that the Oval is a historic venue (where the Ashes originated) relevant? Would anyone have known about this had a bunch of Australian journalists not stayed back at the venue sending reports home damning their team? If a cricketer urinates in an open field and there is no one to see it – is it like a tree falling in a forest and there being no one around to hear the sound? How quickly we move from physiology to philosophy…