Cape Town – I think we can safely call it “official” … cricket is now a full subscriber to the soulless world some would wish us to inhabit, where stiff political correctness, pious indignation and insipid self-righteousness just about eclipse excellence in the middle.
The game is also, regrettably, going increasingly down the road that I believe is impeding modern rugby union, too: bogged down in cumbersome, nit-picky litigiousness and a culture where referees, umpires and other officials assume a weightier, more subjective share of the limelight and influence than they should.
The always delicate – admittedly -- balance between animated competitiveness and some sort of need for due decorum has sagged detrimentally to just one end of the see-saw, an event that may very well suck the all-important personality, if you like, out of the game … and seemingly Test cricket, that very tenuous beast, in particular.
Sorry if that sounds a mouthful; maybe it’s time to simplify.
OK, then … something just stinks, no matter how many times you open and close the window.
In what may not be far off a global first in cricket, a splendidly-performing, officially-branded player of the match, young Proteas pace bowling dynamo Kagiso Rabada, has been yanked from the middle of the engrossing, knife-edge series against Australia.
You can examine the nuts and bolts of it all you like, but the gist of his suspension – so no Newlands or Wanderers for the series’s leading wicket-taker – is that he has been deemed a serial offender in over-exuberant dismissal celebrations.
Call me old-fashioned, but I haven’t seen enough malice in any of them (yes, even albeit that his International Cricket Council-decreed rap sheet stretches back to February last year) to warrant a one-match ban anywhere along the line, never mind the potentially series-swaying two slapped on him at this particular juncture.
Fast bowlers are a rare and (in innumerable cases) feisty breed and, like the most dashing of batting stroke-players, they play a major role in coaxing bums to seats – whether at stadiums or before TV sets.
They are the ones who, to borrow a lovable Aussie expression, put in the hardest “yakka” of all cricketers, so every time they strike in the wickets column, it is one gleeful step closer to resting those aching feet, knees, arms and shoulders in the shaded comfort of the pavilion.
Cantankerous quickies are a time-honoured phenomenon, too: some of cricket’s most iconic still images include Dennis Lillee squaring up in martial-arts style to Javed Miandad, or Michael Holding (yes, nowadays demure, widely-liked commentator Mikey) spectacularly sending a stump cartwheeling with an indelicate kick in New Zealand, overcome by a moment of pique.
And no, nobody died in either event.
Rabada’s current-day actions seem positively mundane and innocuous in comparison, and the incident that really triggered the two-game sit-out bizarrely – at least to me – also seemed among the more sterile on his own “list”.
Match referee Jeff Crowe has pronounced that Rabada “had the opportunity to avoid the contact” in his shoulder-brush flashpoint with Baggy Greens captain Steve Smith.
Curiously, I saw no mention -- in what looks suspiciously like a two-to-tango situation from video evidence – of whether the saintly (of course) Smith “had the opportunity to avoid the contact” himself.
A second or two after the grazing of shoulders, too, the Aussie skipper conclusively indicates to one of the umpires that there has been a physical coming-together of some sort … not at all unlike a footballer distastefully, frankly, “looking for a card” against an opponent.
You would like to think such gestures had not yet infected the game of cricket; Smith may have created a slightly pungent precedent?
But I noticed well less – er, perhaps even none -- in the way of moral hysteria in the Australian media on that topic than I did when the “Warner family” (ah, that old, emotion-charged device) were so mortally offended by surrounding events linked to ever-strident David Warner’s Kingsmead stairwell contretemps with Quinton de Kock.
The thought has struck me with increasing conviction that the Aussie side presently touring our shores has a little sneakily gone out of its way, even if only with certain individuals most consciously involved, to goad known match-winning figure Rabada into stepping over the ICC-defined line of conduct.
A sort of “let’s make (and maintain) a toxic climate so we can drag Rabada, who is sitting on previous, over the ledge”.
The trouble with the ICC getting increasingly, obsessively involved in behavioural policing, of course, is that sanction becomes painfully so subjective, and thus public anger-provoking, an exercise.
In a fractious series so far (though many of us remain relatively chilled about that, I suspect … it’s SA v Australia), did Rabada really warrant the savage extent of his punishment, in relation to some of the other acts of baiting disrespect evident on the field of combat?
Nathan Lyon got off lightly, by contrast, for his contemptuous “ball drop” incident on (OK, Australians, next to!) a sprawled AB de Villiers, as did Mitch Marsh for his again fairly novel expletives to Rabada as a departing batsman in the second innings of the Port Elizabeth Test.
Marsh seemed to play much of the contest like a bear with a sore head, somehow, yet I have always understood the etiquette to be that, however heated things may have been during your vigil, when a batsman is quite legitimately dismissed you get your head down and stride uncomplainingly for the hut. Beaten … fair dinkum, and all that.
Marsh’s sanction? Twenty percent of his match fee, which is a bit like saying someone else might just have to pay for one of his restaurant steaks with black pepper sauce and chips in the hiatus between Test matches.
Which actions, of all we’ve seen from individuals in the fortnight thus far, have really been worse?
Um, how long is a piece of string?
It is all so confusing, and divisive, and South Africans may well have some justification for arguing that the Proteas have copped the rough end of the censuring system -- ironically against the team in the world with the strongest reputation by far, and for decades, for often incendiary and crude sledging.
Oh, to rather see the ICC act, for instance, with such sweeping, brutal decisiveness in ensuring that international matches – and Tests in particular – proceed at a swifter, more urgent rate of knots.
It still bewilders me how up to seven or eight overs of a scheduled 90-overs day in the Test arena can just “go missing” to the paying public, often without any significant punitive and correctional measure involved.
But that also would be asking the game’s governors to sweat the important stuff.
I’m in the camp of the at least partially neutral Kevin Pietersen: “It’s Test cricket. Tempers will flare. Let them sort it out themselves. They’re all big boys.”
But cricket now, like it or not, has become fully subject to the rules of the nanny state.
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