One of the biggest misconceptions in sports is that cricket is a “gentleman’s game.” Tea breaks, baggie hats, crisp white uniforms — all a veneer. Sometimes, under rare circumstances, we get a fleeting glimpse of how cricket can really be — a reminder that under the pomp and circumstance lies the same tapestry of cheating, violence, and impropriety that runs through every sport.
On Saturday, we got a sobering reminder of that.
Australia’s Steve Smith stood at the crease batting against England in the second Ashes Test. It’s arguably the most important series in cricket, and Australia were on the verge of taking control of the series. Australia, far from the juggernaut it once was, had now, more than ever, become a one-man team. There’s Smith, the world’s best player, and then everyone else — but so phenomenal is Smith’s talent that he’s kept Australia afloat single-handed.
Smith stood at the crease with Jofra Archer thundering towards him. Archer had been bowling short to keep him honest for much of the afternoon. Usually, there’s nothing wrong with a bouncer. Then it happened.
Smith had a standard reaction to a ball thundering towards him at 90 miles per hour. He tried to duck and turn his head, but this caused the ball to strike him just below the ear — one of the only parts of the head a cricket helmet doesn’t protect.
The story isn’t about the bouncer or the concussion Smith sustained — not really. The incident became the latest referendum on conduct in a sport which, of late, has struggled with its identity. Modern cricket exists as a melange of changing times themselves. Fiercely intractable loyalists bemoaning innovation, running headfirst into shortened variants of the game designed to attract new fans. In recent years the latter has been winning this microcosm of a culture war, drawing further attention to the sport from generations who wrote off cricket at “their grandparents’ sport.”
Smith returned to the stands to sit with his Australian teammates. A relief for those who had witnessed him hit the ground moments earlier. Many fans, Australian and English alike, cheered to see one of the world’s best players come back, but not everyone was overjoyed with his return. A small minority of English cricket fans booed from the stands. The veneer pulled back once more, revealing an ugly, visceral, winning-over-everything attitude that sparks elation when an opposing player is knocked out of the game.
In the aftermath, there was a coordinated effort to gloss over the incident — a hastiness to point out that this was a fan minority, with a video posted by England Cricket designed to spotlight fans who cheered him off the ground.
Cricket legends denounced the fans, with former Australian bowler Mitchell Johnson saying those who booed “aren’t cricket fans” — stalwart attempts to keep pretending cricket is above the fray of other sports or that cricket fans are somehow of a better breed. One fan was ejected from Lord’s Cricket Ground for booing Smith on Saturday. However, this charade that cricket is somehow “better” than other sports because of its age and tradition are locked in a fallacy handed down through generations of fans. The game is just as dirty as any other, and yes, sometimes the actions of players and fans can be gross.
It should come as no surprise that cricket is responsible for one of the most infamous sporting events in history that you’ve probably never heard about. The 1932-33 Ashes series between England and Australia generated so much bad blood there were legitimate concerns it would permanently damage diplomatic relations between the countries. The series left such an indelible mark on the sport that one word immediately prompts its recollection, even 85 years later: Bodyline.
It’s almost impossible to quantify just how good Don Bradman was. The Australian legend isn’t just a cricket icon, but his performances were so utterly mindboggling that they deserve recognition across every sport which has ever been played. An average test cricketer will score 20-40 runs a game. A spectacular one upwards of 50. Steve Smith averages 63.24 and is considered the best player in the world. Don Bradman averaged 99.94 across his career. A player so transcendent that it took an entire nation changing the game to stop him. This is where Bodyline was born.
Desperate to find an answer to Bradman, the English cricket team devised a plan. Instead of bowling regular balls to batters which would bounce around their waist or lower, they planned to bowl high, directly at Australian players. The idea was to create so much disruption on the pitch that players would be more concerned about keeping themselves safe than trying to play the game of cricket. The hope was they would try to protect themselves with their bats, leading to inadvertent hits which England’s fielders could catch for easy outs.
There are arguments to this day whether Bodyline was a stroke of genius to contain the greatest player who ever lived or a dastardly ploy to win by any means necessary. The result was the same either way: The series was ugly. The tactic left some English players fearing for their lives after a test match in Adelaide when batter Bert Oldfield suffered a fractured skull from a ball that was delivered to bounce up into his face. The BBC explained just how worried English players were:
“The England players, mouths dry with fear, looked for escape routes - or even potential weapons - in case the mob fell on them.
Bowler Harold Larwood, the focus of the fury, turned to teammate Les Ames. ‘If they come,’ he said, ‘you can take the leg stump for protection - I’ll take the middle.’”
Bodyline was banned shortly following the series under new rules which banned “direct attack” bowling. Short balls are still allowed in cricket today, like the one Steve Smith was struck with — but there are now restrictions on how many short bowls can be used in an over.
There are dozens of examples of impropriety in cricket that extend beyond the pitch. They might not garner the same vitriol as Bodyline but are woven into the sport nonetheless.
- In 2018 it was revealed that Sri Lankan groundskeepers had been doctoring pitches at Sri Lankan cricket grounds to favor bowlers from the home team dating back to 2016. This was done to fix betting lines and has since proven to be true.
- Australia was caught in 2018 trying to doctor the ball with sandpaper to rough up one side of the ball. This would alter its flight in the air.
- A betting scandal revealed that in 2010 Pakistani players took bribes from bookmakers to alter the outcome of a test series between Pakistan and England. Four people went to prison as a result of the investigation.
- In 1979 Australian Dennis Lillee decided to use a cricket bat that was made out of aluminum by a friend during a match against England. There was no rule against metallic bats, but it was causing substantial damage to the leather ball. Lillee eventually changed his bat on request from umpires, but it was later revealed that Lillee was getting a cut of the sales from the “ComBat,” and the entire controversy had been a marketing ploy.
- In 1977 English bowler John Lever rubbed the ball with Vaseline during a match to alter its flight in the air.
- A match-fixing scandal hit the Indian Premier League in 2012 AND 2013 that revealed plans by players and bookmakers to alter games. Numerous players were given partial or lifetime bans, while the Rajasthan Royals were banned from the sport for two years.
- An international controversy was sparked in 2007 when an English umpire handed down six charges of ball-tampering to Indian players during a series against South Africa. Umpire Mike Denness refused to answer questions on his decision to penalize the players, leading to irate fans burning his effigy in the streets. Several of his charges were overturned on appeal.
- Pakistan had a match-fixing scandal of its own in 2017 when it was revealed that players were fixing matches in the Pakistan Super League.
- In 1981 Australia, locked in a match against New Zealand, needed to ensure their opponents couldn’t score six runs off the final ball of the game. Australian captain Greg Chappell instructed the bowler (and his younger brother Ian) to roll the ball along the ground. This would ensure the New Zealand batter had no way of hitting it over the fence and earning six runs. It wasn’t against the rules because nobody thought it would ever happen, and the rules of cricket had to be changed as a result. The incident “went against the spirit of the game,” according to officials.
- A cricket match in England in 1979 lasted just 18 minutes when a team intentionally lost the game in an attempt to force a three-way tie in the standings, knowing they would win on a tie break.
These are just a sampling of issues that have happened in cricket over the years. The point isn’t to say, “cricket is bad.” It’s a beautiful game full of history and strategy, and memories of long summer days at the Sydney Cricket Ground leaning over the railing trying to get an autograph. It’s watching games unfold in my grandmother’s apartment while she screamed at the TV about how much she hated Mark Taylor’s unreliable batting.
It’s more that cricket, like any sport, has its fair share of ugly moments. English fans booing Steve Smith when he returned to the ground wasn’t some anomaly that went against everything cricket stands for. It was just the latest in a long line of regrettable incidents. We don’t need to pontificate for cricket and act like it’s above the fray.
In a lot of ways, cricket invented the fray.