above: cricket can mean the world – in this case to Freddie and Brett Lee
By Jeremy Loadman
Talk of corrupt behaviour in cricket seems to go hand-in-hand these days with a term that is almost a part of the cricketing lexicon: meaningless games.
Depending on your philosophical bent, maybe every game of cricket is meaningless. But even for the hardcore nihilist, the ‘05 Edgbaston test meant something.
Just about every sport has ‘meaningless’ games of some description: dead rubbers; friendlies; matches of no consequence, call them what you like but in most sports we know for sure when the heat in well and truly on.
In cricket, there are obviously matches that mean more than others, but of those others, which ones are meaningful and which ones are meaningless? Going by football’s definition of meaningless friendlies (all matches not played as part of a tournament or the qualification process for a tournament) 95 percent of cricket matches played are friendlies.
Cricket has long coped well with this situation, but the current climate dictates that it needs examining.
Harsha Bhogle tackled the question of meaningless matches in his column on the cricinfo website on 27 August. Writing about the recent tri-angular one-day series between Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand played in Sri Lanka, a series Bohgle described it as ‘irrelevant and largely unnecessary’, he asked the obvious but pertinent question of what incentivised teams to win in these matches?
‘It makes you wonder if teams might have played differently if this were a World Cup, where every match counted towards something, where a defeat strengthened resolve for it meant a greater peak had been installed in the way.’ Bhogle wrote.
The irony is that these ‘meaningless’ triangular tournaments are actually the only times (outside of the one-day and T20 World Cups and the Champions Trophy) where teams can face the prospect of reaching the end of the road, or where not winning disadvantages them moving forward.
Too often, teams face off with nothing tangible riding on the result; no prospect of relegation or elimination from a finals series. No, win or lose, sides go onto fight another day.
For example, the recent test series between Australia and Pakistan played in England. Meaningful or meaningless? Putting aside the recent controversies about the rigor with which Pakistan has played the game of late, what exactly did this series mean? I for one am not quite sure.
The pattern is all too often repeated: go on tour and underperform only to return home and host a similarly underprepared team, and when the series is inevitably won, pretend all is well.
Just how dangerous this type of endlessly forgiving system is, is now starting to be revealed – thanks only to a tabloid newspaper, I might add.
The question of what really is at stake is a fundamental question that needs to have some rigorous thought applied to it.
If nothing is actually at stake (and we’re no longer talking in philosophical terms here), we end up in a situation where both teams are playing for pride – a phrase that is very hard to actually measure the meaning of.
We often think of pride and pride in one’s country as one of the greatest motivating factors in sport, yet we most often hear the phrase ‘playing for pride’ when a match has been all but lost and it is the only thing left to play for, i.e. losers play for pride.
Whatever your interpretation of pride and its motivating factors, I’d suggest that there is nothing more motivating for a player than to have his position in the side questioned because he’s underperforming and there is somebody else on in form to jump straight in. And this is the sort of pressure that is reflected in the better cricketing nations, especially Australia.
No country on the cricketing field is more parochial than Australia, and while players intone the spirit of Don Bradman and his band of merry men when asked what drives them when pulling on the baggy green, the reality is that their performance is what drives them; it has to be.
In the case of the Australian side of the mid-nineties, individuals were only three bad tests from having their spot in the team questioned. As for the commentators who bemoaned Australia’s win-at-all costs mentality, who knows, they might now be having sentimental yearnings for sledging and aggressive appealing. It at least showed it meant something.
For other countries however, competition for spots in the side is simply never as strong.
Using the example of Kamran Akmal’s diabolical performance at the SCG in the second test against Australia in January 2010 (and presuming these mistakes were just that, as no charges of fixing were ever brought forward), if such errors were made by an Australian keeper, the simple fact is they would never have played cricket for Australia again.
Akmal however, lost his place in the side for just one test – the third test in Hobart – and duly reclaimed it to take on the Aussies at Lord’s in their next test match in July. For the record, Akmal’s replacement for the Hobart test, Sarfraz Ahmed, scored a total of 6 runs in his two innings and took four catches. Hardly a performance that would put the blow torch on Akmal.
The reality that a player is not going to lose his place in a side on the back of some poor (or very poor) performances is not good for the game and especially not good when mixed with the playing of meaningless matches. In light of these circumstances it is not hard to see how someone could be persuaded to bowl a few ‘victimless’ no-balls.
While the ICC can’t dictate selection policies (it can’t dictate anything for that matter, given the rabble it is), it can do something about the question of meaningless, irrelevant or unnecessary cricket matches. This is one of the real issues that needs to be addressed if the ICC wants to get to the root of corruption in the game.
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