Joanne McCarthy: Bad sport, bad governments, bad banks. Is there really any difference?

WE have English court records to thank for the first known reference to the game of cricket, in a document from a case in 1597 over land in a town called Guildford in Surrey, about 40 kilometres from London.

A man named John Derrick gave evidence that he and friends played “creckett” on the land as children about 50 years earlier.

It was another English court record from 1611 that lets us know adults were playing “creckett” by the 1600s, when two men were prosecuted for playing the game on Sunday when they should have been in church.

An untold number of words have been written about the game since then, and an untold number of books have been written as well.

A game with a 500-plus year history and a global reach – albeit one that follows the footsteps of British empire-builders and colonisers but doesn’t excite passions elsewhere – generates the stories, tales, legends, myths, controversies, dramas and traditions to produce that hard-to-define, and yet broadly understood, phenomenon – the game’s culture.

“It’s just not cricket,” is a saying that flows directly from that culture, based on the idea that cricket is a fair game played by fair men (because it was only played by men when these traditions and “rules” were being established) and was so recognised as an ethical standard-bearer that it was the test by which real-life events were compared.

The question we need to ask in 2018 is when was the last time you heard someone actually say “It’s just not cricket”, and think about when and why it stopped really being the marker by which we judged everyday situations.

The question we need to ask in 2018 is when was the last time you heard someone actually say “It’s just not cricket”.

There’s been a hell of a lot written and said about cricket in the past few weeks after the ball tampering in South Africa.

A lot of it has come from people and commentators whose jobs are linked to the game, talking up how our national identity is tied up with the Australian cricket team, how it’s the “one true national game” that unites us amidst a sea of competing football codes, and how our “national pride” was besmirched by cricket players caught cheating on the field.

Malcolm Turnbull weighed in, sounding like a barrister representing a client – Australia – and trotting out John Howard’s line from years ago about the Prime Minister’s job coming second to the Australian cricket team captain. It sat well when Howard said it because the man, clearly, loves his cricket. It just sounded weird when Turnbull said it.

I’m afraid I’m not buying the national pride or national identity line though. I don’t know one person who felt personal pain about what happened, or that Australia’s standing in the game particularly fell greater than it already had. 

Everyone I know, to a person – men, women, tradie sons, middle-aged professionals, even a pastor – just thought it was a stupid thing to do. Then they were angry that the team’s newest player was left to do the deed, and just as angry that two young men in their 20s were left to field a press conference about it without one Cricket Australia representative standing with them in front of the cameras.

People were bothered by the press conferences back in Australia and the obvious distress displayed by the three players. They were angry, again, that senior Cricket Australia representatives appeared to have gone AWOL, apart from a media statement or two.

But again, people weren’t displaying any of the angst we were told we were supposed to be feeling about how Australia appeared to the world. The mood, instead, was greater than indifference and less than disgust.

Cricket the game is not what it used to be. There’s too much money in it now. Cricket is packaged. Going to a game is the same as going to other forms of entertainment. You pay a lot of money to attend. You pay a lot for food and drink. The toilet lines are long. There’s advertising everywhere, and the rules by which the game is still played have been hyper-charged by the huge sums up for grabs. If you’re being paid millions of dollars to represent winners and winning, then you must win. It’s a short shift from there to a win at all costs mentality, which is the culture of cricket today. 

People weren’t so much affronted or offended by the ball-tampering incident as resigned to it. The response was the same as when a politician is caught in a particularly offensive rort of public funds, or when a big bank is found out for ripping off thousands of society’s most vulnerable.

Cricket is just as powerful and rich an institution, and the minute you get power and money together you also, inevitably, get poor human behaviour.

People shook their heads about the ball tampering because it provided absolute proof that cricket is just like so many other powerful institutions that have relied on the respect of yesteryear to maintain their position in society. This while morphing into just another powerful, corporatised, branded thing.

The problem for cricket is that it doesn’t seem to have noticed people being turned off and turning away over the years. The industry swirling around it that continues with the cliches about “national identity” are also not good at reading the public mood.

And I’m not saying this as a person who has no interest in cricket. I love the game. The one saving grace of having a newborn son who wouldn’t sleep AT ALL in 1985 was that I was up all night to watch the Ashes tests during that turbulent period when Kerry Packer turned everything upside down in the game.

I watched Allan Border dig in for his centuries and the dazzling first displays of a young Craig McDermott. We didn’t win that series and I didn’t care. It was cricket. It was competition. It was fierce and brilliant to watch. And I enjoyed it as much a few years later when my sons played cricket and I scored every week.

The sport Australians are supposed to love – the traditions we’re told all about – enjoys fair competition and graceful winners and losers. But that just isn’t cricket today.

This story When was the last time you actually heard someone say “it’s not cricket”? first appeared on Newcastle Herald.