“We were desperate,” admitted Australian captain Steve Smith when pushed to offer an explanation as to why his team had so brazenly attempted to tamper with the cricket ball against South Africa. That one candid admission, in a sense, sums up the state of mind of not just the disgraced Australian captain but also of contemporary society. The fine line between ‘winning’ and ‘winning at all costs’ has been bridged, not just on the cricket field but also well beyond the boundary.
Modern sport exemplifies the ethos of a maddeningly competitive universe where ends matter more than the means. Sport is no longer about the Olympic Spirit as defined by the founder of the Modern Olympics, Pierre De Coubertin, when he said: ‘The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” That Olympic motto is for a bygone era of amateur athletes where sports was primarily a leisure activity. As indeed is the deeply flawed notion of cricket as a ‘gentleman’s game’, a manufactured idea from the sport’s colonial past where the ‘Empire’ claimed to play by the rules of the game.
Instead, sport in the twenty first century is, at one level, about fiercely competing nationalisms, a ‘war’ between nations where sporting triumph is intrinsically linked to national pride. It is the desire to prove the superiority of the Communist system that led athletes from the Soviet Bloc to embark on a systematic doping programme in the Cold War era. It is this craving for global recognition that saw China breach the Great Wall through a single-minded focus on Olympic success. And it is perhaps this obsessive urge to prove that the Australian nation remains the pre-eminent cricketing power that led Smith’s team to engage in what can only be described as an act of pre-meditated ‘cheating’ to stave off South Africa’s march to victory.
For a country like Australia, with a limited and troubled history and one that is geographically isolated, sports has been their ultimate marker of national identity, a reflection of their desire to be seen as ‘equal’ to the rest of the world. This is not a country with a history of a freedom struggle but instead one that was created through waves of migration from the western world: Australians still find it difficult to live down the image of a country built by ‘convicts’ who dealt harshly with the indigenous Aboriginal population. In a poll on the greatest Australian of the twentieth century, the unanimous winner was Sir Don Bradman, the legendary Australian cricketer. Perhaps in no other country would be a sportsperson have won this recognition: Australians are an obsessive sporting nation which may explain their hunger for success.
At another level, professional sport is not just about individual excellence but is also a brutal battle for survival of the fittest, for acquiring the fame and great riches that a multi-billion dollar industry has to offer. It is this that perhaps led even a champion tennis player like Maria Sharapova astray, pushed cricketers to ‘fix’ matches, a Ben Johnson to take ‘performance-enhancing’ drugs. The darker side of sport is hidden in the glitter of celebrityhood, of IPL-like tamashas, where players are expected to perform with robot-like perfection day in and day out. But lift the veil and the ‘Gods’ of sport are often found to have feet of clay: highly skilled athletes but also imbued with all the insecurities and anxieties of less exceptional humans.
Smith and his chief ‘conspirator’ David Warner, didn’t need the money: the duo are arguably among the wealthiest cricketers in the game. They didn’t need fame and recognition either: Smith’s run-making feats have already drawn comparisons with Bradman. What was hurting though was their pride and ego when pushed to the limit by the equally competitive South Africans. In the final analysis, it was hubris that eventually devoured the Australian ‘leadership group’, an arrogant streak that led them to believe that they could actually get away with their actions even in today’s hyper-media age where there are
literally dozens of cameras monitoring every move. The anxiety for success coupled with a heightened sense of invincibility is a dangerous combination: the Australian cricketers, sadly, chose to take the ‘short-cut’ of subverting the sport’s rules instead of relying on their skills alone.
Not surprisingly, there is a sense of collective outrage, especially in Australia, of feeling ‘betrayed’ by our modern day heroes, much like we Indians felt when the match-fixing scandal first broke. No one likes to see their role models be exposed as rule-breakers: it is the unshaken belief in the ‘purity’ of sport and supremely talented athletes that draws millions to the stadia. Sports is the ultimate amphitheater of our dreams, hopes and ambitions, where we look at the world as a happier place to be in. When that world is turned upside down, the sense of public anger and revulsion is only to be expected.
And yet, some of the responses are typically hypocritical and exaggerated in a socio-political milieu where those who shortchange the system are often suitably rewarded. Do politicians who will do whatever it takes to win elections, businesspersons who fiddle with balance sheets, students who copy during exams, doctors and lawyers who eschew professional obligations, journalists who will peddle ‘fake news’, have any moral right to turn on sportspersons as the ‘villains’ of the day? Or do we expect our sporting heroes to be held to a higher bar of morality and public behavior? Smith and his team-mates
may have let down millions of cricket fans but they also hold a mirror to a society that has lost its moral compass.
Post-script: In the late 1970s, then India captain Bishan Bedi was sacked by his English county for accusing the English bowler John Lever of using vaseline to tamper with the ball. ‘White men don’t cheat’, was the self-righteous underlying response. In 2018, we most certainly know they do!
(a shorter version has first appeared in Hindustan Times)