If one is forced to choose, idealism is preferable to cynicism. Unfortunately, idealists are prone to naiveté. The fuss over the behaviour of the Australian Cricket Eleven, in its desperation to beat India at the Sydney Cricket Ground recently, owes much to the idealistic - and perhaps anachronistic - attitude that many observers have towards the game.
Cricket is a microcosm of society and the furore over sportsmanship reflects the division of Australia into two classes - the venal, whose ultimate measure of success is the potential for profit, and the naïve, who believe in higher values. While insistence on the retention of sporting ideals is more than nostalgia for some mythical golden age, idealists cannot influence top-level sport unless they accept reality. As with so many important social institutions, top-level cricket no longer belongs to the people.
Cricket lovers would like to think that international cricket is just as much a sport as it ever was. At junior level, the old values of equal opportunity, patience, self-discipline and rejection of unfair advantage persist. In his novel Cricket Kings William McInnes created a team and a match that exemplified those values. Chris Anderson, captain of the Yarraville West Fourths preserves the best traditions of the game, and McInnes suggests the rest of society could do worse than to emulate the sporting spirit of the Saturday afternoon cricketer. At several points Anderson condemns racism as incompatible with the cricketing ethics he holds dear.
The survival of these traditions is a tribute to the coaches and parents who instil such values into young players. Children are unlikely to find great role models in star players as the media generally create idols for their own cynical, commercial purposes. Coaches must now teach their players to distinguish carefully between the abilities of national heroes and their behaviour. While junior cricket might retain traditional values, full-time national players are professionals who serve a different master. The separation is enforced by contracts that keep the stars too busy to participate at state, let alone club level.
All but the most naïve must accept that international cricket today is essentially a business. The pattern of creeping commercialism is similar in most sports.
In phase one, the traditional, players and administrators are amateurs. Far from being rewarded for their time, dedication and skills, they suffer financially because of their love for the game. The game prospers and attracts many interested followers. Typically the game is covered by public broadcasters and reporters of lowly status.
In phase two, some businesses realise that there is money to be made. They offer sponsorship to reap the public relations rewards but most players remain amateurs.
In phase three, businesses become greedier and seek to organise the game for maximum profit. They offer contracts that make administrators salivate. Public broadcasters are priced out. Team colours are modified to suit the sponsors and matches are scheduled to maximise advertising opportunities.
In phase four, administrators and players become complicit and openly accept that he who pays the piper calls the tune. They are sportsmen (and women) and not ethicists so there is no contradiction for them in doing as they are told by their employers.
In phase five, the time for pretence is over. The star recognises that he is a salesman and that it is his job to attract buyers, either directly through endorsement of products, or indirectly by attracting viewers and spectators who are exposed to advertising. Spectators at first class cricket matches are bombarded by material broadcast over the p.a. system and displayed on the giant video screen to the extent that normal conversations during breaks in play are impossible.
Phase six will emerge from the strains between the behaviour of the Australian Eleven and public expectations. The future will be determined by those who manipulate the sports market, so while there may be some modifications to the demands on players, these will involve compromise. If “values” feature at all, it will not be for their intrinsic worth but because of the instrumental benefit that they bring. The chief motivation for a code of player ethics is to ensure that the game does not lose popularity.
Journalists might complain about falling standards, but in the final analysis, they do not stand outside the game to report it, but are part of the peripheral entertainment. In the long run, they toe the company line because they must maintain the “integrity” of cricket - not its traditional values, but its position on sports pages. Should reality prevail, then Test cricket, like so many social institutions since the Howard revolution, would be subsumed into the business pages.