Unless you’ve been living under a gigantic boulder of late, you would have seen or at least heard of the bizarre events at Trent Bridge, when England’s batsman Ian Bell was run out, and then controversially recalled by M.S. Dhoni, in the second Test of India’s tour of England. The Internet was awash with posts on the subject. Perhaps it was the fact that people found it too painful to talk about the cricket, since India have been soundly thrashed by their opponents in both the Tests so far. For whatever reason, Dhoni’s actions were the topic of furious debate on many threads that I glanced over without entering.
Many people’s views can be summarised by one of the following:
1. Dhoni is an exemplary sportsman, who preserved the ‘spirit of the game’ and did India proud. All hail!
2. Ian Bell should have walked. Dhoni made a terrible error by recalling him, since the dismissal was completely legal. He was swayed by the boos from the crowd. Fucking greasy Englishmen!
3. Dhoni is a cheat because he actually appealed on the field. He was then made to withdraw the appeal by the team management. Whom are you kidding, eh, Dhoni fanboys?
If you were to ask me what my take on the whole affair is, or what Dhoni should have done, I will tell you honestly that I CATEGORICALLY DO NOT HAVE AN OPINION. Only the man himself knows the pressure of captaining the cricket team representing a country of more than a billion people. Added to that is the fact that the country expects the team to live up to its No. 1 tag, when they clearly do not have the resources to do so. Seriously, how difficult is it to not pass judgement on someone? Does he HAVE to be the epitome of either sportsmanship or cheapness? For me, it is clear that Dhoni has acted like a normal person, just like you or me – initially tempted by the unexpected chance to get rid of the well-set Bell, only to perhaps realise that it would, among other things, imply that India couldn’t dislodge him using regular cricketing wiles. Thank God he had time to mull over it – if India had gone on to win from that situation, who’s to say Dhoni wouldn’t have been vilified in the English press as much as Ricky Ponting was in India after Sydney 2008? And, speaking of that, it is quite possible that Ponting feels appealing for a grounded catch was the worst thing he did in his career, that he genuinely regrets it. Yet he will never be received well in India.
Now, I’ll come to the point (and I have one, I assure you). The term ‘sportsmanship’. According to Wikipedia (God bless Jimmy Wales, by the way) sportsmanship expresses an aspiration or ethos that the activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors. But a quick question – why is ‘sports’ present in the word itself? Are these values applicable only to sports? Can they be extended to life, whenever competition presents itself? Why isn’t it called, I don’t know, goodmanship? (OK, that choice of word really sucks, but you get the point.)
The answer to the question is – when the term was coined, the final result (i.e. who won and who lost) of the activity was not expected to have severe consequences for either winner or loser. This was very often the case in sports. People were supposed to be playing for the pure fun of it. Hence, if you tried to win at all costs and disregarded fair play, you were considered pathetic and stupid.
You can immediately see where I’m going with this. There is so much money in professional sports these days that it is just impossible to apply those arguments. Also, millions of people are watching, and your reputation is at stake. It is no coincidence that diving in football took off as soon as big money entered. To give a crude analogy, let’s say you and another guy are locked in mortal combat on a cliff. Would you really bother about ‘fair play’? If your enemy suffered a misfortune, like tripping backwards over a stone, would you exhibit ‘sportsmanship’ by not taking advantage of it? Like hell you would. And if someone pointed out that you were violating the ‘spirit of the fight’, you would think they had lost it.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that the concept of sportsmanship is obsolete. My only request is that since the outcome of a professional sports match carries so much significance, we should relax our criteria for acts of unsporting behaviour a little, especially when the matter is in the greyest of grey areas, like the Ian Bell incident. Of course, things like Sergio Busquets repeatedly diving to get opponents sent off are extremely hard to digest and should be rooted out. But how far should we go casting aspersions on his character? Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, is viewed by many fans as an arrogant and selfish player and he does not do his image any good when he falls over to buy free kicks. Yet there is a touching story about him actually meeting a terminal cancer patient who was a huge admirer of his. And last season, when he broke a fan’s nose with a mis-kick into the crowd, he personally gave him an autographed T-shirt as an apology.
In fact, if you think about it, sport’s capacity to get the audience emotionally involved in its drama while having little or no consequence for them is one of its greatest attractions. Let us show a different kind of sportsmanship then – by not harshly judging, at every opportunity, those who stretch the rules. Because, at the end of the day, we’re still safe in our armchairs and their lives are changing as we watch.