In the post-war history of English cricket, there have been few more universally respected figures than John Lever, the Essex left-arm bowler. Modest, friendly and hard-working, he was regarded by both colleagues and cricket followers as the ideal professional. But when he made his debut for England during a tour of India in 1976, he found himself embroiled in the kind of ball-tampering row which brought the last Test to a farcical conclusion and plunged the sport of cricket into a major crisis.
Unaccustomed to the sweltering heat of Delhi, Lever came up with the unorthodox idea of attaching a number of gauze strips to his forehead to stop the sweat running into his eyes. Fixed in place by Vaseline, the gauze appeared to have a remarkable effect on Lever’s bowling, as he ripped through the Indian line-up by swinging the ball prodigiously. The Indians accused England of using underhand methods to achieve victory, with Lever all but labelled a cheat by Indian captain Bishen Bedi.
Yet, unlike the tantrum-throwing Pakistanis, Lever and the England team reacted with utter stoicism. There was no hysterical talk of wounded national pride, no explosive protest. They just went on with the match and the series, eventually emerging triumphant by three Tests to one. The Indian skipper, Bedi, was a man well used to controversy. Earlier in the year, during a Test against the West Indies, he had declared his team’s second innings prematurely closed in protest at the intimidatory nature of the opposition’s pace bowling. In effect, he, not the present Pakistani leader Inzamam-ul-Haq, was the first Test captain to forfeit a game by refusing to participate, a fact which undermines some of the overexcited talk this week about the ‘unprecedented’ nature of events at the Oval.
Indeed, it is absurd that a dispute over a cricket ball in the fag end of a Test series should have been elevated into a geopolitical incident, winning far more media coverage than civil unrest in Iraq, home-grown terrorism or Iran’s nuclear programme. The fraught international situation has, of course, made the present cricket crisis unusually combustible. In a climate where Muslims at home and abroad are constantly complaining of Western prejudice and discrimination, the accusation of cheating only reinforces the siege mentality. On the very weekend that the Oval Test descended into a shambles, it emerged that a group of holidaymakers at Malaga airport had refused to board a plane because they were disturbed by the appearance and behaviour of two male Muslim passengers. To many of the followers of Islam, this was nothing more than blatant racial prejudice — as was the decision on Sunday by the Australian umpire Darrell Hair to penalise the Pakistan team to the tune of five runs for alleged ball-tampering. Tellingly, Hair, who has long been accused of bias against cricketers from the subcontinent, was this week denounced in Pakistan as a ‘Hitler in a white coat’, just as Bush and Blair are continually portrayed as imperialist, racist bullies.
Anxiety over race is exacerbated by the suggestion that Hair’s action might have been prompted by the England coach Duncan Fletcher, a tough, taciturn white Zimbabwean who, according to latest reports, advised the match authorities to keep a close eye on the Pakistanis’ handling of the ball. In the same way, the match referee Mike Proctor, whose decision-making will be crucial to the outcome of this crisis, is a white South African and a close friend of Fletcher’s.
But the mentality of victimhood has been carried too far. The Pakistanis are muttering about ending their tour of England and abandoning the one-day series if their captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, is suspended from international cricket as a result of events at the Oval. But the Pakistanis are entirely the authors of their own misfortune. They could have made a protest about Darrell Hair’s judgment without refusing to play, but instead they chose to behave like spoilt children, locking themselves in the dressing room and showing no respect for the laws of the game or the paying public. They knew what they were doing by failing to come out on to the field after tea on Sunday and now seem reluctant to pay the price of breaking the law.
Sadly all too many commentators have indulged the Pakistani protest by exaggerating its importance. We are told that this is cricket’s ‘darkest hour’, that the sport is now ‘in turmoil’. A little sense of perspective is required. No lives have been lost, unlike in the notorious Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in July 1969, when tensions between the two Central American nations spilled over into armed conflict after Honduran fans were beaten up during a World Cup match in San Salvador. In the aftermath of the soccer violence, diplomatic relations were broken off, and revenge killings were perpetrated against Salvadoreans. The antagonism descended into war, which saw 2,000 civilians killed in military offensives before a ceasefire was called. Now that really was a sporting crisis.
Even within cricket, the Darrell Hair row is pretty small beer. It has little of the resonance of the bodyline controversy of 1932–33, when Australia threatened to withdraw from the Empire because of England’s brutal strategy of short-pitched fast bowling. Nor does it have the grandeur of the long-running boycott of South Africa, which was prompted by the apartheid government’s refusal to accept the England touring team of 1968 because it contained the non-white player Basil d’Oliveira. The boycott ultimately helped to bring about the end of white-only rule, whereas the current Oval dispute will achieve nothing except to lose English cricket money.
Whenever any crisis occurs in cricket, we hear all the old clichés about the ‘gentleman’s game’ and ‘fair play’. But in reality, ever since the sport was first played on an international basis in 1877, it has been addicted to controversy. Partly because it has been imbued with a false morality, cricket loves to whip itself into periodic spells of hysteria over the conduct of players. Throughout the past 129 years we have seen frequent rows over pay, bowlers’ actions, umpires’ decisions, team selections and bribery. Since I began following the sport in the early Seventies, I have seen the ‘death of Test cricket’ foretold over the Kerry Packer circus, when most of the top stars opted out of the official form of the game to play in a mercenary league sponsored by the Australian media mogul; over the dominance of West Indian pace bowling; over the match-fixing scandal, which revealed that the late South African captain Hansi Cronje had taken bribes to determine the outcome of international games; and — for almost two decades — over ball tampering.
But most of these controversies are quickly forgotten. The game survives. England and Australia were happily playing Tests again in 1934, within little more than a year after the end of the bodyline series. The international caravan soon moves on. So, within months of the John Lever gauze dispute, attention was focused on the Ashes series in the summer of 1977, just as this winter the Oval storm will soon be occluded by the renewed battle between England and Australia.
Leo McKinstry’s Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero is published in paperback by HarperCollinsWilson.