by PAUL COLLITS – THANKS to the whinging Poms, suddenly “the spirit of the game” is a thing.
The England cricket team, currently led by two New Zealanders – captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum – has been engaging in a “look over there” strategy of avoiding the unpleasant subject of losing two Ashes matches to the “old enemy” – that is, us.
Their first strategy was to say that they played better cricket than their opponents, even though they lost.
Then then decided to resurrect and weaponise “the spirit of the game”. It all related to a dismissal of an England batsman (note, not batter) in a slightly odd manner that was clearly within the rules.
The umpires gave the batsman out – but left themselves open to “debate” over whether the dismissal passed the pub sniff test.
Well, it turns out that it did.
The Australians were utterly within their rights to do what they did, as has been pointed out now severally by both Australian and English experts, including by possibly the greatest cricket umpire in the history of the game, Simon Taufel.
Much conversation has turned on the blatant hypocrisy of the suddenly holier-than-thou Poms.
This was an easy argument to make, so it shouldn’t detain us here. Suffice it to point out that the Brits have “form” themselves in effecting similar dismissals over the years, or attempting to.
In fact, one germane incident occurred a mere two days before the Australian “offence”.
No, the bigger question is not about hypocrisy but about, well, the spirit of the game.
Once upon a time, in the somewhat hazy past, this wasn’t just a brutal marketing ploy but, actually mattered.
It so happens that a couple of months back, Australia lost one of the last of the gentleman cricketers. The late Brian Booth quietly passed away at the age of eighty-nine.
“If a prize were offered for fair play among Australia’s post-war cricketers,” wrote legendary cricket scribe Ray Robinson, “Brian Booth would win hands down.”
Booth was a superb Test cricketer in the 1960s (not to mention an Olympic hockey player and, much later, a one-time Liberal Party candidate), an occasional captain of Australia in the same way Jack McEwen was Prime Minister. He was just filling in.
Booth’s passing occasioned considerable commentary from the panjandrums who now run Australian corporate cricket.
The reason was not so much that he was a fine cricketer, but that he was a gentleman cricketer. A religious teetotaller who famously, and in today’s terms, quaintly, refused to play cricket on a Sunday.
Booth calls up nostalgic memories of a rather pleasant nature. And of a simpler, more congenial, time.
In retirement, Booth continued his quietly influential association with the game, mentoring young cricketers without the gongs and sinecures that befall today’s “heroes”.
Mentoring that was highly valued, indeed, cherished. His way was full of grace and engagement.
I am guessing that, had India Premier League existed in the sixties, Brian would have politely declined any coaching offers that might then have come his way. The Rajasthan Royals, perhaps? Or a gig on Fox Sports.
Upon Booth’s passing, it emerged that he had once been dropped from the Australian Test team. Just weeks after having filled in as captain.
Unusually, he received a letter from the Chairman of selectors – yes, inevitably, Bradman – which explained why he had been dropped. And Bradman apologised!
Nothing was said publicly. Booth accepted his fate, willingly and with understanding and humility. No interviews on breakfast television (which probably didn’t exist then). He “moved on”. That was the way of things, then.
“Captaining Australia was a privilege,” a philosophical Booth said in an interview with The Cricket Monthly in 2013. “Bobby Simpson was the regular captain and broke his arm just prior to the first Test.
“He came back for the second Test in Melbourne and on the eve of the third, in Sydney, Sir Donald Bradman approached me at practice and said, ‘Bob has chicken pox, Brian. You’re captaining tomorrow’.”
Booth’s subsequent omission prompted Bradman to write to him, telling him he and his colleagues had “disliked” having to go from making him captain to out of the side in the space of three matches.
“I don’t think he’d ever done that (written to a player) before,” Booth said. “But I understood why. My scores were not good enough. I’d get to double figures in most innings only to get out. At some stage I knew I’d be passed over for someone performing better. Ian Chappell and Keith Stackpole came into the side and were to have great careers.”
Times change. More on Ian Chappell anon.
One of Booth’s peers was the legendary Australian wicket keeper, Wally Grout, apparently a favourite of Sir Donald Bradman.
Once Wally, when keeping in a Test match, witnessed an England batsman crash into another player while completing a run, as the return from an Australian fieldsman rocketed into Wally’s gloves.
Instead of taking off the bails and effecting the dismissal, Wally allowed the England batsman to make his ground.
Not all of his team mates were impressed, but his actions spoke to a generation of gentleman cricketers.
It was all of a piece with the act of athlete John Landy in helping Ron Clarke when injured in a race, to his own cost. And as others involved in road racing have done. Yes, a simpler time.
One of Grout’s younger peers was Ian Chappell, who, infamously, dropped his strides mid-pitch in a State game in the mid-1970s.
His apparent need to do this was in order to “adjust” his protective gear. The real reason was to bare his arse in the presence, in the stands, of one Sir Donald Bradman. More than this, towards Bradman.
(Chappell’s enmity towards Bradman is legendary, and worthy of its own, separate story.)
Chappell, of course, was to be, shortly thereafter, a leading light in the cricket revolution of the nineteen-seventies that delivered, via Kerry Packer, the “modern” game.
With its ludicrous cricketer salaries, player power and player managers, that, within two generations, have delivered us entitled millionaires who seek to make public policy on such matters as the Aboriginal Voice, gay rights – yes, we have just now had rainbow stumps in England – and (of course) climate change.
Whose multi-million property purchases routinely, and boringly, make the papers. It has delivered us “the Warners”, Australia’s answer to Whinger & Ginger. A walking, talking soap opera.
All a long way from Brian Booth. And a long way from the time when the “spirit of the game” was assumed, absorbed by all involved, and quietly embedded in player behaviour, without any announcements.
This all makes Cricket Australia’s celebration of Booth’s life a tad odd.
Perhaps, out of politeness, none of the obituaries that I have seen referred to Brian Booth as a “batter”. We are, here, in the territory of small mercies.
The aforementioned England coach, Brendon McCullum, expressed contrition for his own “lapses” of brutal competitiveness on the field during his own career, in a famous ICC annual lecture.
The headline captured the theme: “Cricket was meant to be a game, not a life or death struggle”.
He may have been calling to mind the famous quote from Australia’s legendary all-rounder, and possibly Australia’s best-ever cricketer (one who excelled in all disciplines of the game), Keith Miller.
He played in the shadow of WWII. He was once asked how he coped with the “pressures” of Test cricket.
Miller was a decorated and heroic fighter pilot in that war, who flew many missions over Germany. He answered, “Pressure? Test cricket isn’t pressure. Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse”.
This also recalls the comment of Richie Benaud to fellow Channel Nine commentator Mark Taylor when the latter claimed that Australia having lost three wickets was a “tragedy”.
No, Richie said, African poverty is a tragedy. Indeed.
Modern cricket corporate types (including players) could do well to remember what cricket was once about. And what it said about life.
They need to learn humility and a real sense of their own minuscule bit-parts in the history of a noble game.
God rest the soul of Brian Charles Booth.PC