Australian cricket captain Steven Smith, the man regarded by most people – at least outside India – as the world’s top Test batsman, has been dumped from his job in the middle of a game. This unprecedented ouster, in the wake of a ball-tampering scandal helpful christened Sandpapergate, has one key message: Even the most helpful stereotype cannot bail you out beyond a point.
That calls for some explanation, and here it is. Across the world, the English-language media – led by the British press -- has managed over the years to reinforce prejudices and perceptions of the various cricket sides, usually a reflection (and often an exaggeration) of national stereotypes. These tend to be overwhelmingly positive if the side in question is white; usually negative if it’s Asian or black.
England are usually portrayed as the soul of decency, and any infarction by any of their players is a shock to all concerned (the accuser is often blamed – ask Bishen Bedi after the Vaseline incident starring John Lever). They may be descendants of an Empire that was characterized by large-scale racism and loot, but they own the world’s language and, until the lure of the Indian Premier League reminded them of which side their bread is buttered, used it to claim a perennial moral high ground.
South Africa’s team represent a nation that’s accumulated enough bad karma to last several lifetimes (theory: perhaps that’s why they choke in every big tournament), but even the late Hansie Cronje, ace fixer, had the benefit of many of his countrymen’s doubt until he confessed (it helped that the authorities were closing in). Still: Tough, gritty and uncompromising, anyone?
New Zealand (who had the temerity to bowl out England for 58 a couple of days ago) were the well-behaved colonial cousins, and the Irish, the likeably emotional guys you met at the pub.
And the Asians and West Indians? Pakistan are always suspect of something – like a Mae West in reverse, when they’re bad, they’re very bad, and when they’re good, they’re even worse. Sri Lanka are flamboyant but prickly, Bangladesh (with some justification) are probably the least-liked underdogs in history and the West Indians, well, their terminal decline has made them as much of a shifty – a loaded word, racially -- laughing stock as they were an elegant terror in their prime three decades ago.
As touched upon earlier, the Indian Premier League and its lucre have somewhat changed what people say about Indian cricket, even if they continue to think the same as before. A few years ago, Indian cricketers could be easily accused of something, anything, by a British commentator – Michael Vaughan had the temerity to make a throwaway allegation about VVS Laxman (of all people) using Vaseline (that substance again, this time on the other side of an accusation) on his bat to prevent Hot Spot from picking up a nick. But now, mindful of lucrative commentary contracts, Western experts are most respectful. This is reason enough for the BCCI to be muscular in its dealings with the other cricketing nations. There’s no point having the power if you don’t use it.
Back to Smith and Australia. The country has long cultivated an image of playing tough, win-at-all-costs, but ultimately fair, cricket. Their batsmen wouldn’t walk, but wouldn’t question an umpire’s decision. Their captains took no prisoners. Right from Lawry and Ian Chappell to Border and Steve Waugh, they played a brand of cricket that rid the gentleman’s game of its effete image and vested it with genuine steel. Even their crowds were big and beery, but loved spunk in an opposing captain. The key messaging was that there were two sides to the coin: Hard was always accompanied by fair.
Accordingly the same Smith was able to brush aside suggestions of dishonesty when he and his players appeared to consult the dressing room illegally before going in for a DRS review in an India. What, unfair, Australia? They may be separated from their mother country by 15,000 km and a tough vs toff ancestry, but they retained enough English indignation when caught with their hands in the jam jar. Drawing himself up to his full moral height, the captain appeared to say: Are you calling us liars?
Now the answer, is er, yes, actually. You won’t be the first Australian/Englishman/South African to use a stereotype to try and get away, but this time you were caught with your hands down your pants, to mix a metaphor. There’s even some Western appreciation on Twitter for the honesty of the apology, believe it or not, but it was drowned out immediately.
So perhaps the end of the stereotype is nigh. Australian cricketers are tough but some of them can be unfair. They’ve made cricket the game it is, and delighted a generation of cricket watchers. To hell with the type of persons they are supposed to be – let’s clean up this mess, punish the guilty and move on to more days of legitimate cricket drama, which has not been in short supply in recent times.