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10 Great Cricket Controversies

As regular as clockwork, every few years controversy explodes over the sport of cricket. Sometimes the survival of test match cricket has been called into question but time and again the game has pulled through. Here are some of the big controversies that have shaped the history of cricket.

Bodyline: The biggest of the lot

When the English cricket team toured Australia in 1932–33 they had one huge problem named Donald Bradman. The Australian had put England’s bowling to the sword in previous test series and was poised to do it again. To counter Australia’s ace in the pack England captain Douglas Jardine adopted bodyline tactics.

This involved fast bowlers aiming short-pitched deliveries at the batsman’s body. The idea was that in an effort to defend himself, the batsman would hit the ball in the air to a gaggle of fielders located near his legs, who would take a catch and dismiss the batsman.

From the perspective of results, this tactic worked wonders. England won back the Ashes (cricket’s most famous trophy) and Bradman’s performances fell from the extraordinary to the merely very good.

But bodyline was a public relations disaster. Players were badly injured and the Australians so enraged that at one point there was the possibility that the country would withdraw from the Commonwealth. Bodyline has soured Anglo-Australian relations ever since and led to a rule change restricting the number of close fielders a captain can place behind the square leg umpire to just two. Long term the event didn’t stop Bradman. He went on to dominate contests between the two countries until his retirement in 1948.

The Hansie Cronje affair

Hansie Cronje was South African cricket’s icon in the 1990s. He was captain of the national team and seemed to embody everything that made South African cricket a success. He was tough, uncompromising, made the most of his talent and was a crackerjack captain, getting the best from his team-mates – or so it seemed.

But it turned out that Cronje had accepted payments from bookmakers in a match fixing scandal that rocked the cricket world.

Cronje gave up the captaincy in disgrace, and was banned for life in 2000. South African cricket was left to lick its wounds.

The whole sorry tale had a tragic ending, when Cronje was killed in a plane crash in 2002. Cronje’s name, although still venerated by some in South Africa, has become synonymous with all that’s dark about sports and bookmaking.

Arguing with the umpire: The Shakoor Rana debacle

It was a hot day in Karachi in 1987 when the English cricket world was turned on its head. The reason? A flaming great row broke out over something very trivial between England captain Mike Gatting and Pakistan umpire Shakoor Rana.

Rana had suggested that Gatting was cheating by moving a fielder behind the batsman's back while the bowler, Eddie Hemmings, was in the process of bowling. Finger pointing and swearing ensued, and the next day the umpires refused to take the field until Gatting apologised.

Eventually, Gatting did say sorry and the match continued. But the tour and cricket relations between England and Pakistan had been marred. In fact England did not tour Pakistan again for another 13 years.

Gatting was sacked as England captain the following summer – for having a late-night drink with a barmaid – and Rana eventually disappeared into obscurity.

The argument did have an upside, though. It helped hasten the introduction of a panel of neutral umpires organised by the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). This crack squad of umpires travel around officiating in all matches played between national sides. The panel of neutral umpires has helped bring a new respect for the laws of the game around the globe.

Rebel tours to South Africa

South Africa’s 21 year ban from international cricket as a result of its apartheid laws was a running sore, sparking controversy after controversy. When South Africa was sent into the cricketing wilderness after the Gleneagles agreement in 1970, the country’s cricketing authorities didn’t take it lying down. They started to recruit top international players from England, Australia and the West Indies to tour as part of quasi-national teams.

Throughout the 1980s these ‘rebel tours’ as they were dubbed, threw the cricketing world into chaos. Players were allowed to work in South Africa as individuals – coaching and playing for local club sides – but were barred from taking part in these tours. Many top players saw this as an anomaly and were happy to take the big piles of South African money they were offered.

The Cricketing authorities in England, Australia and West Indies got tough with the rebel players, banning them from international cricket, and in some cases effectively ending their international careers. The tours continued, however, until protests from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa helped put a stop to them. In 1989 a team of ex-England cricketers captained by Mike Gatting toured South Africa and were met with huge protests. The players were clearly in over their heads and the tour was called off early. Within two years the political winds of change had blown Nelson Mandela into power and brought down the racist apartheid system. South Africa was re-admitted to international cricket in 1991.

Kerry Packer’s cricketing circus

In the 1970s the lot of an international cricketer was not a happy one, as cricketers were being asked to turn out and play for their country for peanuts. Kerry Packer, the Australian media mogul, wanted to broadcast cricket on his television station but had been knocked-back by the Australian Cricket Board. Packer decided on a bold move; he would pay the best players in the world a proper wage to turn their backs on test cricket and come and play in a series of Super Tests and one-day matches in Australia.

England captain Tony Greig helped recruit the star turns for Packer’s cricketing circus and what became known as World Series Cricket was born.

World Series Cricket took place between 1977 and 1979 and is widely recognised as being of a very high standard indeed, involving the best players from around the globe; including several great South African cricketers.

At first the fuddy-duddy cricketing authorities reacted with anger and dismay to World Series Cricket, banning those players who had signed up. But in a famous court case the Test and County Cricket Board, which ran English cricket at the time, was found guilty of restraint of trade. What soon became apparent was that the only losers from this Mexican stand-off would be the game of cricket and the spectators. Soon enough, Packer was sold the rights to broadcast cricket in Australia and World Series Cricket was wound up. However, it did lead to some interesting innovations such as coloured clothing and day-night one-day contests.

The Basil D’Oliveira affair

Basil D’Oliveira was a fine player, a brave and hard-hitting batsman, and an accurate medium pace bowler. ‘Dollie’, as he was affectionately known, hailed from South Africa but because he was defined as ‘coloured’ under the racist rules of apartheid South Africa he was barred from representing the country of his birth. So he came to England to play. He soon found himself selected for the England cricket team and put in several brilliant performances.

Yet when the team to tour South Africa in 1969 was announced he was not named, despite having scored an innings of 158 runs in the previous match. Accusations were made that England’s cricketing authorities had caved into pressure from South Africa, who would be angry if Dollie toured.

An injury to one of England’s tour party meant that Dollie was drafted into the squad to tour South Africa. The South African government reacted furiously, demanding that he be withdrawn. The upshot was that the tour was cancelled and in 1970 South Africa went into the cricketing wilderness for 21 years. Ironically, just at the moment of exile, South Africa had produced its best ever side which had just thrashed Australia in a test series.

Mixing politics and cricket: Zimbabwe

High hopes abounded when Zimbabwe was allowed into the club of test-playing nations in 1991. The Zimbabwean cricket team had performed well in cricket World Cups and all seemed set fair. At first, the decision to admit Zimbabwe seemed to be justified. The team didn’t set the cricketing world on fire but it did hold its own, particularly in home test matches.

But during the late 1990s and beyond, as the political and economic situation worsened in Zimbabwe, cricketing standards in the country went into freefall.

The Mugabe regime took control of Zimbabwean cricket and the accusation was levied that selections were being made on racial grounds; this time black players being favoured over their white counterparts.

The small groups of top notch, mainly white, players soon became disillusioned and the country started to lose very heavily indeed. In addition, a few players, including fast bowler Henry Olonga, decided to make a protest at the country’s deteriorating political situation – characterised by alleged human rights abuses and election rigging – by wearing black armbands on the field of play. Olonga received threats and left the country soon afterwards.

For a time, Zimbabwe was suspended from international cricket but then re-admitted. But it’s fair to say that the game in Zimbabwe is still in turmoil.

Facing the whirlwind: The West Indian fast bowling machine

In the 1970s and 1980s the West Indies reigned supreme. They beat absolutely everyone, including Australia. But the manner in which they went about beating their opponents courted controversy. The West Indies were blessed with a host of fast bowlers over a number of years: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.

All these bowlers were greats, able to deliver the ball at speeds in excess of 90 mph. Teams have always had fast bowlers but never has a country been blessed by having so many at the same time. Therefore, under successive captains Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, the West Indies would deploy four fast bowlers who would take turns frightening the living daylights out of the batsmen. You may think nothing is wrong with this, but ex-players and cricketing authorities around the globe had a different outlook.

The West Indies’ fast bowlers used to take forever to bowl their overs – often they would struggle to bowl more than 11 or 12 an hour. Many people considered these slow over rates to be boring. What’s more, batting teams found it incredibly difficult to score runs due to the pace of the deliveries, regularly struggling to score 200 runs in a day’s play. Some players also felt that the bowling often targeted the batsman’s body, amounting in effect to intimidation.

For many cricket lovers the period of West Indian dominance was one long yawn. Even the West Indies’ fans annoyed the cricket establishment in England, blowing horns and beating drums as they watched their heroes triumph. In fact, whenever the West Indies’ cricket team toured England in the 1970s and 1980s the letters pages of the national newspapers would be chock-full of missives from retired colonels ordering umpires to get tough over slow over rates and intimidatory bowling.

The ‘spot-fixing’ scandal

During the fourth and final test of the England v Pakistan test series at Lord's 2010, young fast bowler Mohammad Amir runs into bowl, and he bowls a no-ball; then he bowls another no-ball, and then a third. This was no accident: Amir was acting on the instructions of his captain.

The whole episode had been set up by a tabloid reporter from the now defunct News of the World newspaper, who through a sting operation had persuaded the three Pakistan players Salman Butt (the captain) and bowlers Mohammed Asif and Mohammad Amir to alter their performance for money. The idea was to fix the outcome of specific deliveries so that money could be made from the spot betting market.

Whichever way you cut it, though, it was an attempt to defraud bookmakers and brought the wider game of cricket into disrepute. All three players were banned from cricket for differing periods of time, but even more seriously they were tried in an English court for conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments, and in November 2011 jail terms were handed down of 30 months for Butt, one year for Asif, six months for Amir and two years eight months for businessman Mazhar Majeed, for his part in the syndicate.

Following the scandal, the International Cricket Council put 80 previous matches – both in one day and test formats – on a list of those where there may have been suspicious activity. What’s more, the scourge of spot-fixing has reared its head more recently in the Indian Premier league, with several high-profile players being accused. The one silver lining is that it seems that at long last following the spot-fixing scandal and that of the earlier Hansie Cronje affair, the game of cricket is waking up to the dangers posed by the lure of bookmakers and professional gamblers.

Gentlemen v Players

For much of the history of English cricket a type of class discrimination existed between Gentlemen – who were amateurs – and Players, who were professionals. The Gentlemen got plush changing rooms and, as they were often members of the landed gentry, were treated with deference being referred to as ‘Mister’ on scorecards. If they had a grander title such as ‘Sir’, ‘Lord’ or ‘The Honourable’ they were called that. The Players, on the other hand, were largely working-class and couldn’t afford to play the game for fun – they needed cold, hard cash. They had to make do with changing in outhouses and were referred to by just their surname and initial on the scorecard.

But all this class snobbery didn’t stop ‘sham’ amateurism. The biggest sham amateur of the lot was England batsman WG Grace. He would claim ‘expenses’ which were roughly double what the best paid Player would get for a match. But as England’s best batsman, he knew he could add thousands onto attendances.

Eventually, in 1881, the Players got fed up with this sham amateurism and some staged a strike. The strike didn’t last and the Players returned to work but the point had been made and gradually over the years the separation between Gentlemen and Players disappeared. Today, no amateurs play for county or national sides.

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