Sport, culture and honesty

Sport has been able to bridge cultures in a way arts and music cannot. This is possible because sport is a rule-based activity, whereas music and arts are rooted in a particular culture and you need to understand that culture if you are to truly understand the beauty of the music that you are listening to or the work of art you are seeing. In literature, there is the added complication that reading a book in translation is not the same thing as reading it in the original language.

This is best illustrated if you contrast the reputations of two of India's greatest sons, Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan. You can endlessly dispute who is the greater Indian. Shyam Benegal believes it is Bachchan, but whoever you choose there is no disputing their eminence or impact on modern Indian society. Yet take their standing beyond India's shores, in particular the land that once ruled India. A few years ago, I was going from London to Southampton to attend a seminar where the great Sachin Tendulkar was talking of his newly launched autobiography. I fell into a conversation with a fellow passenger and she immediately knew who Tendulkar was despite having little or no interest in cricket. As for English cricket followers, Tendulkar needs no introduction. For them, he is an icon even if all of them may not accept he is the greatest batsman of all time.

Bachchan is also a huge figure in Britain but that is among the Indian community of the country who are devoted to Bollywood films. But outside this closed world of Bollywood film fans, it is difficult for a British audience to come to grips with this vibrant symbol of Indian soft power. Even seasoned British film critics tend to stereotype Bollywood films as Western-style musicals, unable to appreciate the complex and many-layered Indian art of storytelling, dance, drama and music these films represent.

But if sport can reach where arts cannot, sport has a problem which is now threatening to become a very difficult burden. This concerns honesty. Are sportsmen and women performing their activity honestly? I do not mean taking drugs. Sports's great claim is that not only are the rules of a sport being scrupulously observed but no sportsman or woman would take unfair advantage and cheat a competitor. However, this has been called into question and what is more it is the English who are now being called cheats. This is very galling for a nation that has always claimed the moral high ground, be it in politics or in sport. What makes it worse is that the accusation was made by probably the most famous Frenchman in England, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager.

Wenger has said that English football players are now very good at trying to cheat the referee by diving in the penalty box in the hope of earning a penalty. Wenger was aware that in making this charge he was wounding the English where it hurt most. For decades, the English have been saying that while continental players and those from South America practise 'diving', the English never do. Indeed, when foreign players first started playing for English clubs if they started diving or in some way cheated the referee they were warned by their own teammates 'to cut it out'. But now it seems that the English have learnt from the foreigners and are doing it better than the latter. That was what Wenger claimed.

Nothing could have been calculated to wound the English more. This, after all, is the nation which invented modern sport and codified the rules. I know the Chinese claim to have invented football. They even have a museum devoted to it. But they certainly did not come up with the off-side rule or any other rule of football.

And central to this British invention is that you must never bend the rules to take advantage of your opponent. This is exemplified in that saying, 'it's not cricket', and nothing demonstrated this better than an incident during the Trent Bridge Test against India in 2011. It concerned the English batsman, Ian Bell. Bell, thinking it was tea time, wandered out of his crease heading for the pavilion. But the Indian fielder, believing the ball was still in play, threw from the boundary to the bowler who, finding Bell out of his crease, ran him out. The umpire had still not called time for tea, and had no option but to give Bell out.

The English team was outraged and the fans grew belligerent. As far as they were concerned, the Indians had shown a deplorable lack of sportsmanship. The problem was under the rules of the game Bell could not be recalled unless the Indians withdrew the appeal. During the tea break, the England coach and captain spoke to M.S. Dhoni and he decided that the appeal would be withdrawn. Bell resumed his innings. Almost instantly Dhoni was converted from villain to hero and this so touched the English that the next morning I was asked to appear on the BBC's prestigious Today programme to praise Dhoni and his act of sportsmanship.

I was witness to another such act of sportsmanship by another Indian captain, Gundappa Viswanath, in the 1980 Jubilee Test in Mumbai against England. Bob Taylor, the England wicketkeeper, was given out caught behind off Kapil Dev. Taylor gestured he had not touched the ball. Viswanath spoke to him and when Taylor said he had not Viswanath withdrew the appeal. India lost both Tests, but for both the Indian captains it was clearly more important to be seen to be sporting rather than try and take advantage. But while such acts of sportsmanship are to be applauded, I believe what we need in modern sports is more use of technology to help umpiring decisions. Unlike football, cricket has gone far towards using cameras but could do more to reduce, if not eliminate, human error. If that is done, then the fans can be confident that those who cheat do not profit from it. To rely on sportsmanship when sport itself is no longer a hobby but a business could do damage to an activity that does so much to bring humans together in this strife-torn world.


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