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Smoke and mirrors: England's contrived outrage can't help them avoid the facts

Roar Rookie
4th July, 2023
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Roar Rookie
4th July, 2023
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At The Oval, on August 29, 1882, after taking a single and believing the ball to be dead, young Australian batter Sammy Jones wandered out of his crease to do some gardening.

Sensing an opportunity, English cricketing legend W.G Grace, no stranger to controversy, whipped off the bails and appealed.

Jones was left with no choice but to walk off, but the Grace’s move incensed the Australians, especially the incoming batter, Fred “The Demon” Spofforth, who made his views on the sportsmanship of the act clear.

Grace’s only comment on the matter was that he had “taught the young lad a valuable lesson.” Lesson or not, The Demon was incensed and turning to his captain Billy Murdoch said, “I swear to you, England will not win this.”

Fast forward to July 2 2023 and Alex Carey’s dismissal of Jonny Bairstow, like that of Sammy Jones, hinges on whether or not the ball was dead.

The laws of the game, which do exist and, in these cases, somehow become secondary to the Spirit of the Game, which does not exist, state that “The ball shall be considered to be dead when it is clear to the bowler’s end umpire that the fielding side and both batters at the wicket have ceased to regard it as in play.”

The key is that both fielders and batter must cease to regard it as in play. Bairstow obviously did, Carey obviously didn’t. Without consensus the ball was still in play.

Now to the uninitiated it may seem a difficult thing, as a batter in the heat of battle, to determine if the fielding side considers the ball in play or not. Yet it is the simplest of all things, as consistently demonstrated by Ben Stokes throughout his exhilarating, anger-fuelled bludgeoning of the Australian attack.

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England captain Ben Stokes leaves the field at stumps on Day One of the LV= Insurance Ashes 2nd Test match between England and Australia at Lord's Cricket Ground on June 28, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley - ECB/ECB via Getty Images)

England captain Ben Stokes  (Photo by Gareth Copley – ECB/ECB via Getty Images)

On repeated occasions, after bunting the ball at his feet, Stokes himself picked up the ball and returned it to the Australian fielders, sometimes to the bowler.

But, crucially before doing so, he directed a look at the nearest fielder, waiting for a nod or some indication that they too regarded the ball as no longer being in play before Stokes picked it up. To not do this would risk being given out for handling the ball.

Bairstow, engaged in no such consultation before unilaterally declaring the ball dead. And this he did numerous times prior to his dismissal. It was a piece of bravado made possible, or so Bairstow thought, only by the fact that the wicket keeper was standing back.

No batter in their right mind would engage in the same kind of nonchalant behaviour if the wicket keeper were standing up to the stumps. It is unlikey that Bairstow will do it in future and Carey should be thanked for teaching the young lad a lesson.

As more and more videos emerge of Jonny Bairstow attempting to outsmart unsuspecting batsmen who are guilty of wandering from their crease, or even lifting a foot, it has become ever more apparent just how attractive a piece of real estate the moral high ground is.

It is a land that borders Narnia and Wonderland, and is undoubtedly blessed with unlimited resources given the large population of wronged athletes of all nationalities, not least Australian, that have chosen to take up residence there over the years. Its anthem is a stirring rendition of the Spirit of the Game.

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Unfortunately, the anthem, like the territory itself, exists only in the minds of the aggrieved and defeated.

Brendon McCullum is wrong in saying that unlike other sports the spirit of the game matters. What separates cricket from other sports is that it is the only sport whose participants believe that this mystical spirit exists.

It is the only sport where McCullum, a man who ran out an opponent as they congratulated their batting partner on a century, would feel confident to cast a stone into the pond of morality; the only sport where the views of the British Prime Minister, a man who would like to send people in need of succour to Rwanda, are used to support a moral case.

But of course, the English post-match furore is merely contrived anger, aimed at distracting the British public from the fact that England are now two nil down in the series and have twice thrown away, if not winning, then extremely strong positions.

With Bazball, Ben and Baz, the cricketing equivalent of Penn and Teller, have pulled off the magic trick of the century by convincing both players and public that winning in professional sport no longer matters. One more loss to the old enemy though, and the smoke and mirrors may be revealed for all to see.

Brendon McCullum, Head Coach of England looks on during a England Net Session at Lord's Cricket Ground on May 30, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Brendon McCullum  (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

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Secondly, the calculated outrage is clearly aimed at inciting the Leeds crowd on Thursday to levels of hostility that England cricket management hope will nullify any and all technical, mental and tactical fissures that have appeared in this English team.

It has echoes of Darren Lehmann encouraging Australian crowds to make Stuart Broad cry, an appeal to the public that was as unedifying then as it is now.

To go back to the Oval on that day in August 1882. After losing Sammy Jones, the Australians were quickly dismissed, leaving the English a chase of just 85 runs to secure victory. Spofforth spoke to his teammates in the dressing sheds, imploring them that “this thing can be done.” And it was done, after the Demon took seven wickets in the second innings, bowling England out for just 77.

The loss to the colonials was not taken well. A few days later an obituary for English cricket appeared in the newspapers, with a note that the body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

And thus the Ashes were born, proving that in cricket, as in life, everything changes and stays the same.

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