Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sportsmen

People have differing ideas as to exactly what sportsmanship entails. Does it simply mean the ability to take a shellacking and say "jolly well played old chap?" immediately afterwards or is it a word that describes something a little deeper than that? To this bunny, the concept of 'the Sportsman' involves three factors - getting the most out of one's ability through dedication to their game of choice and hard work, being able to accept when a rival has been that bit better than you on the day, and performing in a manner that is competitive, refusing to give a millimetre to the opposition while acknowledging both the rules of the sport and their spirit. By withdrawing his run out appeal against Ian Bell at Trent Bridge on Sunday, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has shown himself to be a true sportsman not just by the definition applied by Etonian amateurs, but in every modern and professional sense of the word.

England were marginal outsiders going into that fourth day, having surrendered a 67 run first innings lead in a low scoring first innings, then lost the wicket of Alistair Cook early on and closed at 24-1, still 43 runs behind. When Andrew Strauss soon perished with India still in the lead, the odds on an away win became even shorter, but then a fightback of epic proportions was led by Ian Bell, first in partnership with Kevin Pietersen and then while the exciting strokeplay of Eoin Morgan accelerated the scoring in an afternoon session where 124 runs were scored for the loss of a solitary wicket. With a match they had been in control of only a couple of hours earlier rapidly sliding away from them, India were desparate. So what happened off that final ball before tea is something that could be understood on all sides.

Morgan strikes the ball off his pads square of the wicket on the on-side, where Praveen Kumar, perhaps tired from his long spell of bowling, gives a fairly sluggish chase. He makes contact with the ball near the boundary, but only appears to knock it closer to the rope if anything. However, the ball travels in an arc that keeps it millimetres from going for four while the two batsmen take a comfortable three runs. Bell believes the ball to have crossed the rope, and/or that Kumar's casual lob back towards Dhoni indicates time and the tea interval. As the bails are removed, it suddenly dawns on everyone that neither 'four' nor 'time' was actually called and Dhoni is asked if he would like to appeal. In a session where his side has been battered, you can forgive the Indian captain and wicket keeper for seeking a breakthrough from absolutely anywhere. The appeal is lodged, and there is no doubt that by the letter of the law, Bell had been naive in not playing to the whistle and was out.

I have never heard jeering at a cricket match on the scale of that which accompanied the flashing of the word 'OUT' on the giant video screen. Naturally it continued when the umpires made their way out to the middle after the break and indeed grew louder as the visitors followed the officials down the pavilion steps. However, the sight of the England players applauding them from the balcony suggested that something had happened during the interval, and indeed this was proved to be the case. Walking out to bat with Morgan at the start of the evening session was Ian Bell, who had been re-instated after Dhoni had withdrawn his appeal for the run out. The boos turned to applause for both sides and all was right with the world once again. Resuming on 137, Bell added a further 22 runs before being dismissed without controversy by a sharp catch at slip.

The ICC's statement on what was a brilliant moment is worth reading, "On appeal, after consultation with television umpire Billy Bowden, Bell was given run out, which was the technically correct decision under the letter of the law of the game. Absolute credit must go to Team India, the England team and the match officials - Ranjan Madugalle, Asad Rauf and Marais Erasmus as well as the off-field umpires Billy Bowden and Tim Robinson - for the superb way that they all handled a tricky situation. While the initial appeal and umpire decision may have been acceptable to the letter of the law, the decision by India captain MS Dhoni and his team - as well as the Team India coaching staff - to withdraw the appeal shows great maturity. To see players and officials uphold the Great Spirit of cricket, which has underpinned the game for more than a century, is very special. I am indeed grateful for the way that the teams and match officials handled what was clearly a difficult situation and their behaviour reflects well on everyone."

All you can really add to that is - spot on and well said.

There are a few very good reasons why we should be both grateful for and touched by the brilliant sportsmanship of the Indian team. They were in a hole and badly needed to break a partnership that was taking the game away from them. Had they stood by their original appeal, there was absolutely nothing that anybody could have done since as the ICC statement clearly points out, they were right according to the letter of the law. Perhaps they recognised that as well as being a series that has thus far produced some quality cricket from both of the two best sides in the world, it has been played in the right spirit without losing any sort of competitive edge. These incidents have the potential to ruin such an atmosphere, so it speaks volumes about Dhoni and his team-mates that he was prepared to weigh this up against the potential advantage gained by dismissing Ian Bell.

Most impressively, it tells you a lot about Dhoni as an individual. His relaxed, personable and engaging style does not hide a will to win that was most evident when he led his country to World Cup glory earlier in the year. Yet as another senior Indian player Rahul Dravid pointed out, "we didn't feel that was the right way to take his wicket" - ie of course I want to beat you, but certainly not like that. There have been instances of great sportsmen in the past whose determination to get a result at all costs has led to incidents that have tarnished their legacy, if only slightly - Michael Schumacher's shunting of Damon Hill at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmKbGW7OmVg and Maradona's hand of God http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eZhBCqh8l8 to name but two. At least el Diego finally admitted that he punched the ball some years later, whereas Schumy has always insisted that his collision with Hill was a complete accident, despite the video evidence suggesting a quite deliberate act of 'Demolition Derby' having gone off and back onto the track.

What Schumy and Diego did was just not cricket, but then the nation that themselves coined the phrase during the Bodyline series were perhaps guilty of one of the most appalling breaches of the game's spirit during a One Day International with New Zealand in 1981. For those who do not know what is coming, prepare to be horrified, and ask whether you would want your side to win a match in this fashion or not - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K65_spUU05s&feature=fvst.

I can say with utter certainty that I wouldn't - as if the LBW against the legend that is Hadlee wasn't bad enough...

As regular Rabbit readers will know, I follow the sport of boxing closely. A book I remember reading was 'the Journeyman', written by Michael Murray. A Heavyweight who had shown promise in his early career, Murray had later turned to becoming an 'opponent' for new prospects in order to continue making a living from the sport. One of these foes was Michael Sprott, who some will know for his fights with Danny Williams and Audley Harrison. Their 1998 contest was one in which both boxers appeared to agree that the wrong man had got the nod, and that Murray had been 'mugged' by the referee who had scored the fight. When they were together in a gym shortly afterwards, a third party asked who had won their fight, to which Sprott tentatively answered, "I got the decision". This appeared to rankle with the 'defeated' Murray, who saw his opponent's take on events as something resembling the truth, but not the whole truth.

Later that year, Murray watched the all-British WBC SuperMiddleweight title bout between Richie Woodhall (making his first defence) and Glenn Catley, who was a late replacement for mandatory challenger Vincenzo Nardiello. In what was a competitive fight, the widely held view was that Bristol's Catman had done more than enough to take the title away from the Telford technician, so the majority verdict announced in Woodhall's favour was at best surprising and to Catley and his supporters, manifestly unfair. How many times have we seen a 'victorious' fighter, after receiving a controversial decision, explain to an interviewer how it was the correct one since they clearly won the fight? To his great credit, Richie refused to lie to Catley, the sport that was in his blood and most importantly, himself.

He acknowledged that the two judges who declared him the winner were wrong, that his performance had been sub-standard and praised his opponent, who would prove to be a much harder proposition than the face-pulling theatrics of the #1 contender (a flabby Nardiello was promptly battered in six rounds when he and Woodhall finally met). Murray comments in his book that upon hearing the post-fight interviews, Richie became "my hero - he was the first boxer I'd ever known to get a decision and admit 'I lost that fight'." It should be said that it very, very rarely happens, perhaps because fighters take these lucky breaks knowing they might get a rough verdict themselves next time out.

Catley didn't receive an immediate rematch due to Nardiello's recovery from the injury that gave him his first shot at the belt, but would eventually get a crack at Woodhall's conqueror, Markus Beyer. Facing not only an awkward counter-punching southpaw but a hostile German crowd, Catman flattened the home favourite with a sensational flurry of punches in the twelfth and final round to claim a shock victory and the WBC title. You could say that this provides a sense of completion to the chain of events, because although he immediately lost the strap himself under strange circumstances in South Africa (his opponent, Dingaan Thobela, appeared to have something resembling an ashtray buried in one of his gloves), Catley had earned his mark on mortality and the nice windfall that WBC title fights had provided him with. Like Woodhall, he was a nice guy outside the ring who possessed the heart of a lion while between the ropes. Both were sportsmen in the purest sense.

Catley was your classic puncher - capable of unloading TNT with both hands but vulnerable round the whiskers himself. This made his fights exciting and unpredictable affairs where putting the kettle on was an exercise strictly to be done between rounds. I've attached a video containing some of his best and most explosive moments, with the Beyer knockout appearing around 55 seconds in. Take it easy, and I'll catch you soon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypGUY23vTJ4

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