Martin Johnson column – Cricket’s chicanery put into context by final dive

There are one or two more important issues to prioritise, such as global warming, or whether British Airways should consider upgrading their IT system from a second hand Amstrad, but when the boffins get a spare minute, it would be nice to find out why footballers are prone to falling over for no apparent reason.

This happens even on non windy days, and is most prevalent when players enter that part of the pitch known as the penalty area. Is it, you wonder, a case of people with a serious imbalance of the inner ear going on to become footballers? Or do you first become a footballer, and suddenly find you can’t stop falling over?

It certainly isn’t an issue in cricket and, as far as I know, the only recorded case of someone taking a dive on the field came back in the Seventies when Essex were batting against Lancashire on a dodgy pitch.

When the next man in, Ray East, came in padded up like the Michelin Man, he whispered to the bowler – Ken Shuttleworth – “bowl me a nice half volley, Shutt, and I’ll miss it.”

Shuttleworth duly obliged, and was less than amused when a sniggering East creamed him through the covers for four. So in anticipation of the inevitable next ball bouncer, East hurled himself to the ground in Shuttleworth’s delivery stride, causing the bowler, amidst even more general mirth, to rick several muscles in the process of trying to abort.

However, the thought that cricket might be creeping a teeny bit closer to football in the gamesmanship stakes did occur to me during the closing stages of England’s 2nd ODI against South Africa at Southampton. Mark Wood was rightly applauded for his match winning final over, but if Eoin Morgan didn’t actually breach the spirit of cricket with his interminable conferences after every ball, he certainly had a mild flirtation with it.

I’m not sure whether the England captain began the final over clean shaven, but he certainly had a decent growth of designer stubble by the end of it, and had the previous 49 overs taken as long, Morgan’s beard would have made WG’s look like teenage bum fluff.

It was a bit like watching a golfer talking to his caddy before attempting a shot to the green. Or in this case, six shots to the green. Whatever it was that Morgan felt obliged to discuss with his bowler half a dozen times, at interminable length, it was hard not to conjure up the Fawlty Towers episode when Basil Fawlty says to Manuel: “Please try to understand before one of us dies.”

No-one would argue that the captain has a right to consult with his bowler in stressful circumstances, but there has to be a limit. The two umpires, Rob Bailey and Chris Gaffaney, have both played to a high level, and would have known that Morgan is a canny enough cricketer to have factored in the disruptive effect on the batsmen. He even called for a time- wasting lbw referral. And yet they just let Morgan and Wood natter away ad infinitum, like a couple of housewives in a launderette.

As examples of gamesmanship go, this one is nothing to get too hot under the collar about, on a par with WG replacing the bails after getting bowled with an innocent: “Bit windy today umpire.” But it also goes to show that cricket, like most professional sports, also has its less Corinthian moments in the universal desire to win.

We’re not talking here about things like ball tampering, which is outside the law, but more like Mankad-ing a batsman who backs up too far, which is outside the spirit. You could argue, though, that most batsmen who do this are at least given a warning,  and a sneakier example would be slowing down an over rate to deny the opposition the amount of time they’d normally get to score the runs to win.

Brian Close was once dropped by England for this, albeit while captaining Yorkshire in a county game against Warwickshire. In Closey’s defence, which in all other areas was an extremely thin one, he didn’t know any other way than to push everything to the limit, a characteristic shared by his fellow Tyke Raymond Illingworth.

Nothing sums up Closey better than an incident at a match between his own Somerset team and the Leicestershire side captained by Illy in a Sunday League title decider at Grace Road in 1974. Somerset, needing to make sure they weren’t bowled out inside the end of innings cut off point, managed to do so when their No.11, AA Jones, went missing when the ninth wicket fell.

Ordinarily, he would have been timed out, but Jones was given the benefit of the doubt when he finally limped out to the middle after claiming to have fallen down the dressing room stairs. Having been ordered, rumour had it, to trip over by his captain.

The Press conferences were hilariously predictable. “The trouble with Closey,” said Illy, “is that he’s never wrong.”

“The trouble with Illy,” said Closey, “is that he’s never wrong.”

Somerset were also involved in a spirit of the game infringement in 1979, when, in their final group match of the Benson & Hedges Cup at Worcester, their captain Brian Rose declared after one over in order to protect a run rate that guaranteed them a place in the knockout stages.

It was perfectly legal, but Somerset were kicked out anyway.

Then there was England failing to win a Test match in Zimbabwe in 1996 when Eddo Brandes bowled at least three unpunished wides in the final over of the game in Bulawayo. It didn’t sit well with the England coach, David Lloyd, which is how it became forever known as the “we murdered ’em” Test match.

The worst case of a failing to uphold the spirit of the game was Trevor Chappell’s infamous underarm ball, again after an interminable conference with his captain.

Perhaps there should be an official time limit on bowling a ball (penalty six runs) and the Wood over only just finished in time for me to flick over to the FA Cup final.

Within half a minute, a Chelsea player fulfilled the contractual requirement of all Premiership players and fell over – for no apparent reason – in the penalty area.

As a reminder that cricket has a long way to go to catch up with soccer in the area of sharp practice, it came as quite a relief.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, June 2 2017

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