Once upon a time cricketers could pretty much do what they liked off the field. Drug testing wasn’t so sophisticated, there were no WhatsApp messages, and getting pissed before important games was almost mandatory. Alex Hales would’ve loved it.
Twenty five years ago the public didn’t have mobile phone cameras ready to snap every indiscretion. And there was no social media on which to post embarrassing images and video footage. Players could go wild knowing there was only a very slim chance of consequences.
I’m sure you can all recall your favourite tales. Sports autobiographies are brilliant for these. My personal favourites include Sir Ian Botham going out to bat with an enormous hangover during a tour game in Australia. Although England were losing wickets at regular interviews, Beefy managed to avoid batting for some time with the help of the team’s physio. They told the skipper he had a niggle and kept him out of sight while he consumed copious quantities of coffee.
Sir Ian’s time on the treatment table enabled him to recover somewhat before facing the music. However, when he did belatedly make it to the middle he admitted he could hardly stand up. He just swung the bat optimistically in the hope that he’d make a few runs before embarrassing himself. Eventually, however, he managed to get his eye in and notched a half-century. Fresh air does wonders, eh!
The other story I love came from that famous game at Headlingley in 1981. After the scoreboard operator at Leeds saw that England were 500-1 to win, he displayed the odds onscreen as a form of dark humour. Dennis Lillee simply couldn’t resist, and at one point tried to bet £50 of the Australian team’s funds.
After a good laugh the Aussie dressing room decided against it. However, Lillee and Rod Marsh decided to bet £10 and £5 of their own money instead. The rest is history.
Although the pair angrily denied what they did for years, they eventually conceded that it was true. In fact, they collected their winnings in the next tour game at Worcester and piled all the money on a table in the dressing room for everyone to see. Allan Border recalled that it looked like a million dollars!
Although the Aussie press went to town on the famous pair after Headlingley, with some suggesting that they threw the game or didn’t try as hard as they might, nobody seriously thinks the bet affected their performance. Australia didn’t have betting at cricket ground in those days, and naturally there was no bestaubettingsites.com either; therefore it was all a bit of a novelty for the tourists.
Of course, cricket stories can often seem rather mild compared to the antics of internationals in other sports. Rugby autobiographies are notorious for debauched tales of drunken debacles. Jason Leonard’s is particularly good one.
There’s a brilliant part where Leonard recalls the various initiation rituals for young players at Harlequins. One of them involved a surfeit of alcohol (obviously), stealing their clothes, dumping them on the other side of Twickenham (nude of course), and expecting them to make their way back to the clubhouse across garden fences and public highways.
It’s a shame in many ways that times have changed. Sports stars (especially cricketers) seem so bloody bland these days. I know we used to extract the michael out of Shane Warne in the noughties – there had to be some comeback for the punishment he gave us on the field – but I actually really miss personalities like Warney. Guys like him were a dying breed and I’m not sure we appreciated this at the time.
There were so many tales about Warne. It was reported that refused to eat salad during intervals simply because he preferred the taste of burgers. His justification was brilliant: junk food makes me happy and when I feel great I bowl great. It’s hard to argue with this logic really, especially as he usually delivered in spades.
Warne’s stormy relationship with coach John Buchanan was also legendary. And then there was his fine for giving information on the pitch to bookmakers, that ban for taking an illicit diuretic, and his penchant for holidays in Las Vegas, where he took in the best US casinos and hit the poker tables hard.
One can imagine how the ECB would react to this kind of behaviour today. Ashley Giles would have a heart attack if an England player downed 52 cans of beer on a flight to London like David Boon famously once did. The player in question would be out on his arse. Anyone with a bit of personality or attitude is considered a loose canon and a risk to team ‘culture’ these days.
Unfortunately most cricketers today are clean-cut, media trained, and incredibly dull. There’s basically no point listening to press conferences or post-match interviews any more because all you get are soundbites and robotic players spinning the party line.
It all seems counter-productive too. Cricket’s authorities are always going on about the sport’s entertainment value. So much so, in fact, that belting batting wickets and high scoring games are all the ECB seem to care about. We’ve even had Tom Harrison telling Joe Root’s team to risk losing in the pursuit of winning.
What the ECB are missing, however (especially if they’re trying to learn lessons from the IPL) is that casual cricket fans – i.e. the new audience The Hundred is trying to reach – care more about players and their individual brands than specific teams and the sport in general. They turn up in droves to watch Virat Kohli not Royal Whatsit Bangalore.
If players were allowed to be themselves – and personally I don’t think a little off-field ‘controversy’ hurts – then English cricket might find itself with a few more marketable stars. The only two we’ve had in recent years are Freddie Flintoff (fell off a pedalo and got sacked) and Kevin Pietersen (told the board where to go and got sacked).
If the ECB really want to spread the game to the masses then perhaps they ought to stop being so puritanical and encourage mavericks to be themselves. Cricket might end up growing in the same way that snooker benefitted from the likes of Hurricane Higgins and Jimmy White – flawed geniuses the public could relate to because they seemed real.
Although players should still have some boundaries, and we must respect the fact that professional sportsmen are role models, is there really much point pretending that people are perfect? We might be setting up kids to fail. After all, they won’t be able to meet such unrealistic aspirations.
Tiger Woods is a perfect example. A few years ago Tiger was shamed for serial adultery, sex addiction, and embarrassed by stories of his wife battering him with a 9-iron. He was also arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Had Woods been an England cricketer he would’ve been publicly shamed, shunned, and thrown out of the team for good at this point. And no doubt his captain (probably under instruction from his employers) would’ve told the media how letdown the team felt and how they simply couldn’t trust him anymore.
But just look at Tiger now. He’s The Masters champion and about to be awarded Presidential Medal Of Freedom. Has anyone done more to raise the profile of his or her sport than Woods? I severely doubt it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, underlines the point rather nicely.
Written in collaboration with Best Betting Sites