To paraphrase Jürgen Klopp, sport is the most important of the least important things. As the pandemic tightens its grip with each passing day, the wisdom of those words only seems to increase. While the Covid-19 death toll shoots horrifyingly and inexorably upwards, some of us have still found the time and inclination to debate an impossibly tight offside call or a dangerous clear-out at a ruck.
Perhaps it’s a coping strategy. There is ongoing discussion over the ethics of staging elite sport during a global pandemic, but as Klopp’s Everton counterpart Carlo Ancelotti justifiably pointed out, televised Premier League football can serve as a useful diversion from the reality of lockdown.
The naturally socially-distanced sport of cricket has been chewing over its own moral dilemma this week: a controversial, hotly-debated and ultimately meaningless incident at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It’s had everything, this meeting of familiar sporting adversaries, and I don’t mean the Test series between Australia v India. I mean people on Twitter who think one thing vs. people on Twitter who think another.
Old wounds have re-opened while half-forgotten resentments and perceived injustices have flared up anew. England’s mint-sucking from all the way back in 2005 has been mentioned, along with – of course – the original Steve Smith SandpaperGate scandal of 2018. Accusations of Australian media bias, Indian media bias and English media bias have been tossed around, and naturally that staple of every sports social media bust-up has reared its head: “Have you ever even played the game?”
What seems deeply odd and at the same time in keeping with contemporary sporting debate (hello, VAR), is that two people can watch the same 30-second video and insist it conclusively proves their own diametrically opposed interpretations.
The stump-cam clip in question – posted by Virender Sehwag on the fifth day of the drawn SCG Test – has been liked 137,000 times on Twitter and retweeted nearly 29,000 times. Rishabh Pant was smashing the Australian bowling attack to all parts at the time. India were chasing an unlikely fourth-innings target of 407, but with Pant scoring at nearly a run a ball, it was by no means impossible.
In the video Steve Smith, who struck 212 runs in the match with typical brilliance, indulges in a bit of shadow batting at a drinks break: First lining up with a left-hander’s stance, then his own right-handed stance. After that he drags his foot across the batting crease four times to mark guard, despite the fact he is not batting, and walks away.
One view is that this is a complete irrelevance. Another is that when the opposition are batting, the fielding side should leave the batsmen’s guard-marks untouched. This is an unwritten but well-established law of cricket – so well-established, at least for some of us, that it does not warrant discussion. It follows that regardless of the intent, regardless of whether Pant would have re-marked after drinks, and regardless of the state of the fifth-day pitch, Smith should not have been interfering.
In light of Smith’s ‘I was marking middle stump’ defence, there are also a couple of problems with the video. Watch closely and you will see that as he’s dragging his spikes over the batting crease, after doing so twice, Smith shifts his foot slightly towards a right-hander’s off stump. Thus it seems clear he is not trying to make a precise middle-stump mark, as if he was about to take guard.
Secondly, rather than carefully placing a single spike on the deck, the usual method of scoring a precise mark, he appears to flatten his foot against the wicket, dragging the entire sole of his shoe with its several spikes across the batting crease. Before he starts, the Indian batsmen’s guard marks are visible, and when he’s finished they have disappeared.
Even if the leg, middle and off stump marks have been grooved into the pitch by day five, batsmen will naturally still make their own marks on the pitch, in the condition they find it: all part of following their normal process and getting themselves in the right headspace to bat. This specific part of the batting crease belongs to the incumbent batsmen.
Wide of the mark, you think? You’re not alone. But how much does this actually matter? It may have been a minor annoyance for Pant if he was obliged to re-mark after drinks, and in that sense, it is a triviality. But the fact it appears so puerile and needless is precisely why it has provoked such a reaction. It wasn’t cheating, Smith’s detractors mostly agree, but was an obvious attempt to disrupt Pant’s concentration, as the spectre of Ben Stokes and Headingley hove into Australia’s view. Given the furore and the level of disagreement it has caused, it would not be wholly surprising to see the ICC release some guidance on the issue for match officials and players.
The fact that there was no complaint, official or unofficial, from Pant or India is irrelevant, simply because it was not a big enough deal to complain about. But that doesn’t make it right. The video of groundstaff sweeping the pitch and repainting the crease during drinks is also beside the point, because a batsman’s guard, scored in the pitch with a stud, easily survives such treatment for the resumption of the session.
As Chris Woakes has said, only Smith knows what his true intention was. Perhaps those criticising him for a petty distraction tactic have got it wrong. Even in that case, there is still a strong and widely accepted argument that Smith had no business acting as he did. In context of Smith’s history, following his ban, of course he will be held to a higher standard than others. But leaving all that aside, and based on the video alone, he does have a case to answer.
Looking ahead to the fourth and final Test, which begins on Friday, there will be plenty of attention on Smith when he takes guard in Brisbane. Be prepared for some side-by-side, frame-by-frame video analysis of his guard-marking vs. the ScuffGate video. Drinks breaks when the Sydneysider is at the crease will also offer plenty of potential intrigue, not just at The Gabba, but for the foreseeable future. Hilarity or enmity or a mixture of both will probably ensue. Whatever happens, from the icy grip of a January lockdown, we should thank Smith and the sunny footage from Australia for providing us with such an invigorating, diverting and inherently meaningless debate.