Professor Michael Roberts, in a letter to the editor of The Island, has raised a matter of moral philosophy with regard to the controversy over Suraj Randiv’s deliberate no ball at Dambulla this week in an attempt to denude Virender Sehwag of his century, and the role of Tillekeratne Dilshan in it. Which is worse, he asks, denying a batsman his century by deliberately bowling a no ball, or the widespread practice of making cynically false appeals? His answer to this question is not in doubt: it is the latter, as practiced by the malevolent Australians and South Africans.

No one disagrees with the proposition that the practice, not confined to the Australians or the South Africans, of making sustained appeals by a fielding side with the intention of pressuring umpires into wrong decisions is an awful distortion of the spirit of the game. We can also agree that the mixture of verbal intimidation against opponents and ingratiating badinage with officials that so often characterises the on field behaviour of its practitioners is particularly pernicious. It is only made worse by the disingenuous defence of these transgressions by sections of the cricketing commentariat, based on such cultural idioms as ‘a bit of banter’, competitiveness, ‘mateship’ and, unconvincingly, even sportsmanship. How this kind of borstal behaviour can be squared with the conception of mateship, at least in the sense it was articulated by the poet Les Murray and considered for inclusion in the preamble to the Australian Constitution in the referendum of 1999, remains to be seen.

However, to suggest, as Michael does, that this is a question of which wrong is worse is to ask the wrong question. In his letter as well as in private correspondence with this columnist, Michael has made clear his condemnation of the behaviour of Randiv and Dilshan and his endorsement of the swift disciplinary action taken by the Board. But he laments that similar outrage has not been directed at the practice of cheating by abuse of appeals. This is not only irrelevant to the matter at hand (how can two wrongs make a right?); it is also groundless.

Michael clearly posits that the practice of vexatious appeals is a more serious transgression (inter alia, ‘downright cheating’), than the gratuitous no ball deliberately bowled by Randiv at the instigation of Dilshan (a mere case of ‘tweaking the rules’). How can this be? Both are clear violations of the spirit of cricket, and had his condemnation been of a general nature accepting the approximate moral equivalence of the two violations, we might have gone along with him. Purely for the sake of letting the matter rest, that is the position I would take.

But Michael goes further in making a normative distinction between the two wrongs which, I would argue, is based on an arbitrary and untenable differentiation. In the determination of fault in this ethical conundrum, the key factor is intentionality. That the no ball bowled at Sehwag was intentional and by common design has been established. Randiv has apologised to Sehwag and both he and Dilshan have been punished. With regard to vexatious appeals, let us narrow the cases down to those not involving genuine doubt, but those in which the fielding side knows reasonably well that the batsman is not out, but makes a loud and sustained appeal regardless, with the intention of applying pressure on the umpire. In both cases, therefore, there is a clear intention to cheat. If like Michael, one must express a preference for which case represents the worse offence, it would appear that the act that executes the intention which may be carried out independently of an intervention by a third party would be the one deserving of more censure. Randiv formed the intention to commit an a priori wrong, at the instigation of or with the connivance of Dilshan, and then in fact carried it out by deliberately overstepping the popping crease. In the case of a vexatious appeal, all that the potential cheaters can do is to apply pressure on the umpire (too much of which also exposes them to penalty), who is these days a professional trained and qualified to handle such situations. Moreover, unlike a no ball which is an a priori wrong established by the Laws of Cricket, appeals per se are very much a legal part of the game, indeed a right available to both sides. It is only the abuse of this legal right that attracts legal penalties and ethical censure. Thus on the basis of intentionality, it would seem that a rational position apropos the relative gravity of the two cases would lead to the conclusion that Randiv’s violation is the graver.

Michael’s present position is consistent with a critique he has repeatedly made in his cricket writing with regard to on field aggression, and he has done so by reference to the different cultural idioms and constructs that are implicit in the behaviours and attitudes of white players on the one hand, and those from South Asia on the other. He has argued that the culturally specific assumptions about what is acceptable in the blokeish dressing rooms of Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa is completely at odds with those of the South Asian nations. If I recall correctly, an example Michael has given is of the use of a particularly unedifying English swearword, which is not only offensive generally, but because of its invocation of motherhood in conjunction with sexual intercourse, is particularly violative of Asian cultural mores (this is at one level is a touchingly innocent argument: during his childhood among the Galle ramparts, Michael seems not to have encountered the infinitely more creative uses of this motif in the Sinhalese argot of the Southern coastal belt). The result, Michael says, is a level of mental intimidation and distraction that materially and unfairly affects performance.

This is unpersuasive. Native cricketers of South Asia during the colonial and immediately post-colonial period were mostly anglicised pukka sahibs who were more at home in a county cricket club than anything to do with their socially subaltern compatriots. It was not only the Indian princelings among colonial cricketers who were socially and intellectually superior to working or middle class white players, which thus inverted imperial political structures upon the cricket field at least. In the kind of cricketer of that era exemplified in F.C. de Saram, for example, it is difficult to imagine a wilting flower, and even more difficult to imagine any inherent ethno-cultural or linguistic disadvantage in an exchange of colourful contumely.

To be sure, in the Sri Lankan case at least, there has been a class transformation in the cricketing establishment in line with the democratisation of culture and politics we have seen since 1956. The national cricket team is more representative of our society nowadays, and this means that, notwithstanding such fluent exponents of stylistic elocution as the present captain, English is not the mother tongue of the majority. It may also mean that their cultural reference points are less westernised than their predecessors. I do not think, however, it follows from this that these players are babes in the wood of international cricket.

The professionalisation of cricket especially after 1996 makes it a path of instant socioeconomic upward mobility, with all the cultural transformations that that brings to the individual. Sri Lankan cricket has mirrored the transformation of political power in the country with the exit or relegation of the ancien regime of old schools and clubs and its replacement with a new power elite that emerged after 1956. This has been an intensely political process, and the regime change within cricket was something wrought by the deliberate and capable exercise of power by people like Arjuna Ranatunga, who is in more ways than one an exemplar of the post-1956 elite. In their approach to power relations, therefore, modern players are not so much noble savage or innocent villager as politically literate free agents, who understand the value of power and know how to use it. It is this that makes them equal players in the parallel power game of sledging and brinkmanship that characterises an international cricket match these days, and Sri Lankan players are second to none in the business of vociferous appeals and sharp practice.

Moreover, there is an unappealing subtext of small island jingoism in Michael’s position, which in many ways echoes the prevailing political zeitgeist of Sri Lanka in the Chintana era. The reference to vexatious appeals by the Australians and South Africans implies that this is an unacceptable practice indulged in mostly by white players, and furthermore, the complaint that those transgressions are not met with the same extent or depth of condemnation as one committed by a poor Asian. I would not go so far as to draw an analogy here, but there is a conspicuous comparison between this and how the Sri Lankan State reacts to international criticism, but that is another conversation.

More to the point, we cannot achieve respect either for the positive rules nor the more amorphous spirit of cricket, by complaining about the conduct of others and glossing over our own. No individual country has a monopoly in the determination of how cricket should be played, but it is worth pointing out that the Sri Lankan cricket team has won the ICC Award for the Spirit of Cricket twice. The Board acted correctly in swiftly disciplining Randiv and Dilshan, and Michael Roberts was right in endorsing those actions. I wish, however, that he resisted the urge to ethical judgement in the pursuit of some notion of misplaced, if sincere, paternalist patriotism. Kant, not Carlyle, should guide us here.