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Sportsmanship – the grey area where ‘spirit’ meets the rule book

BySam Bayliss

Apr 8, 2019

Over the last fortnight notable international sports stars have been caught up in sportsmanship spats.

Controversial Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios – a name too well known for someone ranked 33 in the world – brought out his underarm serve in a Miami Open match against Dusan Lajovic on 25 March.

On that same Monday, England cricket’s big-hitting Jos Butler was ran out at the non-strikers end by the Indian Ravi Ashwin, playing in the IPL.

Neither Kyrgios nor Ashwin broke any element of the tennis or cricket rule books, and yet their actions have been widely condemned by the media and most of the public. Indeed, these are two fine examples of times when the unspoken rules – the ‘spirit’ – of sport are disregarded by desperate though equally arrogant professionals seeking an advantage.

A trip to Kyrgios’ Wikipedia page will show any strangers to tennis that this recent behaviour is nothing new. The list of ‘controversies’ span six different headings – one fewer than the notes on his professional career.

From ‘tanking’ – intentionally not trying to the best of your abilities – to jibing at Stan Wawrinka about his girlfriend, Kyrgios has made a name for himself. The difficulty with his underarm serve is that it breaks no rules. Judy Murray, to the frustration of many British tennis fans, came out in support of the Australian, deeming his attempt to gain an advantage whilst sticking to the rules as “genius.” By gently tapping the ball over the net – having faked a preparation for a normal serve – the ball had bounced twice before it reached Lajovic, making it an ace.

Innovative or unsporting, there is no objective answer. Tennis legend Rafael Nadal has criticised Kyrgios for ‘lacking respect’ for his opponent, however the world number 56 Kristen Flipkens – admittedly not such a big name as Nadal – has backed the Australian on this occasion.

The fact that the greats of the game – Nadal, Federer, Djokovic – have never had to resort to such measures suggests to me that Kyrgios is in the wrong. It has not done a lot for his already-ugly public image as well.

The same logic can be applied to Ravi Ashwin. The ‘Mankad’ dismissal, as it has become known, has not been employed by any of the classier professionals in the game. Cricket’s lawmakers, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), have publicly stated Ashwin’s actions were ‘not within the spirit of the game’.

Yet once again, Ashwin did not break any cricketing law. Whilst condemning Ashwin, the MCC have at the same time said that the rule which saw Butler given out is essential to cricket in that it prevents unrestrained backing-up, in anticipation of a run.

Ashwin’s actions involved faking a bowling run up, before stopping at the stumps and knocking of the bails as Butler began to wander down the wicket to the other side. Crafty and deceitful, just like Kyrgios. Again, just like the under-arm serve, the ‘Mankad’ dismissal is just not the done thing in professional cricket. If Ashwin was concerned Butler was gaining an unfair advantage through his actions, he should have asked the umpire to warn him, rather than cowardly getting him out cheaply because he is not able to do so properly.

But then according to the rules, it is a proper form of dismissal. You can go around and around in circles.


Image: Mike Prince via Flickr

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