Sport - Jason Cowley prefers to win cleanly

Winning fairly is a noble ideal - one sadly lacking in cricket nowadays

One evening in the late Seventies, my parents returned home from a school parents' evening with bad news: the sports teacher whom I revered did not, I discovered, think very much of me. I liked to think of myself as a useful sporting schoolboy, excelling at games. In those days, I read little but the sports pages of the newspapers and could speak with knowledge and authority about most of the major sporting events of the time. I knew what I was doing, on and off the field of play - or so I thought.

Then, in my end-of-year report, I was given C-pluses both for "effort" and "attainment" in physical education. My two best friends received double-As. I was hugely disappointed and wanted to know what was going on. The answer, my parents were told by the Welsh schoolmaster, was that I had a "win-at-all-costs attitude".

Umm. Sure, I was competitive, and drove others and myself hard. But "win at all costs"? What did he mean? My school, I decided, was in thrall to an insidious egalitarianism. After all, several of the senior masters were committed socialists (one of them was a veteran of the Spanish civil war). They believed in equality, especially in education. Equality of opportunity - or of outcome?

What sport had taught me was that we were all radically unequal. Some boys could run fast while others merely stumbled. Some were strong while others were weak. Some could strike a golf ball well while others merely slashed wildly. Sport taught me about natural ability, about talent, and about limitations, about what I could and couldn't achieve. And yet

I always wanted to win. Why should I feel empathy for the loser?

On the second morning of the recent Test match between England and Bangladesh at Durham, something happened that made me think of my old Welsh schoolmaster.

Having been humiliated for the entire first Test at Lord's and for most of the second at Durham, Bangladesh were showing some unexpected fight in their second innings. They had just reached 50 without loss when the opener, Nafis Iqbal, snicked an away-swinger from Matthew Hoggard. The wicketkeeper Geraint Jones snaffled the catch, the bowler appealed, and Iqbal was given out. And yet television replays immediately revealed that the ball had bounced before reaching Jones. He should never have claimed the catch.

"The more you see it, the worse it looks," said Ian Botham, on commentary duty for Sky Sports.

The Bangladeshis sent word from the dressing room telling their player to hold his ground. He had been given out, yet he was not. Under the laws of the game, an umpire cannot reverse his decision once a player has been given out. But the captain of the opposing team can call back a player if he considers that he has been dismissed unfairly.

Anyone who has played cricket knows what it feels like when he has taken a catch cleanly. The ball simply sticks; it is there in your hands. Equally, you know when the ball has bounced; it simply feels different.

Here was an opportunity, as Iqbal hesitated at the wicket, for Jones to say to his captain, Michael Vaughan, that he had not taken the catch. There was no chance that England would lose the game. Bangladesh are a poor side, perhaps the poorest ever to have played international cricket. They were struggling and dejected. Yet Jones did nothing. He claimed his catch.

Why did he do this? Last week, I alluded to how an ethic - indeed an aesthetic - of fair play that is still prevalent in golf has long since been lost from the modern game of cricket. Today the prevailing ethos of English sport - as events at Chelsea Football Club so flagrantly demonstrate - is all about winning, about the winner taking all. Jones had the chance that weekend to offer an alternative vision of how our national games might be played.

He spurned the chance. He wanted his "catch" too much and he wanted to win. To win at all costs? I deserved my C-pluses.

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?