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cricket news: The Problem With Stump Microphones

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After a two unexpected defeats which cost the visitors the series, England were finally on top in the 3rd innings of the 3rd Test of their tour to West Indies at St. Lucia. Their captain Joe Root had finally produced a substantial innings, and after coming second in the contest in the West Indies for most of the tour, his team was finally in a position to win something.

On the other side, the West Indies, having won their series, and having lost their captain to an over rate related suspension for the final Test, were finding it hard going. They had conceded a three figure lead in the first innings and, as often happens when the batting side is ahead in the game, were finding it difficult to make headway with the ball.

It was at this time that the stump microphone caught a stray comment by the England captain. He was heard saying, as all of you probably know by now:

'Don't use it as an insult. There's nothing wrong with being gay.'
Root has since been cast as a knight in shining armour coming to the defense of gay people everywhere. The Barmy Army, Stephen Fry, Nasser Hussain, the former Arsenal and Crystal Palace forward Ian Wright - all England and all cricket (and to be fair, initially, I did this too) heard those 12 words and thought, Root had struck a blow for good in the world (Here's a good summary of reactions compiled by the reporter George Dobell for ESPNCricinfo). Hussain encapsulated this view perfectly in this tweet:
Now we know the full exchange. But the more basic problem is, we didn't know it then, and it didn't seem to matter. This bothered me, not because I doubted the obvious meaning of Root's words. Many have asked, why would he say that if what Gabriel said wasn't obviously homophobic?

It bothered me because Root was cast as a bystander. And yet, this exchange took place in the middle of a Test match. This is a contest which has an obvious psychological aspect to it. As we now know, Root was making eye contact with Gabriel, smiling at him, basically getting in his face, rubbing in the fact, without having to say a word, that his side was in front in the game and Gabriel was failing to get the better of him. This is all completely fine. The batsman is perfectly within his rights to try and throw the bowler off balance with a comment.

In every day life, people are not in a zero-sum contest with each other the way the bowler and the batsman are in the middle of a Test match pitch. The social contract which governs our daily lives is different from the one which governs the sporting contest in Test cricket. We're not trying to defeat other people all the time. We're trying to co-exist - to live as social beings. This effort is harmed by arbitrary prejudices be they based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexuality. Its corrosive when people are cast on the margins because they are different and are powerless to prevent this banishment. These prejudices visit tremendous, and often untold, violence on their targets.

The deal in Test cricket is different. There is psychology involved. And Root was a contestant, not a bystander. Gabriel's comment was not homophobic for this reason. And Root's retort was not that of a good samaritan trying to calm things down. It was the comment of a contestant in a rhetorical joust, trying to win. Consider this another way. If you went outside and hit someone on the head with a cricket ball, you'd be charged with assault. In the context of the cricketing context, its not assault, its a perfectly legitimate skill. The standards of everyday life cannot be transplanted into the middle of a Test pitch as seamlessly as they have been Root's champions.

Later, in a podcast with Test Match Special, Root said that he did what he thought was right at the time. Now, Test Match Special are very good at live commentary, but as journalists, they are to the English Test team what Pravda was to the Soviet Communist Party. Root is right though. He was in a contest, and undoubtedly won that exchange with Gabriel. So in this sense, he did do what he thought was right at the time. But that's what he was trying to do - win the exchange, play on Gabriel's mind. Its what contestants do. And at the Test level, you get some of the most fierce contestants going. TMS's commentators lauded Root for showing "integrity and leadership" in his response to Gabriel. They said this despite not knowing anything about what Gabriel might have said.

In Root's defense, he did try to play things down at the end of the day's play. But even there, the competitor in him could not resist getting a dig in at the opponent first up and milk the moment. Root essentially takes up two contradictory positions. First he casts himself as a bystander intervening to uphold a "responsibility to go about things in a certain manner". But then, he and the English team management played things down, as the Test Match Special producer Adam Mountford reported.
So why did the ICC act? The Umpires charged Gabriel with a breach of 2.13 of the ICC Code of Conduct, and Gabriel did not contest the charge. Even so, the West Indies reportedly successfully argued that Gabriel was in contention for the ODI games, and so will serve out a 4 match ODI ban and not a 2 Test ban. Gabriel has not played ODI cricket since 2017.

Once the stump microphones caught those words, the ICC basically had no option but to act. The Laws of Cricket govern the cricketing contest. The ICC's Code of Conduct exists to preserve the presentation of the game. As a result, if a player uses a bracelet to express solidarity with civilian victims of conflict, as Moeen Ali attempted to do, the "Clothing and Equipment Regulations" (for instance) can be used to prevent this because the ICC wishes to avoid political controversies. Other similar regulations govern sponsor logos, team crests and the like, because the ICC wishes to avoid commercial controversies. If a player is seen on TV shoving an opponent, or mouthing obscenities at an opponent, this looks bad too. Sponsors don't like it, and the public often doesn't like it either. The Code of Conduct exists to police this behaviour and keep a lid on things. The ICC's Code of Conduct is, at its core, a public relations device. The game itself is governed by its laws.

The ICC has essentially managed the PR situation, just as the Code of Conduct was designed to enable it to do. Shannon Gabriel has been handed a ban for four ODIs, a form in which he has not been selected of the West Indies's last 12 ODIs (he last played for them on Boxing Day in 2017). Gabriel has played 11 Tests for West Indies since December 26, 2017. He will be available for their next Test match as well.

The struggle against prejudice is not a public relations problem. It has to be taken seriously by people who think carefully about facts and circumstances. It is not served well by the mediocrity evident in the frustrated juggernaut that is the English sports media contingent. "I don't know all of what was said, but Root is right", is not the opinion of someone who is serious about tackling prejudice. It is the opinion of someone who is participating in the business of entertainment and wants to be seen to be tackling prejudice. There are those who understand this but nevertheless think its a force for the good. I'm not convinced that it is. No worthy cause has ever been served well by lazy mediocrity.

It was Gabriel's misfortune that Root's comment was caught on the microphone. Gabriel denies that he's homophobic. In fact, assuming his account of the exchange is true, it was the very first thing is said in response to Root's much publicized comment. "I have no issues with that, but you should stop smiling at me." 

Had the stump microphone caught the full exchange, would Gabriel be handed a ban and a fine? Almost certainly not. Stump microphones should be switched off between deliveries. Voyeurism is not transparency. Entertainment is not scrutiny. These categories matter. They should be taken seriously. In the unfortunate case of Shannon Gabriel, they were not.
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