controversial moments in sport #1: the underarm incident

It’s been a while since I last posted, a combination of starting a new job and no topics really jumping out of me have meant that the only activity on the site for the past few months has been spambots posting comments (if you need you google search results optimized there are apparently a lot of options out there). However, it was my new job that inspired the first in what I plan t be a series of posts looking back at some controversial moments in sport. The first few posts planned are quite New Zealand-centric but along the way I will hopefully go global. If you have any ideas on particular incidents you’d like to see me write on don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments section, or send an email.

As I mentioned above this post was inspired by my new job at the Alexander Turnbull Library, home to a vast array of New Zealand heritage items. Whilst trekking through the vast stores of content (think the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark but colder and fewer crates) I stumbled upon Greg Chappell’s press statement following the underarm incident. For anyone unfamiliar with the underarm incident (I’m looking at you, American readers), it is considered to be the darkest day in Australasian sporting relations. For anyone who doesn’t know what Australasia is (still looking at you, American readers) it is Australia and New Zealand. The above link does a fine job summarizing the incident when it says:

Chappell was a noted Australian cricketer in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite his fine record as a batsmen he is best known by many in New Zealand as the instigator of the infamous “underarm’ incident during a tense one-day [cricket] game against New Zealand. With one ball to go New Zealand needed a six to tie the game. Chappell instructed his younger brother, Trevor, to bowl underarm, thereby denying the New Zealand batsman the chance to hit a six. The action was widely condemned as unsportsmanlike.

If you can’t be bothered reading that, just watch the video below (you’ve got to meet me halfway, American readers)

The purpose of this post (and subsequent posts in this series) is to examine the incident and ask “was it really that bad?” and “is the outrage it caused justified?” So with that out of the way lets crack on.

As the Alexander Turnbull Library caption points out, the underarm incident was widely condemned as unsportsmanlike.  Chappell himself stated that in the cool light of day he recognized that the incident was not within the spirit of the game, however, it didn’t break any rules at the time. I will focus more on the issue of what constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct, particularly when you aren’t contravening the rules of the game, and whether the underarm incident was indeed unsportsmanlike.

Unsportsmanlike conduct varies from sport to sport, but you will almost always hear the ‘Spirit of the Game’ invoked as an inviolable goodness than governs sportsmanship.

So did the underarm incident violate the Spirit of the Game? I think it’s reasonable to say that bowling underarm in and of itself wasn’t morally outrageous, if Chappell had done it in the twentieth over instead of the fiftieth I’m sure New Zealand would have happily milked the over for at least half a dozen runs. The real source of controversy seems to be that in the context of the situation the incident denied New Zealand the opportunity to tie the match. By rolling the ball along the ground it could not be hit for six, and thus it ensured victory for Australia. I reject this claim. First things first, it’s not impossible to hit a ball into the air when it’s rolled to you along the ground. However I may be contacted by a physicist (or John Brenkus) and told that given the velocity of the ball, the composition of the bat, the ability of the batsman, and the size of the boundaries it was in fact impossible to hit a six under those conditions. This makes no difference to me, there are many times during the course of a game that the conditions conspire so that a delivery cannot be hit for six, for example:

Undoubtably some will reply that such a delivery could have been hit for six if the batsman had charged, or walked across his stumps and flicked it over fine leg. But by the same token the underarm delivery could have been hit for six if it had hit a crack in the pitch and popped into the air, or if it had slipped out of Trevor Chappell’s hand and been lobbed down to the batsman. In fact none of those things had to happen, the ball doesn’t have to be hit over the boundary on the full in order for a team to get six runs in a game of cricket. The batsman, Brian McKechnie, could have hit the ball to the outfield, run two, then an Australian fielder could have thrown the ball wildly back to wicketkeeper, who was unable to stop the ball going to the boundary for four over-throws. Thus tying the game for New Zealand. Yes it’s unlikely, but the odds of Brian McKechnie (who averaged 13.5 in ODI’s with a strike rate of 37.74) hitting the first ball he faced for six weren’t great either. But the beauty of sport is that crazy things happen, McKechnie could have at least tried to score some runs rather than blocking it out because it was ‘impossible’ to win. It’s impossible to score twelve runs from one delivery as well, and yet this happened:

Perhaps it is not the possible outcome that matters, but the intent. So what was the intent? To stop New Zealand hitting a six to tie the game. It is safe to say that, unless the Chappell brothers had unknown ties to underground bookmakers on the sub-continent, whatever they did on the last delivery of that match would have been done with the intent of preventing McKechnie hitting a six. Whether by bowling underarm or attempting to bowl a yorker the intent is exactly the same.

Given that this incident hit such a nerve with the cricket-watching public I doubt my arguments will convince many. But I hope some of you, rather than decrying those cheating Aussies, will celebrate a captain, whose detailed knowledge of some of the more obscure laws of the game helped secure his team an important victory over an old foe.

Verdict

Was it really that bad? No, it was an underrated combination of rule-knowing, and bold captaincy.

Was the outrage it caused justified? Not at all, but it was fun.

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