There was an incident on the field between players of opposing teams. In the spirit of bonhomie, it is perhaps right to follow the adage of what happens on the field stays on the field. Joe Root, the England captain, decided to employ the same policy when asked about his exchange with a heated Shannon Gabriel, the fast bowler in the West Indies ranks.
Already a captain down, the West Indies were missing a key figure in Jason Holder who, despite his heroics in the Test series that the hosts won in a decade, had to sit out the third Test in St. Lucia because of the penalty for slow over rate on the part of the West Indies. Perhaps the scenario where England had the upper hand for the first time in three Tests – albeit in the dead rubber of a match, Root’s dominance and century got under the skin of the fast bowler. Without their regular skipper, it could be argued that the West Indies were dangerously crossing the line when the umpires stepped in.
While it is commendable that Root took note of Gabriel’s passion for the game and decided not to make the matter public and thereby, perhaps worse, while there is a sportsman’s spirit in play at hand, what cannot be overlooked is that these sportsmen are, also, in the privileged position of being seen as role models the world over. Enjoying cult success a la movie stars and celebrities, sportspersons have an important responsibility to set an example on the field and off it.
It speaks directly to the kind of backlash India’s Hardik Pandya and Pakistan’s captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, faced for not being sensitive to issues of race and colour. In that same light, it only behooves that as public figures in the limelight and in the age of social media, players are more mindful of how they are perceived in the larger world.
Although apparently there is no direct evidence to Gabriel’s utterances, Root’s response about ‘being gay is not a bad thing’ has been seen as evidence enough. That the umpires felt the need to step in suggests that there was every danger of the matter escalating beyond control. There is a reason why the bragging comments made by Pandya on a salacious television chat show, or insensitive ones made by Sarfraz in his role as a wicket keeper behind the stumps in South Africa came under a heavy barrage of criticism. Although none of these players have been dubbed racist per se, their comments certainly allude to a lack of education in sensitivity training and although one would not attribute labels to Shannon Gabriel yet, he must be made to realize that even one off-the-cuff comment could be enough to label him with monikers he would not be too proud of.
Cricketers, like all other sportspersons around the world, inherently carry the responsibility for what they do and what they say. Even a player of the caliber of Virat Kohli, at the height of his successes and performances on the field, was not spared on social media for his shocking statements in response to fans preferring foreign cricketers. It just goes to show that the world is a more aware place, that political correctness has perhaps taken on the garb of public vigilantism in the age of social media and there is a need for cricketers to not only uphold the game but also, uphold themselves and take responsibility so they can then evolve into instruments and catalysts for change.