Why cricketers and social media don’t mix

The Nightwatchman

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

IT is not done for people in my profession to admit something like this, but things that should not be said or done – and are said or done, regardless – are the central idea for this piece. So what the hell, here goes: Graeme Pollock gives me the shivers.

First, some context. I have spent thousands of words arguing that the all-white teams of the apartheid-era who were brazenly called “South Africa” cannot be given the credit they took for granted, whatever they achieved. Similarly, the history of white first-class cricket played in the country before the advent of democracy should not be told as just another cricket story. It is not. It was part of a society that kept voting for the oppression of their compatriots.

So Graeme Pollock should leave me cold. He does, but in a way that does not square with the above. I’m never sure whether it’s his stance – legs planted like bluegums too wide apart – that does it, or the way he ducks his chin towards the bowler like a bull daring a matador with a tilt of its horns, or what looks like a laboured backlift, or the sweeping swoop of his bat like Thor’s hammer itself, or the splitting of the atom that occurs when bat meets ball, or the impossibly swift dart that the ball makes for the cover boundary, or a follow-through that always makes me think of US soldiers raising their flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, or the momentary suspension of gravity that occurs when all that torque is spent and the weight shifts and the front foot takes an involuntary step down the pitch. Whichever, nothing in cricket grabs my heart and holds it tight like Graeme Pollock’s cover drive.

Note that I relate my wonder in the present tense. Pollock played his final Test in 1970, when I was four years old, and his last first-class match in 1987, when I was 21. But the thought of his cover drive is not a memory for me. It is a living, vivid thing, as immediate as my next breath and infinitely more invigorating.

I have come to know that Pollock has had problems with alcohol – three stiff whiskeys in the dressingroom before he went out to the middle was, apparently, the dose late in his career – and that he is, as a friend put it, “on the bones of his arse” financially because of the poor business decisions he made after he retired. But he is still Graeme Pollock, and nothing can change that.

So, on those magical occasions when I enter his rarefied presence, I need to remind myself to behave. Even when we talk on the telephone, every few months or so, I feel a leap when he picks up. Only recently have I dared to stop addressing him as “Mister Pollock”. He actually asks how I am, which very nearly puts me on the floor every time. I talk to Mike Procter, Barry Richards and Peter Kirsten easily as much, perhaps more. But, sorry fellas, none of you are Mr Pollock. Hey, it’s my bubble and I’ll refuse to burst it if I don’t want to. All the political logic in the world would not make me do that.

Not that I have any idea what kind of bloke Pollock really is. Would I like him if I did know? Happily, I do not want to know and I do not need to know.

But, if he was playing today, I would have no choice but to know more about Pollock than I ever wanted to because of social media. Worse, in the space of 140 drunken, racist, sexist, right wing, or otherwise bigoted characters, Pollock could have revealed something I would not have wanted to know; something that could have changed everything I felt about him. Yes, that is denial. But that is what sport is on so many levels.

For instance, had Pollock tweeted, “critics are actually like girlfriends; they never stop thinking about you”, all that stuff about bluegums, matadors, Thor’s hammer, atomic particles and whatever would have disappeared down the rabbit hole of my childhood and stayed there along with perhaps the only set of Major League Baseball player cards in South Africa and the T-square I made in woodwork class.

Anyone who believes his “girlfriends” – plural, naturally – “never stop thinking about” him – I mean, it’s not as if women have anything else to think about apart from the man, singular, of course, in their lives – has no place in my firmament of heroes.

Happily, in Pollock’s playing days twitter was what birds did and nothing else. But Rohit Sharma made that comment in an interview, and when I wrote a piece headlined “Shame on Sharma, on cricket and on us”, not many of the readers who responded could see the problem.

Instead I was accused of seeking attention, of not having anything better to write about, of being peeved by a player daring to take a shot at the press, of being a patronising knight in shining armour, and of not knowing what bigotry means. “Maybe get a girlfriend,” one advised. “You’ll probably not waste time writing rubbish.”

It was as if I had insulted not a public figure but a dear friend of those who were now complaining on his behalf. In a sense, that is correct. Social media has given people like Sharma more friends than they could meet and revealed them to each other in their full, imperfect glory.

The players come off second-best because there are far fewer of them than there are fans, and the online security guard who can insulate the stars from having to deal with the great unwashed has yet to be found.

But it is from themselves that players often need the most guarding. Sharma is but one example. Kevin Pietersen is another, and easily the cricketer most in danger of self-harm-by-social-media. If he is not calling The Sun’s John Etheridge a wanker on Twitter for erroneous reporting, he is posting tasteless images of what he thinks of Dominic Cork’s opinions – a graphic representation of a woman inserting an “opinion” into her rectum as she would a suppository – or whining about his car being bumped, complete with picture, or getting into idiotic arguments with Jack Wilshere over what, exactly, constitutes being properly English, or fostering his burgeoning bromance with Piers Morgan to the point where they should be told to get a room, or at least to DM each other.

Accidental media collisions with Morgan make me want to take a shower to get the smug slime off. Pietersen never used to be in quite the same gutter. He is now.

Although he is capable of checking in with the real world – he does at least know about the Gaza strip, for instance – too much of Pietersen’s Twitter feed is devoted to promoting himself or the products he sells, and retaliating to other famous figures as well as random strangers who dare abuse him for him to be taken seriously. This is the player, remember, who resorted to that ultimate tackiness, YouTube, to mount a fraught bid to save his test career.

Tawdriness is the overriding impression Pietersen gives of himself on social media. If he was not who he is, he would be just another uber-ego with nothing worthwhile to say and no-one to say it to except those who lurk one step beyond in cyberspace. But Pietersen’s supporters must be happy. Not only has the firewall that stood tall between players and their fans been torn down by the click of a mouse, those fans have discovered that their idols are just as miserable with the world as they are. Now they can all have a good moan together.

Pietersen does not so much cross the line on social media as snort it, and like any other addict he does not know when to stop.

His initial outrage at Etheridge writing, wrongly, on June 11 this year that he had returned the gifts he had received from the England Cricket Board for earning 100 Test caps was understandable: “LIES from @JohnSunCricket this morning! Who briefs you, John? Care to check ur facts instead of misleading the public?”

Etheridge replied: “Was told categorically at Lord’s yesterday that gifts were returned an in ECB offices. Weird – will investigate. Can only apologise.”

That should have been that, but it was not. Once unleashed, there was no controlling the dogs of Twitter. Pietersen would have known that, but he should also have known better than to add his two cents’ worth to a tweet that asked, “How stupid do you feel now eh, John?” Pietersen clambered aboard the bullies’ bandwagon by retweeting that message and adding “Tell us, John?”

If that is fair, then so is a reporter asking Pietersen how stupid he feels for playing a poor stroke to give his wicket away.

Still, the bratsman was not done. On July 26, more than six weeks after the story and the apology had been published, Pietersen was still at it.

@JohnSunCricket how’s your investigation going, John? Strange we haven’t heard anything from you …”

“More than happy to discuss with you, Kevin,” Etheridge replied.

“Your article was public, John … how about your (sic) discuss it publicly?”

“I was given what I thought was categorical information which turned out to be untrue. I apologised at the time, happy to do so again.”

Whatever you think of the tabloid press, it is difficult to argue with Etheridge’s submissive approach. But Pietersen found a way, with the help of a stirring on the idiot fringe: “Irrelevant. You still impacted the perception of KP to fans, you should apologise in your column #publicshame

To which Pietersen snarled in support: “waiting, John …”

Pietersen would win more sympathy for being wronged in the media if he was not such a social media miscreant himself. Instead, he wants to play victim and victimiser, and on his own terms.

David Warner, too, wanted things all his own way when he took issue, profanely, with Robert Craddock of the Brisbane Courier-Mail in May last year. Craddock’s crime? Reporting on the sordid night life and corruption connected to the Indian Premier League. Warner was not mentioned, but the article was illustrated with his photograph. You would think Warner, as an apparently upstanding Aussie, would want wrongdoing exposed. But no …

“Shock me @crashcraddock1 talking shit about ipl jealous prick. Get a real job. All you do is bag people. #getalife”

By taking on Craddock, Warner also took on Craddock’s News Ltd. Colleague, Malcolm Conn, the hardest bastard in cricket writing. Conn fired back: “Cricket is a real job? Please. Most people pay to play. Million dollar cricketers milking the IPL are hardly the best judges.”

Of course, Warner was not pacified: “All he (Craddock) did was talk shit about the greats now he sucks up there ass. Talk more crap why don’t you …

“@malcolmconn keep writing paper talk trash for a living champ only thing you will ever do …

“@malcolmconn are you still talking you old fart, no wonder know one buys your paper …”

Conn’s counterpunch hit hard: “You lose 4-0 in India, don’t make a run, and you want to be tickled on the tummy? Win the Ashes and get back to me …

“It’s becoming increasingly obvious why Brad Haddin was brought back as vice captain. Your (sic) lengths behind in that race …”

Warner copped a fine of Aus$5750 (3700 pounds) and apologised. Less than a month later, he took a swing at Joe Root in a Birmingham pub and was fined Aus$11500 (7000 pounds) and suspended. He apologised. Again.

Pietersen versus Etheridge differs from Warner versus Conn. For one thing, there was nothing wrong with the story that sparked such strong objection from Warner. For another, the overweening, apprehensive relationship England’s press have with the country’s players – no interview with an England player is, it seems, published without an embarrassing bow and scrape to the player’s sponsors for their “co-operation in making this piece possible” tacked onto the end – does not exist in Australia. In fact, before cricket acquired a nanny, otherwise known as a code of conduct, it was not unheard of for Aussie players and reporters to settle their differences with boxing gloves.

Sometimes administrators get it as wrong as the players. In August last year, Alviro Petersen, the South Africa opening batsman, threw a Twitter tantrum when ESPNCricinfo’s Firdose Moonda – who is also my wife – wrote that he did not deserve his place in the one-day team, an assertion she bolstered with facts and stats.

Petersen’s response was to patronise her, calling her “dear” and offering to “do the research” for her. But things turned ugly when he retweeted one of his followers’ suggestion that Moonda should “find something else to write about, food or clothes maybe”. Soon, she was being sent videos of men beating up women.

Moonda approached Cricket South Africa (CSA) with her concerns that Petersen had gone too far. They told her he was entitled to his opinion. But, two months later, when CSA were trying to suppress a story Moonda was preparing to write, they offered her a face-to-face apology from Petersen. She declined.

Pietersen is an exception because anyone who has a skew enough word to say about him can expect a backlash, but for the most part the social media strife that cricketers get themselves into involves the mainstream media.

Players expect adoration from their fans, and they get it. But social media means that players, their friends, their supporters and the press share the same platforms. All of those figures are in danger of falling short of libel laws and accepted standards of decent discourse, although journalists have no excuse.

What some players do not seem to understand is that a message tapped out on a mobile phone and unleashed on social media is revealed to the world. It is not a bit of banter between mates or a private argument – it is published for all to see, interpret and, if they want to, meet with a response. Players also do not get that they are as equal as every other citizen of the twitterverse, something they are not used to and clearly do not like.

But there is nothing they can do about it because there are no media officers hovering nearby to save players from the tougher questions they are asked, as happens at press conferences. There is also no-one to filter out their stupidities and correct their flawed language, a service most journalists render to players free of charge.

That they have done for decades probably saved players like Graeme Pollock a lot of strife. Not anymore: as of August, 2010, Pollock has been on Twitter. Yes, I do follow him. No, that does not give me the shivers.

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