|Jesse Ryder in full flow|
The deciding New Zealand versus South Africa T20 brought such comment to the fore - the Black Caps capitulated as their African opponents have done at ICC tournaments in the past. For once, the clichéd choke is not too strong a word. With five overs to go New Zealand needed less than a run a ball with seven wickets in hand, and on a ground that only just accommodates a full sized rugby pitch, yet in the ensuing 24 hours comment centred solely on Jesse Ryder.
Ryder's an easy target. He has just returned from another injury layoff, enjoys a pint or 20 and thinks a steak and cheese pie is a well-balanced meal - but the man can wield the willow. He hit 52 at close to 125 and top scored for the match after not donning the black kit for the first time since New Zealand upset Australia in Hobart last December. Without question he made errors, big ones, but if you believe much of what has been written and preached he was the only Kiwi on the pitch. The condemnation has been direct, swift and condescending.
Little has been made of the soft dismissals of the other top order batsmen or the inability of capable middle order players to even lay bat on ball - scribes and punters lay the blame squarely at Ryder's feet. Yes, he fumbled his way through his last few runs but he has no track record of putting personal milestones above team outcomes - Twitter and talkback radio would tell you otherwise. Much of the comment was baseless at best; personal abuse at gutter level. But, the sentiment that struck me was from a former player, himself the target on too many occasions during a career that never quite reached the pinnacle of its true potential.
Craig McMillan, former Black Cap turned television commentator and radio pundit, was unerring in his criticism of Ryder and his pursuit of personal glory, whilst largely neglecting the mishaps of others. He's a paid 'expert' asked to give his considered opinion - no issues there. But, and it's one of JLo proportions, the crucifixion of Ryder is coming from a man who himself was widely criticised for his girth, his fitness and his propensity to throw it away in a blaze of glory. The same man who, when people questioned his form in test cricket near the sunset of his career, answered in the best way - with a test century but then commented that his innings should gag a few commentators - how quickly we forget about the glasshouses in which we all live.....
Whilst Ryder is so frequently the target of condescension and personal attacks, there are many others scattered throughout our great game. Brash South African, sorry - Englishman, Kevin Pietersen, Australian captain Michael Clarke and Brendon McCullum all suffer the same fate. Outspoken New Zealand wicketkeeper Adam Parore and the aforementioned McMillan were never far from the airwaves and column inches in their day either. But why is it that certain players draw unparalleled criticism whilst others seemingly walk on water, even when they have muddied them so frequently?
Why do 'fans' continually partake in the character assassination and unsupported criticism of our sporting 'heroes'? Is it our right? In the end are players, coaches, managers and teams accountable to the paying public? As we invest more heavily in inflated ticket prices, merchandise, sponsors' products and pay television, maybe they are - though that's for another day. Constructive comment and considered opinion are fair but why must we cross the boundary into personal attacks and vitriol - is it seen in any other endeavour (politics excepted)? Is it envy, jealousy or the unparalleled riches that players earn while the 'common man' (and fan) puts his nose to the grindstone in a 'real' job? It's an open question - I have no definitive answer....
Scribes and casual bloggers do it too; it's not just the domain of the man on the street. Unfortunately, emotion sells - would anyone buy a newspaper that leads with 'We lose - no one's to blame'? In a few short months of writing this blog I've realised it's easier to criticise on personal feelings than compose a considered argument.
In today’s digital, social media-obsessed world there are now endless avenues open for comment – the issue is that most are anonymous, so balanced debate is often lacking. Most fans love to comment on the stars of their sport, especially in Aotearoa where most are easily accessible to the public. Twitter, Facebook, talkback radio (with SMS comment – I still don’t get it), blogs, forums and article comments, among others, all provide an endless source of unmitigated banter. But, here is the kicker – on most occasions, in New Zealand at least, when our side wins talkback, and most others, is often slow; when we lose to France at a RWC or are farcical in our efforts at the wicket, every couch critic wants his two cents and his pound of flesh – no matter the lack of logic in the argument, heated as it often is.
Most of us will never play at the highest level, or commentate or write about our great game to audiences too innumerable to count – more the pity. Why then do we confuse personal sporting performance with criticisms of personality - seldom do the two meet? Very few of us have insights into the players; their work ethic, attitude and personality. Our view is largely from the outside, yet fan comment often bases thoughts on what we see and our perceptions; not fact or reasoned opinion - a little context goes a long way.
Many of us have love-hate relationships with our cricketing personalities – others simply love to hate them. Whatever your opinion, most fans are just that – they love their teams and want nothing more but for them to do well – sorry, WIN! The paradox is that a minority have a confused way of showing it.
For all his faults in the decider, Ryder did not lose New Zealand the game – maybe South Africa should even get a little credit. Will the same punters who offered little more than baseless abuse jump back on the bandwagon if Ryder flays the South African quicks in the test series? Ryder appeared to have lost a little weight in his injury absence yet people still made comment about his running – did punters say the same things of the beer swilling Tasmanian, David Boon? No, the portly Boon still holds legend status for his Ashes tour drinking antics – he’s seen as the quintessential Aussie bloke.
Don’t get me wrong, I have little time for cheerleading either - Channel 9 are cringe worthy to all but a select groups of Aussie sycophants. Likewise, no-one wants to hear the Super Rugby player political correctness or the ‘netball was the winner on the day’ speech – as fans it’s about having an opinion, not a baseless rant.
If you think my ramblings are off the mark, I'm open to both destructive criticism and vitriol. Post a comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@aotearoaxi) - I don't live in the public eye, I prefer the anonymity of a faceless moniker. Let’s hope that irony is not lost…
This post also appears in the April edition of SPIN-off Cricket.