One would have thought that the English cricket fans would stop booing a bruised Steve Smith, returning to fight for his team after he was felled by a bouncer, but they didn’t. The relentless jeering showed a mirror to the dark underside of the game. Smith’s stupendous knocks in this series deserve grudging respect even from the most hostile fan — even though he was returning after a year away from the game, following his ban by Cricket Australia for ball-tampering in 2018.
The orchestrated booing doesn’t even seem to have been an authentic emotion of displeasure. It didn’t appear to stem from a genuine feeling of betrayal and anger at an opponent who has indulged in skulduggery. For long, football fans in England were tagged with hooliganism. But it seems to have now caught on in cricket in a land that prides itself as the game’s home.
Smith has responded by piling up the runs. Every little act he does at the crease is contrary to what batsmen are expected to do. Stillness is demanded of them; he twitches, walks, and at times teasingly leaves the middle and leg stump exposed. They are expected to stretch forward to drive; he retreats and drives off the back foot. Calmness is expected; he can be a furious blur of energy. He is a counter-intuitive batsman; a contrarian who should make any open-minded fan curious. By their relentless booing, the English fans may have achieved the opposite effect of what they set out to do. The crowd behaviour may have hastened forgiveness, even triggered sympathy and respect for the player at the receiving end.