BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:57 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 14:57 UK

The line between gamesmanship and cheating

By Jo-Anne Rowney
BBC News Magazine

The Australians have criticised the England cricket team for unsporting delaying tactics on the last day of the first Ashes test. But what's the difference between cunning gamesmanship and cheating?

Bilal Shafayat and the glove
Bilal Shafayat's arrival was not welcomed by Ricky Ponting

In the closing minutes of the test, England sent "12th man" Bilal Shafayat on to the pitch to give batsman James Anderson new gloves, with the team physio also sauntering on.

Australian Captain Ricky Ponting and a number of pundits have been critical, but sport has always been rife with time-wasting techniques and attempts to unsettle the opponent.


There are occasions, when competitors are ahead and they just need the whistle to go. Footballers have regularly kept the ball in an opposition corner to delay the game. It's within the rules, but it often angers opposition and fans.

Didier Drogba
There has been suspicion that not all of Didier Drogba's anguished faces are genuine

Time wasting is also common in the ring. Sometimes fighters are hurt and just need to eat up the time left in the round so they can get back to their corner and recuperate. The shouts of "box, box" are often heard as boxers cling to each other - drawing out a round and minimising opportunities to hit.

As well as genuine efforts to use up time, sometimes delaying tactics are a psychological weapon.


You've had a ball called out - you know it was definitely in. You're a set down and just dropped a service game. You're in trouble, big trouble. But how can you turn this around?

It's time for a toilet break.

Skill in winning games, esp. by means that barely qualify as legitimate
OED definition of 'gamesmanship'

It's a thought that's run through many tennis players minds. Not only does it allow you time to think in the comfort of the toilet, but also puts your opponent off the boil. It leaves the adversary stiffening up, their temper fraying.

Jimmy Connors stands accused of beginning the leak legacy. In his match against Ivan Lendl in the 1983 US Open final, Connors suddenly sprinted off the court - leaving Lendl in the 100 degree heat for several minutes. Lendl protested, but Connors went on to win the match.

"Our attention wanders all of the time, taking our focus off a task," says Dr Richard Cox, consultant to the British Institute of Sports. "Any delaying technique is used to deflect attention. This is even easier to do in a sporting event. It may be a temporary break, but that's enough."

Greg Rusedski
Greg Rusedski had a close relationship with his towel

Also in the tennis arena, some of Greg Rusedski's mannerisms raised an occasional eyebrow. One quirk was the wrapping of the grip. Carefully wrapping the handle's grip back into place he could easily waste a few seconds. Then he might retie his shoelaces.

Rusedski was also noticeable for the frequency with which he towelled off between points.

"He is getting the opponent's attention," says Dr Cox. "Their mind can be shifted at any one moment, as we only ever focus on one thing, he's making sure that's not the game.

"If you were to freeze your brain you'd see we have one focus at any given moment, whether an image or sound, or a comment."

And of course, whatever the actions until there's a way to read a sportsman's mind no-one can prove that Connors's toilet visit and Rusedski's towelling weren't entirely innocent.


There are the direct attempts to put the opposition off. Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar is infamous for his wobbly knees during the 1984 European cup final penalty shoot-out against Roma. As Francesco Graziani prepared to take the kick, Grobbelaar wobbled his knees in mocking terror. The unnerved Italian missed, and the cup was packed off to Anfield.

For optimum focus the player needs to be emotionally balanced, keenly centred on the game. In cricket this may prove hard when handing over the bat. Steve Waugh, the former Australian Captain, used to talk openly about planning the "mental disintegration" of his opponents, a practice known as sledging.

Sledging - low abuse - is a well known attempt to unsettle the rival team. On one occasion fiery fast bowler Merv Hughes decided to give advice after England's Graham Thorpe had played and missed several deliveries in a row. "Read the back of your bat mate, it's got instructions on it," he said.

Effective sledging seeks to undermine confidence, says Dr Cox.

"Sledging is designed to deflect concentration and attention. Morality and ethics seldom come into play with psychological warfare. It's childishness.

"The player's powers of analysis, which are so important to the game, are impaired - emotional balance changes with anger, the adrenaline rushes into your system, and your focus changes. It doesn't pay to become emotional."


Underhand tactics are an everyday occurrence in football. Many players fall to the ground, feigning injury, after a the gentlest of touches.

But cricket also has its sneaky tactics. In February 1981 New Zealand needed six runs to tie the match from the final ball. The Australian captain, Greg Chappell, ordered the bowler, his brother Trevor Chappell, to bowl underarm. He rolled the ball along the ground to avoid the chance of a six.

It was described as "the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket" by the then prime minister of New Zealand, Rob Muldoon. He said: "It was an act of cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow."

But however much outrage follows any act of gamesmanship, there are always a host of sportsmen who would have done the same thing.

Below is a selection of your comments.

If it's within the rules then it's within the rules. You can't blame someone for gamesmanship. It's part and parcel of any game. It's probably more overtly evident in more physical sports like rugby or ice hockey, where players try and intimidate the "flair" players of the opposition. In ice hockey you even have players who are picked because they are good at it and good at stopping the opposition doing it. It all adds to the game, it may be a bit cheeky but if it's within the rules then it's fair play.
Colin Walker, Cardiff

The Australian cricket team have pushed the envelope on every possible tactic for gaining an edge, so I have no sympathy for them in this case. In general there are a couple things a sportsman should consider. One is that when they push things too far, rules will be changed and the new regime will take back more than they ever gained. Second, sport at the level we are talking about is entertainment, a very profitable entertainment, and when you bring your sport into disrepute you are ultimately only hurting yourself.
Ian Nartowicz, Stockport, England

Sport is about creating a spectacle for the spectators and when gamesmanship comes into play it's the people watching that are being cheated.
David North, Birmingham, UK

Gamesmanship is a fact of any sport. I play squash and when an opponent gets really tired, he may bounce the ball loads to catch his breath, or re-tie a shoelace. The rules say "play must be continuous". While this type of gamesmanship or what England did in the cricket may be annoying, my take on it is that the opponent should be able to win regardless of whatever type of gamesmanship is exhibited. The fact though, that England did it to the Aussies is just superb. The Aussies would have found something else to whinge about.
Tiel Holdstock, Wokingham, UK

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific