Cricket’s odd progression towards acceptance

Outrage. Punishment. Revelation.

That was the rather odd cycle in the taking to task of West Indies cricketer Shannon Gabriel for using a homophobic outburst on the  field that, quite strangely, didn’t involve the use of a homophobic slur.

There was a lot that was weird about the incident that resulted in Gabriel copping a four-match ban and a hefty fine.

For starters, the cycle seemed to play out in reverse, beginning with England captain Joe Root’s admonishment of Gabriel, moving swiftly to condemnation and sanction, followed by the revelation of what Gabriel had, in fact, done wrong.

"Don't use it as an insult. There's nothing wrong with being gay,” Root was captured by the stump microphones telling Gabriel during the third test between the teams in St Lucia last week.

The comment went around the world. Root was – including by this columnist – hailed as a bit of hero for offering a sensible riposte to what must have been an ugly homophobic slur.

Well played, sir.

Gabriel copped his punishment on the chin. Time to move on.

Or not.

Just when the dust seemed to have settled, Gabriel somewhat muddied the waters by revealing the full exchange during a “tense” standoff between bowler and batsman.

"I recognise now that I was attempting to break through my own tension when I said to Joe Root: 'Why are you smiling? Do you like boys?',” Gabriel said in a statement apologising for his behaviour.

"His response, which was picked up by the microphone was: 'Don't use it as an insult. There's nothing wrong with being gay'.

"I then responded: 'I have no issues with that, but you should stop smiling at me'."

And so went what must rank as one of the least hateful homophobic attacks delivered on a sports field. In essence: two blokes who are pissed at each have a snarky exchange in which one questions the other’s sexuality. It ends with both agreeing there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality.

No unpardonable slurs. No swearing. No real venom.

Sure, judged to a standard where people must deal with each other impeccably at all times, Gabriel behaved poorly and deserved to be brought to book.

But, judged to a standard that accepts the reality of how competitive men, in particular, tend to interact with each other, the whole exchange feels like… progress.

It’s hard to imagine even a decade ago that clash playing out in such mild fashion.

Gabriel, for his part, issued an apology notable for the fact it contained two reservations in the same sentence in which it claimed to be unreserved.

“I extend an unreserved apology for a comment which, in the context of on-the-field rivalry, I assumed was inoffensive sporting banter."

Many will agree with that assessment.

Gabriel might have – but didn’t – mention the historical context of West Indian cricket, a conglomerate of nations whose formation is inextricably linked to the slave trade. For some reason, fast bowlers from these nations haven’t always displayed a high tolerance for cocky white dudes grinning at them and giving them shit.

Their admonishments, cricket’s rich history records, have often tended to bypass the questioning of an opponent’s sexuality and gone straight to Defcon 1.

Patrick Patterson, for instance, was fairly direct when he stormed into Australia’s dressing room at the MCG after being sledged while batting.

“You, you, you, you. I’ll kill you all tomorrow,” Patterson informed the startled Aussies.

In 1985, frustrated by back-to-back fighting innings by Ian Smith, Malcolm Marshall reassured the young Kiwi keeper: “I’m going to kill you in Barbados.”

Marshall wasn’t bluffing, either, going around the wicket and aiming bouncers at Smith’s head as soon as he got to the crease in the third test.

No wonder Gabriel appears just a little baffled by his fate despite accepting a charge under article 2.13 of the ICC code of conduct - which relates to the personal abuse of a player, player support personnel, umpire or match referee during an international match.

By accepting the charge, Gabriel was fined 75 percent of his match fee and picked up three demerit points, taking his overall total to eight in a two-year period, which triggered the ban.

Back in New Zealand, Trent Boult also fell foul of the ICC’s recently strengthened conduct code, with the typically impeccably mannered fast bowler copping a $600 fine (15 percent of his match fee) for producing an audible obscenity during an ODI against Bangladesh.

Sadly, no online reports of the incident state what the obscenity was, denying us those who didn’t catch it live the opportunity of learning the precise bounty the ICC have placed on a word.

Given cricket’s global nature, it would be fascinating to know which words from which languages are on the banned list.

Not that that matters to Shannon Gabriel. As he found out to his cost, in the current climate it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

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