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BBC's Jonathon Agnew wrong and hypocritical to invoke the memory of Phil Hughes

By Adam Henry - posted Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Veteran BBC cricket commentator Jonathon Agnew is entitled to his opinions and indeed make a contribution to the debate about so called sledging in Test Match cricket, what he should not have done is to use the tragic death of Phil Hughes to mount a personal attack on the entire Australian cricket team. This was in my opinion opportunistic, highly biased, bad journalism and decidedly arrogant.

There appears to be an expectation with sport and sports people, like rock stars and celebrities that they live in a world beyond normal life full of its triumphs, struggles and contradictions. Even their mortality seems to take us by surprise – they are somehow beyond the realm of existence that we who watch and admire. The manner in which millions of human beings live on the uncertain outcome of some sporting event, or turn sporting allegiances into an opportunity for violence.

Agnew argues that the Australian cricket team in the wake of the tragic loss of a friend and team mate should have used the opportunity to play their cricket against India in silent contrition, why, because as Agnew argues, of their bad behavior. All international cricket teams make comments to each other and this series was no different - some of the Indians were also rather good at so called sledging too. This is true at any level of cricket. I can testify as a club level player to seeing and hearing some astonishing exchanges and temper tantrums on cricket fields in Australia and the United Kingdom, but this was the exception not the rule.


In comparison to countless other sports, there were no brawls in the recent Australia-Indian series. If you want to see out of control go and watch an ice hockey fight and brace yourself. Test match cricket, or cricket at any level at its worst is often a very small minority of disgruntled idiots in the midst of acrimonious competition. In the recent Test series there were a few moments of chest thumping and childishness yes, but this only applied to some in either team. Each team has their repeat offenders too. Every human being can behave badly so no nationality, religion or ethnicity provides an amnesty to such possibilities.

Agnew is a solid commentator, had a long first class career, but a very short international career. He is also a man very much of his own background and upbringing. I do not attack him for this, but it is perhaps pertinent to his possible outlook. For centuries those from privileged backgrounds in the British Isles looked on the 'plebs' with a combination of hostility, anxiety and paternalism. The plebs, aka the overwhelming majority of everyday society were naturally less sophisticated and of course 'barbarians'. The cunning 'plebs' are the worst, they were ruthless and more dangerous to the privileged classes due to their ignorance of what being truly civilized means, that is, understanding their place. Much of this class ridden and imperial world view would find expression in war, in Empire, in the settler colonies, in the so called hierarchy of races which justified imperialism, colonization etc.

Agnew actually has an expectation that the Australian cricketers should be more, well, like him, because presumably that would elevate them. It is obviously beyond question to him that he is able to link the tragic death of Phil Hughes to his own need to cast universal moral judgments about the way others should behave in the wake of such a tragedy. Australian cricketers are of course not the only ones that can feel his moral judgments.

I recall a commentary exchange between Agnew and Sir Geoffrey Boycott. Boycott, stirring the possum as it were, mentioned how he'd smashed Agnew to all parts of the cricket ground during a particular county match. Agnew recalled an appeal for a catch against Boycott off his own bowling during that game which was given not out by the umpire. "Do you remember that", Agnew pointedly asked Boycott. Boycott gleefully continued stirring. Agnew was entitled say what he thought, but it was the tone of his voice that implied something more - a very self-righteous and indignant sense of a great injustice done to him by an ever odious Boycott.

Agnew's implication being that Boycott was out, knew he was out, and because he did not walk off, this confirmed what Agnew believed about Boycott - he was dishonorable, dishonest, a real bastard etc. Boycott as is his way, could not have cared and seemed amused that something from so long ago riled Agnew so much. Given their differing backgrounds, and the school master tone adopted by Agnew, this might not have been lost on Boycott. In Agnew's world, if Boycott would have been, well more like Agnew – a proper gentleman, he would have had Boycott's wicket all those years ago.

A professional cricketer of Boycott's coalmining family background growing up post war Yorkshire works hard not just for a living, but for a future. Boycott loved his cricket, but unlike Agnew with his privileged education and upbringing, the consequences of failure for Boycott as a professional cricketer in the late 1950s and into the 1960s were stark – to miss an escape from poverty, from poor health, a chance to transform one's life. This is in my view is what shaped the hardnosed Boycott. Not so for Agnew. He came to cricket in the late 70s through his private school background, it was his bliss.


Whether Boycott knew he was out or did not, he was not obligated to do anything other than his job, wait for the umpire's decision and get on with making runs. The players live with the consequences of their actions, good, bad or otherwise.Boycott's record and the general fate of the many England teams he played for during his long career, whatever one thinks of or even says about him personally, speak for themselves.

Bad behavior, bullying, nastiness etc. is endemic to highly competitive zero sum occupations. We like to win, we often glorify winning to such an extent that we overlook the implications. This helps to obscure much of our own personal hypocrisy. For example, in a book about his early years playing cricket Agnew wrote:

For an eighteen-year-old bowler I was unusually fast, and enjoyed terrorising our opponents, be they schoolboys (8 wickets for 2 runs and 7 for 11 stick in the memory) or, better still, the teachers in the annual staff match. This, I gather, used to be a friendly affair until I turned up, and I relished the chance to settle a few scores on behalf of my friends – for whom I was the equivalent of a hired assassin – as well as for myself.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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