Michael Jeh September 2, 2009

A spirited move from Queensland

If captains can somehow manage those adrenalin-charged moments of high emotion and allow the batsman to get away from the square without incident, we may well avoid a host of unseemly incidents.

Male professional sport in Australia is facing an image crisis at the moment. Despite strong spectator numbers, the various football codes (rugby league, AFL, soccer and rugby union) are continually fielding awkward questions about player behaviour, alcohol abuse, respect for women and violence. The National Rugby League’s brand is apparently so badly damaged that they are thinking of re-branding it and selling it to the public in another disguise. A dinosaur by any other name is still a dinosaur – for genuine change to occur, the culture of the sport needs to change. Merely calling it by another name won’t be enough to fool the community for too long. Sometimes, you have to surrender before you can start winning again.

Refreshingly, club cricket in Queensland is taking an innovative approach to addressing the spirit of cricket by introducing a new initiative called ‘Custodians of Cricket’. I attended their inaugural workshop earlier this week, aimed at all captains and club officials, cleverly designed to imbue them with the responsibility of honouring the spirit of the contest at all levels of grade cricket. In fact, Queensland Cricket are taking it so seriously that if a player who has not attended the ‘course’ ends up captaining a team during the season, that team will be deducted points.

I deliberately used the word 'contest' because it is in no way meant to detract from the competitiveness and winning desire that is endemic to Australian club cricket, even in the lowest grades. Especially in the lowest grades! This new programme is mindful of that culture, one of the bedrocks of the domestic system, yet it is trying to arrest a growing trend of anti-social behaviour that, if not halted in its tracks, will damage the sport.

I was particularly impressed with the way it tried to encourage the captains from different clubs to get to know each other on a personal level and break down the silly barriers that sometimes come with misplaced territorialism. At the end of the day, almost everyone in the room agreed that they play the game to win but also for the sheer enjoyment of it. The two need not be mutually exclusive. There is room for courtesy, manners and basic decency in a highly competitive contest.

Like any new initiative that attempts to break the mould, there will always be a period of flexibility and learning that can only come with time. One young gentleman appeared particularly vexed by the fact that one group suggested that it would be against the spirit of cricket to encourage fast bowlers to “kill him mate” (or words to that effect). He seemed to think that it was calling for a ban on short-pitched bowling, rather than the point of the argument (that it is in poor taste to wish physical injury on an opposition player). When he likened cricket to boxing and asked why it was okay to hit someone in the head in the boxing ring, it was clear that he missed the whole point of the evening altogether. When this same person later complained that watching cricket would no longer be much fun if he wasn’t allowed to abuse umpires or players from the grandstand, it became clear that some dinosaurs still roam the plains!

Workshops and forums are one thing – the proof will be in the pudding. As cricketers, we’ll be looking to see if the actions match the rhetoric. Not only do the captains have a moral responsibility to set the tone for their team’s culture but the administrators now have the tougher job of enforcing the standards. Previously, there was a sense that the benchmark was a fluid beast – depending on whether you were a representative player or not, the rules did not apply equally. At least, that was the perception. Cricket is by no means alone in this regard – match winners in all sports tend to be treated differently. That’s human nature.

An interesting discussion that arose from my group was the general consensus that the most frequent flashpoint for bad blood came in those first 2-3 seconds after a batsman had been dismissed. The ‘send-off’ and the subsequent tit-for-tat insults that flow often spill over into the rest of the game, sometimes even carried over into the next season. This is how inter-club vendettas can begin. If captains can somehow manage those adrenalin-charged moments of high emotion and allow the batsman to get away from the square without incident, we may well avoid a host of unseemly incidents.

Interesting times ahead….I’m a huge supporter of this new program to bring dignity back to our great game so long as all the stakeholders take it upon themselves to take this process seriously. Queensland Cricket can take a bow for taking this first important step towards re-inventing the culture of the sport. That’s the easy bit – the really brave decisions will come later in the season when the new rules are put to the test. Unless they are enforced uniformly, swiftly and without fear or favour, the dinosaurs will never truly be extinct.

In my 23rd year of club cricket, I have rarely looked forward to a season as much. Bring it on….

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane