March 13, 2014

Time to draw a line in the sand?

It's hard for everyone to agree on what constitutes acceptable boundaries when it comes to on-field behaviour. It's best if the ICC spells it out

Isn't it unreasonable to ask umpires to also be experts in behaviour analysis? © Getty Images

Do codes of conduct really work? Are the rules (and penalties) applied evenly to all players? More importantly, are they seen to be applied evenly? Perception is reality.

Clearly there is an absence of any universal consensus on what constitutes acceptable boundaries when it comes to on-field abuse, banter, sledging, gamesmanship, mental disintegration, call it what you like. No one is likely to shift from entrenched positions. So should the ICC show some rare leadership and draw the lines around what's acceptable, regardless of context, country, match situation, cultural norms and whether offence was meant or taken? Is it time to remove the shades of grey and simply decide on a policy, even if that policy is that there is no policy? Gloves off, no boundaries, anything goes; no more value judgements that create the perception that the code is applied unevenly and unfairly.

It is a somewhat simplistic solution, of course, but in the likely absence of any global agreement on where the fine line is between banter and abuse, simplistic guidelines may indeed be all that we can rely on for transparency. Cricket is not just a global game but one that is played by countries with vastly different cultural norms, unlike, say, rugby, which, in the top tier, is dominated by countries with broad western traditions, culturally and judicially.

To reach some sort of level playing field where all combatants agree beforehand on what's allowable or not will perhaps eliminate the accusations of bias and double standards that continue to rend this sport asunder, following on from the confusing case of Michael Clarke's admission that he stepped out of line and was nonetheless not reported by the umpires. It seems curious that an admission of guilt, normally used tactically to mitigate the severity of a sentence, actually resulted in no charges being upheld.

And therein lies the potential for confusion and misunderstanding. Much easier then if the ICC had a clearer policy that relied less on individual judgement, context and nuance. Umpires are clearly not equipped to interpret these nuances - their skills lie elsewhere. Is it unreasonable to ask them to also be experts in behaviour analysis?

When it comes to verbal abuse, just agree on whether it's acceptable or not. Don't leave it up to the players and umpires

We are unlikely to agree on where that line in the sand is when it comes to on-field behaviour. It is a never-ending debate that goes in circles. Race, religion, mental health, manhood, cowardice, sexual orientation, children, reference to partners and fidelity, genitalia, perceived character traits like selfishness or arrogance, perceived fear of short-pitched bowling… the list is endless. I've heard it all before and there's no telling which ones provoke laughter, anger, depression, rage or revenge. The same person can experience different reactions based on when, where, and how often he is at the receiving end, and the personal/match context.

It is asking too much of umpires to interpret these complex human interactions when we also expect them to monitor no-balls, thin edges, ball-tampering, over rates, and oversee reviews. If we as spectators in the cool aftermath of an incident cannot agree on what's acceptable, is it not asking too much of players or umpires to superimpose imaginary lines in the heat of battle, taking into account personal circumstances and cultural sensitivities that are in a constant state of flux? Glenn McGrath, when in sledging mode himself, was hurt by a sledge about his ill wife. Who was to know?

Maybe the ICC should now legislate (and enforce) the boundaries wherever they choose to draw the line. When it comes to verbal abuse, for example, just agree on whether it's acceptable or not. Don't leave it up to the players and umpires to decide whether one swear word is worse than another, whether one insult is more hurtful than another, whether cultural taboos hurt one group more than the other. The players are not smart enough to grasp these nuances in the heat of the moment. They risk being called cowards if they complain and umpires are expected to make value judgements based on incomplete information. They are not trained for this highly skilled task of managing human conflict.

It may be simplistic but why not draw a line in the sand and enforce it? No need to make allowances for cultural misunderstandings, frustration levels or match situations. Even if the rules are relaxed, make them uniformly consistent. The current system, even if well intentioned, is open to suggestions of bias, and variable interpretation according to cultural norms that are difficult to quantify.

Do South Africans cope better with sledging than Sri Lankans, for example? Do Indians react quicker to insults about mothers/sisters than West Indians? The c-word for example, clearly visible to any lip-reader watching the Australia-South Africa series went unreported (or unobserved) by the umpires despite a certain bowler mouthing off after almost every ball, regardless of the outcome.

I have spoken to first-class umpires who have ignored some instances of bad language while reporting others. When quizzed, umpires themselves had no clear explanation of why they chose different outcomes, except for the possibility that they may have been in a more/less tolerant mood and the match situation or player's reputation/previous mistakes may have impacted upon their subconscious. What? Umpires have emotions too?

An excerpt from a recent letter to the editor in the Australian about Darren Lehmann's ambivalence towards the behaviour of his players reveals the complexity of the issue. Even in a monoculture, not everyone will agree on where invisible boundaries are. The letter reads in part: "… It has been said that cricket mirrors life, that it is a microcosm of our society. Unfortunately the evidence of this is real, with the behaviour of players reflecting lowering standards."

It is debatable whether art imitates life or vice-versa. Throughout the world, statistics of violence and anti-social behaviour show an alarming increase, for a variety of reasons that are too complex to analyse here. Sport cannot be blamed for that but it certainly cannot lay any claim to being a positive force for change either, not judging by recent events anyway .

The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, was quoted in the Courier Mail as calling for a "code of conduct" for the general public in everyday life. If it is good enough for sporting codes, it is good enough for the rest of the community, he reckons. It's one thing having a code of conduct, Mr Premier, but it's an entirely different thing living by it. Unless these codes are actually enforced uniformly throughout the community without favour, it is as ridiculous as listening to politicians address each other as Honourable Member and then abuse each other with their next breath, protected by parliamentary privilege, blithely apologising when necessary and doing it all again the next day. Sound familiar?

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on March 15, 2014, 15:50 GMT

    Michael - Yes, ICC needs to legislate & enforce strict rules of conduct! Cannot bury its head in the sand anymore. Other sports are well ahead. Tennis has stepped up to outlaw on-court misconduct. The NFL is considering an automatic 15-yard penalty if a player uses the N-word (a racial slur) on the field, with automatic ejection if he does it twice. Like yellow & red flags in soccer. NFL is already cracking down on excessive celebrations & taunting with penalties. Violations include: spiking the ball, home run swing, pointing & dancing! See parallels to on-field triumphalism & sledging in cricket? Now look: this is American football, a full-contact violent sport. Well then, let's look closer to home in OZ. NSW has laws banning public swearing since 2007: it recently increased on-the-spot fines to $500 from $150. Victoria & Queensland have penalties too. Cannot CA & ICC enforce these existing laws at the SCG & other fields? Yes, it's time for ICC to spell it out & act. Spot on Michael!

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2014, 8:28 GMT

    The arguments are dead tired.What Dhawan and Raina did in that fleeting moment in Bangalore ODI did more to potraying the game in negative light than any of the "sledging" mentioned by the Aussies.Frankly aussies are easy targets because they themselves are pretty upfront and honest about it.leave that alone for a while.WHat about the famous WIndies bowlers in various times in late 70s 80s and in 95 known for their comments saying Ill kill you and in in 70s and 80s they nearly did with constant barrage of bouncers in an era without legitimate safety equipments or croft bashing up Goddall in middle of a cricket pitch.Consistency of system, look how many times has Rohit Sharma got penalised for dissent in last three months, None and on almost every decision given against him by umpire he has shown various levels of it.Sadly the article is redundant in many ways.

  • Michaeljeh on March 15, 2014, 0:55 GMT

    OK so here's the inconsistency of the system, regardless of country. Nathan Lyon gets reported for "abusing cricket equipment" (kicking a stump) whilst on the same day, Ben Stokes apparently does not get reported for hitting some object in the dressing room hard enough to break his wrist. Lyon, usually the most affable chap going round, is reported for abusing an inanimate object whilst not so long ago, more senior players do not get reported for abusing opponents. This has nothing to do with any country bias - no nation is immune from excesses. The point is that there just seems to be no consistency, albeit complicated by different judicial regimes. And fining someone 20% of their match fee is hardly going to change behaviour is it?

  • vivian on March 14, 2014, 14:59 GMT

    Best cricketers are real gentlemen too. Classic example Sachin Tendulkar. I have never seen him in an argument.

  • Ashok on March 14, 2014, 13:31 GMT

    Completely agree with Mr. Jeh. To often, match refrees and umpires, who are from neutral countries, are unaware of the cultural sensibilities of the players involved. Is it any wonder that most fans believe that rules are selectively applied?

  • Pankaj on March 14, 2014, 13:31 GMT

    Honestly speaking i dont understand all this sledging bit. I have seen some of the best cricketers give their best out there on the field without ever getting into any verbal duel.. Sachin,Murali,Lara,Laxman,dravid,Walsh... the list goes on and and on. To all those who say that they need some fire to get the best out of them my suggestion is go get a life first ....

  • Nicholas on March 14, 2014, 12:41 GMT

    My old club captain had a very simple test. If you're about to say/do something to an opponent, ask yourself: would you say/do it to a uniformed policeman? If the answer is No, then don't do/say it. Simple as that!

  • Dummy4 on March 14, 2014, 10:16 GMT

    When I was at school, which I must say was some time back,sportsmanship was part of general education and a must for anybody wishing to indulge in any sport, be it at professional or, indeed, ameteur levels. Verbal abuse of any kind did not even cross our minds in those days and this only goes to show how much levels of education have decreased and to what degree civil behaviour - because that is what it all boils down to - is no longer a part of many peoples' principles. It is all egocentricity and any means are sought to reach the ends, be it via verbal abuse. Very disappointing indeed! One often says that sportsmen and women should show an exemple as they are often looked up to by youth. It is high time that anti-sportsman like behaviour, including verbal abuse, be considered for what it is and punished accordingly.

  • udendra on March 14, 2014, 5:59 GMT

    How about using yellow & red cards?

  • Katto on March 14, 2014, 5:36 GMT

    more Marxism agenda from Mr Negative Jeh. to be expected. (yawn)

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