'Spirit of the game has not worsened' - van der Bijl
The behaviour of present-day players is not much worse than their predecessors, according to Vince van der Bijl, the ICC umpires' and referees' manager. The on-field conduct of players has come under increased focus in recent years; Scyld Berry, the editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008, had even made note of the threat of violence in the game, but van der Bijl disagreed with these observations.
"I certainly don't think the spirit of the game has worsened, it is just more visible," van der Bijl told the Associated Press. "This is not an excuse for the [poor] behaviour - just reality. I saw this job as an opportunity to be part of the process to keep the spirit of cricket strong and healthy. What one sees today on TV occurred in the old days, but it was not as visible. Lapses in sportsmanship and aggressive behaviour have been there since the game began."
van der Bijl, the former Natal and Middlesex fast bowler, was appointed by the ICC with an "overall responsibility for the management and smooth running of the umpires and referees section". The new role will also see van der Bijl monitor the manner in which umpires and match referees deal with disciplinary issues.
However, van der Bijl felt there was not much to be worried about. "When I meet the players and umpires that I know and from what I have seen, I really don't think the game in terms of conduct and behaviour is any different to when I played.
"There is huge pressure on them to be role models," he said. "I do believe that the general public want from their sports stars, the perfect human beings. Supporters expect players must have tunnel vision and be driven to absolute perfection in their specific art, yet be balanced and broad in their worldly views. Be determined and driven yet caring and sensitive. Few [people] like this exist. And in reality it is almost impossible to find these kinds of people, other than a [Nelson] Mandela or a [Desmond) Tutu. The pressure for players to be perfect is very high."
Player behaviour has come under focus in the past year, with the ICC even calling for improved conduct on the field. Andrew Symonds' claim that Harbhajan Singh racially abused him during the Sydney Test in January, a charge that was later not proved, was one of several flashpoints that brought the game into disrepute. Harbhajan was later penalised when he slapped his India team-mate Sreesanth after the end of the match in the Indian Premier League.
Elsewhere, Paul Collingwood, the England captain, received flak for not withdrawing an appeal against New Zealand's Grant Elliott after the batsman was run-out following a collision with Ryan Sidebottom. Jelly beans also stirred a row during India's tour to England last year, when Zaheer Khan showed his displeasure to opposition fielders after a few were placed on the batting crease.
"I fear the day is approaching when a high-profile, televised cricket match will see an outbreak of physical violence on the field," Berry said, "and nothing could be more injurious to all concerned." He noted the increasing on-field physical contact between players. "James Anderson was fined 50% of his match fee for "inappropriate and deliberate physical contact" with Runako Morton ... Paul Hoffmann of Scotland barged into Canada's opening batsman Abdool Samad so forcefully that Samad needed four minutes of treatment on the field before continuing; Hoffmann too was fined 50%.
"The worst example came in the Kanpur international when Gautam Gambhir ran straight down the pitch and straight into Shahid Afridi. As the bowler, Afridi was allowed to stay where he was at the end of his follow-through; it was up to the batsman to swerve and avoid him. Gambhir looked to be the chief culprit and, even though it was his first offence, should have been penalised more harshly than Afridi, whatever his verbal provocations. As it was, Gambhir was fined 65%, Afridi 95%."
van der Bijl also felt umpires were under increased pressure, with TV cameras and technology available to scruntinise every decision. "I actually believe, though, that the umpires are under even greater pressure - every ball - as they can make three unbelievable decisions and they can go unnoticed, but as soon as they make a mistake it is highlighted on televisions across the world."
van der Bijl, who took 767 wickets at 16.54 in a first-class career that spanned from 1967-68 to1982-83, didn't play a single Test as it came at the time of South Africa's sporting isolation because of their policy of apartheid. "I don't regret anything," he said. "All I hope for now is that the players have fun and express themselves in the right way and show their talents."