Are behavioural problems afflicting amateur cricket?
Maybe I'd had a bad week (I had). Maybe I was hungover. Maybe I'm emotionally fragile (no maybe about it). Or maybe it was simply this colourless corner of London's greenbelt getting under my skin. Whatever. Out there at the crease, it felt more like I was kicking around the fag-end spillover of a provincial nightclub than a cricket match on a sunlit Saturday. And I felt it.
We were winning the game. I was a few not-out. It wasn't especially tense - they hadn't got enough, and their failure to do so had left a sour taste in the air. Throughout the course of tea, their No. 4 whinged on loudly about his dismissal, which had clearly carried to second slip (I was at first). But this is second XI cricket, where a neutral umpire is a rare treat, and so there's a vacuum. And, in effect, this bloke was filling it with slurs about an oppo player's probity. But that's OK, right? Because it's all part of the game.
We'd had a little wobble, so I was trying to bat my age and 'see us home'. When they saw I was on the block, they crowded me. The skipper, some portly defeat in a tattered cap, announced he was "getting right under his nose". And then it started. The yob cacophony.
I know I should brush it off. Just a bit of banter. Come on fella, it's just a laugh! And look, when the game's over it's a different story! All's well that ends… with a limp handshake and a swift half before buggering off.
"He's gotta be the most boring man in Essex!" was the only line in amongst the standard rubbish vaguely worthy of a smile (not least for its dramatic irony), so I offered one. Because it's only a game, right? And yet, as I studiously prodded the pitch between overs, I couldn't help thinking that the scavenging around the joke by the rest of his team for the next half an hour had rather undermined the bravura precision with which it was delivered in the first place.
And that was my problem: I couldn't help thinking. Finally, with just a few needed: "Six or gay, mate! Six or gay!" A few balls later, I drove a boundary. Two to win. Next ball I ran down the pitch and skewed it straight to cover. They went berserk. "Oooooooh," said mid-off as he skipped past me. "Can I have your number?"
I didn't give it to him.
A few weeks later, in the same league, our opening batsman - an old-fashioned walker - played and missed at a young bowler, whose appeal was turned down by the onfield umpire, who himself had been batting just an hour ago. The bowler gave the usual histrionics - head in hands, turf-kicking, chuntering - and went back to his mark. Very next ball, big nick, and our man walks off. The bowler turns to the umpire and spews a volley of abuse. Our umpire, not unreasonably, tells him where to stick it. It then takes five men - including two of ours, both of whom ran on to the pitch - to restrain the bowler, who'd lost it completely, from kicking off there and then. Their captain was full of apologies, but the bowler, even at the end of play, remained unrepentant. In his eyes, it was all fair game.
I've played cricket for most of my life. I love its spirit and I believe in it. I'm not about to pretend that it's all cress sandwiches, ice and a slice, and clapping the batsman for managing to walk to the wicket. Most teams round our way have got a couple of bigmouths who can turn the whitest air blue, and spend large portions of their Saturday afternoons seeking to do precisely that. I know ours does. Hell, even my workplace does. You know the sort - the bantz-merchants, team geezers, the chieftains of chirp. It's sometimes delivered with a smile but not always, and who cares if it hits the spot or not? The sole point is to create tension, turn the atmosphere uglier, unsettle the opponent and win the day.
These are austere times for sports participation. It's a battle out there - for central funding, schools commitment and next-generation engagement. In this regard, cricket is no different.
Yet in other regards… The game still means something. And how many sports can truly lay claim to that? So what about the kids who retreat from this great idea because the edges are too sharp? Or the veterans, fed up with being insulted all afternoon on their only day off? The umpires, walking off halfway through an innings and heading straight for their car, their old off-white robes of once-unimpeachable authority fluttering in the wind, as happened in our league this season? And what of the sideline pundits - invariably parents - who've never made a single mistake in their lives, vocally refusing to accept the scandalous notion that others have, and do?
"Second XI club cricket seems to hold a specific antipathy towards a good, fair game," says Jamie Mann, captain of the twos at Walton-on-Thames CC. "All-too-common suspect club umpires, egotistical middle-aged men and testosterone-filled blokes who haven't become the cricketers they had hoped to be, all help push that line where behaviour becomes hostile and unnecessary more often than most would like. You wouldn't think the question 'Any chance he'll use the bat?' would lead to the offer of substituting leather and willow for fisticuffs in the car park, but it happens, and it happens a lot."
Just as neutral umpires help keep the peace, so their absence leaves a hole. The lower down the levels, the fewer paid-for umpires, and that brings its own problems. But Nick Cousins, senior executive officer at the ECB's Association of Cricket Officials (ACO), is concerned that the higher levels are being affected too. "Subjectively, I think there are two negatives. One is players who would in the past have come into umpiring now saying, 'I don't want any of that, thank you very much. I don't want to be abused on a Saturday afternoon.' And the second one, where undoubtedly existing umpires walk away from the game, certainly at Premier League and top-level recreational cricket, because they no longer enjoy their afternoons."
Steve Vear, chairman of the Southern Premier League Disciplinary Committee, agrees. "Sometimes what umpires are expected to put up with, in terms of poor player behaviour, can get too much." He says that educating players is the key to protecting cricket's distinctive reputation. "We had one example of an ex-pro, who didn't know swearing on the field of play was actually cited as illegal in the league's code of conduct. The younger generation are often less adept at expressing their disappointment towards an umpire's decision in alternative ways than to get themselves in trouble by showing dissent."
"If we try and pretend that the attitudes of players have not changed, then I think we're deluding ourselves," says Cousins. "I tend to get a bit defensive because I think it's not just a problem for cricket or cricket officials. It's more of a societal issue where you're no longer conditioned to do as you're told by teachers, police, anybody in authority, including officials.
"And then you add into that the quite brilliant methodologies by which we can now check decisions on the big screens in major games, and you put that together and you have a rather pungent mix, which means that if an umpire gives you out on a Saturday afternoon, you don't just put your bat under your arm and walk off anymore. You give them a stare, or if you think you've hit it you point your bat at them."
So is the game becoming a little less attractive for the way some of its players and watchers choose to conduct themselves? "Last year there were five games abandoned because there was fighting on the field of play. Now, on the one hand you can say that's five games from many thousands. On the other, you can say it's five more than we had five years ago. The idea that you'd have a game abandoned because of fighting was once unheard of. And in each of those games the umpires can't do anything. They've got no onfield authority to send people off. That's why we at the ACO fully support and endorse the MCC's proposal to give the onfield umpire full authority to actually deal with this behaviour."
The MCC's proposals would give umpires the power to send players off for stepping out of line. "We may lament the times we live in," writes Scyld Berry in the Telegraph, "and the erosion of respect for authority in society as a whole. But the MCC, as guardian of the game's spirit and laws, has to do something to arrest the quantifiable increases in physical violence on the field."
There are obvious procedural problems here. What would have happened in our game, say, if our non-independent umpire had attempted to send off the very bowler who was giving him verbals? And should he, as a stand-in doing his 10-over stint, even be allowed to do so? As ever, the captains must show the way. The hope is that having a deterrent in place would safeguard against it kicking off at all. "I'm a 22-year-old skipper," says Mann, "and I play cricket with my mates. But if one of my lads is completely out of order on the field, then I'd happily send him off. The integrity of the game is far more important than potentially losing out on a pint from a teammate on a Saturday night."
Cricket's always reflected the times. I get that. It's unrealistic to hope that the game be an island. But those stolen Saturdays spent running after cricket balls and praying for an early finish are precious, and perhaps more precious than ever. One reason for cricket's enduring grandeur lies in the steaming piles of grimness off the field. So let's not be reminded of it until Monday morning at least.
This article first appeared in All Out Cricket magazine.