August 27, 2008

Men behaving badly

The standards of player conduct have slipped in the county game, and umpires and captains are content to turn a blind eye

Model citizen no more: Ramprakash keeps his altercation with Goodwin going as the teams leave the field at The Oval © PA Photos

Australians are honouring the centenary of the birth of the best and most famous of all modern cricketers this week. Of the multi thousands of words written about Don Bradman, plenty were critical - as Raymond Robertson-Glasgow once wrote, he was too colossal a figure not to attract envy - but not one person ever accused him of a failure of sportsmanship or even a show of temper on the field of play. What a dismal contrast with too many modern players.

One in particular was in the news for the wrong reasons last week, lucky to be so, perhaps, in the middle of the Olympics when headline writers were otherwise occupied. While Aussies celebrate an icon, Englishmen are wondering what the most prolific homegrown batsman of the present generation might have achieved had he possessed some of Bradman's coolness of temperament.

During only his fourth innings since becoming the 25th and perhaps last batsman to reach a hundred first-class hundreds, Mark Ramprakash, sadly, blew his top in the course of making another painstaking century in last week's LV County Championship match for Surrey against Sussex. By unaccountably extending a tirade of fury to one of the umpires during a very public display of the red mist that sometimes characterised his pre-Surrey career, he made it certain that he would be reported and punished.

Extra maturity in the normally composed and admirable Ramprakash has not, alas, amounted to full maturity. My theory is that being captain exaggerates that pressure-cooker intensity that has been part both of his success and of his failure to make the most of rich ability and comfortably the best technique of any recent player.

Lest anyone think, incidentally that it is heresy to see him mentioned in the same paragraph as Bradman, let it be recorded that the immortal Don reached a hundred hundreds in his 295th innings, the more human Ramprakash in his 675th. Graeme Hick, the only other hundred-hundreds man still playing, was the third fastest to do so, in 574 innings. All had extraordinary ability and rare powers of concentration, but their relative merits as batsmen are not the purpose of this piece, which is to regret the falling standards of behaviour in cricket.

In this case the fact that he was captain of Surrey when he turned furiously on Murray Goodwin, who had spoken to him - provocatively, Ramprakash will claim; politely, according to the fielder - was doubly significant. The first paragraph in the long and detailed laws of cricket makes it absolutely clear: "The major responsbibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains."

The essential point, of course, is that when captains in professional cricket set a bad example, and players follow their lead, it will spread to the rest of the game.

A club cricketer of my acquaintance was recently barged into deliberately by a bowler many times his size in a match in a minor division of the Sussex league, then verbally abused, apparently for having the temerity to score runs off him at a Bradmanesque rate. When the batsman drew the attention of the foulness of the bowler's language to the umpire, the official, in this case a member of the home club, said that he had heard nothing. When umpires and captains turn a blind eye, the game is in serious trouble.

Instances of disciplinary points being lost by county cricketers are increasing, and the national side has not always set a good example. Although England won the ICC award for good behaviour during the five-year reign of Michael Vaughan, they let themselves down badly during the Nottingham Test against India last year when the jellybeans were scattered and puerile remarks designed to goad the batsmen were picked up by the stump microphones. It represented a policy of deliberate aggression that had started under the Duncan Fletcher-Nasser Hussain partnership.

There is always a place for genuine humour in the game but none for calculated gamesmanship of any kind. It is too often forgotten that an attempt to "distract" the batsman while he is preparing to receive a delivery is a breach of Law 42 every bit as much as the equally topical question of whether it is legitimate for players to suck sweets with the ulterior motive of sugar-coating the ball with saliva to help maintain its shine on one side. The line between this means of encouraging swing and the physical roughing up of one side of the ball to enhance reverse movement is blurred, but "artificial substances" are expressly forbidden by Law 42, just as much as interference with the seams or the surface.

Respect for umpires used to be fundamental to the county game, but many of those who have fallen foul of the new procedures learned their cricket, significantly, in the southern hemipshere

England, of course, are not the only culprits. The Australians got some idea of what a fair proportion of their own public thought of their hostility towards opponents, during the Sydney Test match early this year. India, themselves no saints, had proved as much in the same jellybean Test at Trent Bridge when Sreesanth unleashed a beamer to Kevin Pietersen and a bouncer to Paul Collingwood, bowled from round the wicket and a yard beyond the popping crease. Sreesanth lost half his match fee for a petty little tilt at Vaughan's shoulder as he walked past him, but he should have lost the rest of it for that deliberate no-ball, and if the senior India players believed the beamer to have been deliberate, he should have been left out of the side until the lesson was learned for good.

Strong, as opposed to officious, umpires make sure that aggro does not go too far. If necessary, they have had sanctions at their disposal since the last revision of the laws. The application of a five-run penalty to the fielding side for an unfair jibe at a batsman should soon put a stop to any nonsense, always assuming that the umpire subsequently gets support from his employers. The newly retired Darrell Hair. arguably chose the wrong time and place to make his stand against ball-tampering, at the Brit Oval in August 2006, but he was applying the law. What happened to him subsequently hardly encouraged the others.

That county cricket has had to introduce a points system for proven misdemeanours is another sign of the times. Respect for umpires used to be fundamental to the county game, but many of those who have fallen foul of the new procedures learned their cricket, significantly, in the southern hemipshere. As captain of Hampshire, Shane Warne was an adornment to the game in England but he set a poor example by so often debating umpiring decisions, albeit usually with a smile.

Sophisticated television technology has often exacerbated feelings of resentment. Replays, a fact of the modern game, have unintentionally undermined umpires and sown seeds of mistrust, making it harder than ever for players to live up to the spirit of the game. But, of course, if we want trust to return, batsmen should walk when they know they are out. And if captains exercised their responsibilities we would need neither run-penalties nor disciplinary procedures.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times