June 30, 2014

It's time to stop treating umpires with contempt

Since players know they can get away with murder, umpires are often reduced to being a chorus

Angelo Mathews and Joe Root engaged in a long argument at Headingley, sometimes shouting over the top of the umpire © PA Photos

If you aren't a parent, ask someone who is. What is the first rule, the foundation of your authority? Everyone I've asked agrees: if you make a threat, you'd better hold your nerve. If you say to a child, "Don't do that again, or else… " you'd better be sure you follow through with the "or else".

If, instead, all you do is keep repeating, "Now look, I've told you once and now I'm telling you again, stop or else!" - but never actually do anything - then children quickly get wise to the fact that the threat is empty. There is no sanction, there will be no punishment, there are no repercussions. Happy days! A world without authority! If this is your child's rational expectation, then you can expect being a parent to get even harder.

So it is with umpiring and refereeing in sport. The absorbing final day of the superb Test series between England and Sri Lanka was marred by an ongoing argument between Angelo Mathews and Joe Root. There was so much cricket to celebrate: an elegant, calm maiden hundred by Moeen Ali, whose fluid batswing will delight England fans for years; a valiant last stand by James Anderson; some spirited fast bowling by Sri Lanka; a majestic hundred by Mathews himself. And yet, at the back of my mind, I couldn't stop comparing the scene to children behaving badly in a supermarket with their parents impotently repeating "Stop it or else" while the kids threw food in the aisles.

This is what happened. Some kind of argument began after Sri Lanka persuaded the umpires to change the ball. Words were exchanged between Root and Mathews, who had to be separated by the umpires. There was quite a long period of time when the argument continued, shouted over the top of the umpires, who were reduced to mouthing phrases like, "That's enough!"

To be fair, I suppose they were in fact saying those words out loud - it just looked like they were mouthing them on TV. Not that it made any difference. The argument continued as if the umpires weren't present at all. The umpires, instead of the being the ultimate authority, seemed to be reduced to a kind of chorus.

At this point, it is customary to pretend to be terribly shocked. We talk about "moral failures" and people "losing their rag" in "the heat of the moment". But falling back on moral outrage is exactly the wrong framework. In the vast majority of cases, sportsmen know exactly what they are doing. They are rational agents doing what they can get away with.

Worrying about "right and wrong" blinds us to the real levers that can influence human behaviour. We need less moralising and the shrewder use of tangible incentives

Everyone, in fact, behaved entirely rationally at Headingley. That is the real problem. The players calculated that they could keep the argument going as they wished without any real sanctions being imposed on them. And they judged correctly. They effectively called the umpires' bluff.

It does not follow, however, that everything can be blamed on the umpires. Ask yourself: what stopped them from taking a stronger stand? They, too, were asking a question and making a calculation: "If I actually do something here, what will happen to me, will I be backed by the ICC? Will I ever be asked to umpire again if I'm deemed to have 'lost control'?" After all, no one actually enjoys standing in the middle of a field telling people to calm down and being completely ignored. Yet the umpires clearly felt the risks outweighed the gains.

The same principle applies to slow over rates. Test captains calculate that they can slow down play, sapping energy from the occasion and their opponents (and effectively defrauding the public of a percentage of the ticket price), and that nothing will happen. Again they are correct in this rational assessment. Match referees seem as reluctant as umpires to intervene.

The authors of the bestselling Freakonomics series, the economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner, argue that the key to changing human behaviour is to put away your moral compass and focus instead on incentives. Worrying about "right and wrong" blinds us to the real levers that can influence human behaviour. We need less moralising and the shrewder use of tangible incentives.

That is a perfect summary of how cricket can reverse the gradual erosion of the authority of umpires. I was not shocked that an argument got out of hand at Headingley. And I was not surprised that nothing happened about it. It all seemed painfully predictable and mannered.

Instead of a gradual creep towards contemptuous treatment of umpires, I propose:

- umpires be given the right to use yellow and red cards (or an equivalent system of final warning then sending off) and encouraged to use them
- suspensions to follow
- the ICC supports and promotes strong umpires rather than compliant ones: after all, umpires stand on the authority of their employers
- fielding captains be held accountable for the actions of their team on the pitch (no more pretending that they didn't see/hear/know)
- fines and bans for captains who fail to control their team

It is important to add that cricket is played by human beings and human beings are not perfect. No one should expect or want the game to be angelic. As a professional batsman, I never felt aggrieved when a fast bowler - having found the outside edge only for the ball to fly safely through the slips - let me know how lucky I was. Nor did I expect him to avoid certain phrases as he explained these facts to me. Bowling is hard work and when we are tired and at the peak of competitiveness, words slip out - as every amateur squash player knows. That is not "sledging" or a disciplinary issue. It is life.

But when players amble towards each other in the middle of a great Test match, entirely in control of their emotions, stringing together long speeches of ordered prose, all spoken over the heads of the umpires… then the game has a problem.

But instead of "something must be done", this time some things (see above) must really be done. Otherwise the whole game becomes like the parent at the supermarket, watching a child call their bluff.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter