No excuse for schoolboy sledging, 1998

The end of chivalry

Andrew Longmore

Now that Eton v Harrow is no longer the great social occasion of an English summer, cricket between English public schools rarely gets much space in the national press. The 1997 match between Marlborough and Radley was different.

On a rain-hit day, Marlborough, who were put in to bat, spent 68.3 overs scoring 170, leaving Radley a mere 18 overs in reply. The Marlborough innings was marred by verbal abuse of the batsmen and a number of deliberate no-balls, while on the boundary tempers flared among the spectators. The Warden of Radley admitted that the match was not played in an attractive atmosphere and fixtures in major sports between these two historic schools were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Though the most publicised, this was not the only instance of bad sportsmanship to emerge from schools who once epitomised the Corinthian spirit so absolutely that they would remove their goalkeeper if they conceded a penalty, on the grounds that to defend the consequences of foul play would be improper. In an Under-17 match in Kent, a boy spat at the wicket-keeper after being bowled and had to be forced into the opposition dressing-room at the end of play to apologise.

A match between two crack cricketing schools, Tonbridge of Kent and Grey High School from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with both sides protecting unbeaten records, quickly degenerated from competitiveness into verbal intimidation, and highlighted a clash of prevailing sporting cultures. Tonbridge won, but only after an unpleasant afternoon. One of the umpires deemed the South Africans 80 per cent responsible.

"Most schools will now play two or three overseas sides a season," Paul Taylor, the Tonbridge cricket master, said. "That has an influence on the boys. Grey were competitive to a degree our players had not seen before and one of our boys was drawn into that."

Here, in microcosm, is English cricket's dilemma. "We have to get a bit of nastiness into our game," the England vice-captain Nasser Hussain said the day after Australia had secured the Ashes for the fifth consecutive series. "In Australia, even in grade cricket, they are abusing you, rucking you and making it very clear they want you back in the pavilion pretty quick." There is a danger that, because Australia have been winning and England losing, the courtesies which the English gave to the cricketing world get blamed for the problems.

Umpires at every level of the English game report that teams are more voluble, more excitable, harder to control than once they were. Very few batsmen walk; bowlers pout and teapot when decisions go against them. Encouragement by the fielding side too often crosses the thin line between morale-boosting and naked intimidation - an average of three times in each county match, according to one first-class umpire - and ordinary league clubs are framing their own disciplinary code to enforce standards which, old timers will tell you, were once instinctive.

In a NatWest Trophy match, two Devon batsmen were treated to premeditated verbal - and personal - abuse by the Leicestershire players. And an incident of persistent intimidation of the umpires, in a Bassetlaw and District League match, resulted in a nine-match ban for one captain, a deduction of points and the ostracism by his club of one of the umpires.

Some people say that the game merely reflects modern society, which is louder and more aggressive. Cricket's reputation for good manners has always been a convenient mask for skulduggery, from W.G. onwards. If as the anecdote claims, W.G. was bowled and replaced the bails blaming the wind, these days 15 television cameras would have proved him a cheat. Is it too cynical to suggest that a similar thought passed through the head of Ian Healy, the brilliant Australian wicket-keeper, who disclaimed a dubious catch at Lord's and was applauded for his sportsmanship by umpire David Shepherd on the field and by the entire national press the following morning? Healy is not a cheat, but he may be a pragmatist.

The Australians won, however, without any excesses. The series, given the intense scrutiny, was remarkably free of rancour. That is as it should be. Cricket is a contact sport no less than rugby or football, but it is contact of the mind. Its skills are subtler, its rituals more pronounced. The umpires take the field first, the batsmen leave first, generally applauded by the fielding side. In between, the action is more sedate, calculating and thoughtful. There is time for respect and, as Mark Ilott and Robert Croft would doubtless confirm after their puerile shoving match in the NatWest Trophy semi-final, embarrassment. If protocol is breached, if some fielders slip into the pavilion before the opposing batsmen, the game will not collapse in a heap, it will simply be more anarchic and less attractive.

Test cricket ceased to be a metaphor for fair play long before the systematic assault on a batsman's confidence which has become known as sledging became fashionable. The sadness is that the practice has been lauded, mistaken as a prerequisite for excellence. There is an excuse for Test players, earning a hard living from the game, going over the top. There is none for schoolboys.

"We don't want public school cricket to go back ten years, we've got to move to playing the game relevantly," says Paul Taylor of Tonbridge. "But you can make opposing batsmen feel uncomfortable by bowling and fielding tightly, not by abusing them. Players must respect their opponents as cricketers and people."

The responsibility lies with the headmasters and cricket masters, who in the current cut-throat educational climate can fall prey to the same fear of losing as many football managers. The move towards employing recently retired first-class cricketers as coaches has also consciously or sub-consciously encouraged a misplaced sense of professionalism. They, like cricketers from Lord's to Little Snoring, need to be reminded: England did not lose to Australia because they were too well-mannered; they lost because they were not good enough.

Andrew Longmore is cricket correspondent and chief sports feature writer of the Independent on Sunday.

© John Wisden & Co