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Cricket has always been a sport that has conjured up images of fair play and basic decency. Despite episodes from the last 25 years or so that have seen players pushing, shoving and kicking each other, or trying other methods of unfairly dismissing the opposition, cricket has not often been blighted like soccer has by the curse of cheating. After the unseemly events of Port Elizabeth and the reaction to them, cricket is in danger of going the way of soccer. Why?
Most of the critics of Mike Denness seem to me to miss a basic point. Match referees were brought in to the game precisely because umpires around the world were being put under intolerable pressure by events both on and off the field of play. The still-evolving job of the match referee was set up to buttress the authority of the umpires, and on a wider level to promote respect in general for the laws and spirit of the game. What a position to reach - having to appoint extra officials merely to uphold respect for the umpires!
In soccer, many of the 22 players who start a match do so only with as much regard for the rules as the referee on the pitch can impose. When he is not watching, or is "on the blind side" of an incident, foul play often results. Some incidents are still graced with the term "professional foul". This is why video evidence is now used to cover incidents that on-field referees may have missed. It is hardly surprising that the referee misses things in the "win at any cost" culture which prevails in the so-called beautiful game.
This is what is now happening in cricket. It is irrelevant that the umpires on the field may or may not complain about ball-tampering. If players deliberately alter the condition of the ball they are hardly going to do it in front of the umpire. The TV or stills lens finds them out, just as it does in soccer.
Umpires have found themselves on the proverbial back foot in many other areas. The authorities struggle to rein in excessive appealing and sledging. Players fail to help the umpire with disputed catches, or to determine whether the ball has crossed the boundary rope.
Cricket authorities have decided to appoint "neutral" umpires, referees and disciplinary panels, to combat the deterioration of player behaviour and/or outright cheating. If members of the media take a swipe at the umpire or referee, they are behaving exactly like football managers who blame the referee for a poor team performance, as if the players bear no responsibility for their own actions. Denness should not be the target. It is the players who are primarily responsible for incidents connected with the play.
Unless the players clean up their act, these unsavoury incidents will continue. The referees and umpires, just as in football, are easy targets for the media just as they are for governing bodies with a wider agenda. Some players behave not with decency but indecency. For them the spirit of cricket tastes sour indeed.