Sad, but necessary reflection of the times we live in
MCC has to grasp the nettle and early signs from New Zealand are that it might just work, says Scyld Berry
IT IS, unfortunately, necessary for cricket to give umpires the power to send players off the field, in order to preserve the game’s special quality as a physical yet non-contact team sport. As the third one-day international between South Africa and England was staged in a warm and friendly atmosphere, the introduction of such penalties may have seemed superfluous. The nearest a player came to fisticuffs was when Ben Stokes blew a fuse after one of his own team-mates, Adil Rashid, had misfielded. However, this match was staged in front of four official umpires and a match referee. Thousands of spectators at Centurion and millions on television would have deplored any misbehaviour. The players self-policed – being professional cricketers who would suffer a major loss of earnings if they descended to brawling on the field. It is for the amateur game that MCC’s introduction of these unprecedented powers is intended – and the lower rather than upper reaches. Where the game is umpired by two well-qualified officials, in full possession of their faculties, the players are less likely to consider themselves above the law. Through the ages, bad behaviour on the cricket field has usually resulted from poor umpiring. The ethos of cricket, moreover, has not so much changed as reversed in the last generation. It used to be a game of fear and defensiveness, where the only attacking was done by the village blacksmith. But in the white-ball era the emphasis is on aggression in all respects. So, we may lament the times we live in, 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 increase in physical violence on the field. Feedback from New Zealand’s experiment is encouraging. In the Northern Districts association, these new powers are already being trialled – and serving as a deterrent. Players were sent off initially, but once they realised how damaging it was to their side to be off the field, they began to heed the umpires’ warnings. New Zealand Cricket has also added the telling observation about the national captain as a role model. Brendon McCullum’s influence has permeated through the sport down to the grassiest roots, so a cricket match in New Zealand is a contest of skills, not a slanging and sledging match. As the trials unfold – whether in games organised by the MCC or in leagues where officials want to join in – procedural questions will arise. If, at the bottom of the food chain in a game without two independent umpires, a player taking a turn with the white coat decides to send off a member of the fielding side without due reason, should he be allowed to do so? Or will both umpires have to agree? Or, if they agree that a penalty is required but cannot agree which one, will the lighter one apply? But these are details. Whisper it not to Dr WG Grace in the eternal hall of fame that the new measures are necessary. In fact, if he were playing, he would probably be the first to get sent off.