The hot-headedness of Stuart Broad, in part a symptom of his current problems as a bowler who has temporarily lost the art of taking wickets, cost him half his match fee after England’s second one-day international against Sri Lanka at Bristol. It is only the most publicised example of a disturbing trend in the professional game this season. Cricket’s version of “racket abuse” is in danger of getting out of hand.
Last week, in the relatively peaceful atmosphere and sylvan splendour of Arundel, I saw the incident that will surely lead to the suspension of a county cricketer for the first time since Mark Ramprakash got lost in a red mist and abused the umpire Rob Bailey in a match between Surrey and Sussex at The Oval. Murray Goodwin, who was involved in that incident three years ago, is, like Ramprakash, a brilliant batsman, similar to Ramprakash both in his ability to buckle down and concentrate and to give total and passionate commitment to the team cause.
When Goodwin was given out lbw to Jeetan Patel at Arundel, having played himself in for an hour at a time when Sussex’s chance of escaping from a poor first innings batting display against Warwickshire probably depended on his ability to lead a long rearguard, he made his disagreement, or disappointment, plain enough by lingering at his crease and checking the relationship of his pads to the off stump.
He had gone right back and left a ball that spun back and might or might not have done enough to hit the wicket. Unwisely for a man already in danger of suspension after being reported twice over the last two seasons and receiving three points each time under the ECB’s fixed penalty system, he then left the officials no option but to report him a third time by hitting the stationary ball, hockey style, to the boundary as he made his way towards the steps in the Arundel bank that lead to the pavilion.
Gerard Elias, QC, the long-serving chairman of the ECB’s disciplinary committee, was actually watching from the top of the bank at the time, which made it all the more certain that Goodwin would face an official hearing by a disciplinary panel. Elias was on a tour of the county circuit in an effort to try to get to the bottom of the sudden rash of angry behaviour that has led to a backlash by umpires this season. He is one of several who believe the trend to be due to the intensity of county cricket, and of Twenty20 in particular, and the desperation of every county to win at a time when all of them are feeling the cold winds of financial restraint.
I am less concerned with Goodwin’s individual case, which at Arundel really came under the ‘silly’ rather than seriously bad tempered label, than the general slippage in behaviour, which more than one umpire has confirmed to me this season is worrying them all. Goodwin, after all, is generally an example to his fellow professionals and to all who watch him, and quite unlike, for example, the South African firebrand Andre Nel, who was suspended for two matches in April last year after three instances of dissent, each attracting a three-point penalty.
In passing I can’t help wondering whether the general South Africanisation of county cricket has something to do with the harder edge that has been evident both in the England team and the domestic game generally. They are brought up to play the game toughly and not always quietly in that great sporting nation, although they always seem, also, to produce sportsmen who are articulate and courteous off the field.
Another cricketer of South African background, Steffan Piolet of Warwickshire, is the only other player currently with six penalty points against his name. He received a double dose of punishment for dissent and bad language following last season’s Second XI county final.
First-class umpires are worried by excessive mass appealing, a plague for too long, and by bad language when a decision goes against a player, the crime that cost Broad his fine last week. So far this season the ECB has placed penalty points on the records of 17 men, four more than at the same stage of last season. The worry, as always, is that instances of petulant behaviour set a bad example to the young watching either on the grounds or on television. James Foster, one of the last to be disciplined, actually had a slanging match in front of the cameras.
No one, I hope, under-estimates the pressures on cricketers in the public eye and this is a trend that probably merely reflects social mores, as fashions in cricket always will. The problem, of course, is that club and school cricketers will try to emulate the professionals. At the recent Eton v Harrow match at Lord’s an umpire had to give the Harrow fielders a stern talking to for over-doing their appealing and the word from umpires in premier recreational leagues is that the game is generally getting more lippy.
Perhaps the precis of the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket message should not just be ‘hard but fair’. How about ‘hard, fair and silent’? No one can blame any cricketer for thinking that the decision just made by an umpire was terrible. We have all done that often enough, and sometimes, of course, we were wrong.