Chris Tremlett smiled knowingly at the mischievous suggestion that Stuart Broad, rather than he, might be a more appropriate ambassador for a Spirit of Cricket assembly at a south London primary school.
Two days earlier Broad had been relieved of around £1,500 by ICC match referee Alan Hurst for abusing umpire Billy Bowden at Headingley in the second one-dayer against Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile Tremlett was talking to a hall full of 7 to 11-year-olds through the meaning of the Brett Lee-Andrew Flintoff image from the Edgbaston Test of 2005. Part of the Chance to Shine project of taking cricket to state schools, these special assemblies are run in conjunction with MCC. The message is simple, as it needs to be: play hard, play fair, have fun. Basic life lessons about winning and losing and respecting your opponents.
In the full glare of 360-degree media scrutiny, elite umpires and match referees players, in most cases, cannot get away with bad behaviour. My impression is that basic standards of sportsmanship at the elite level have improved markedly over the past decade. Daryl Harper, who withdrew from what was to be his final Test between West Indies and India, might disagree.
The same is not necessarily the case as one travels further down the cricketing food chain. Three weeks ago the ECB announced that eight county players had been penalised under their code of conduct. Most of these offences involved dissent at umpires’ decisions.
Last week the Sussex batsman Murray Goodwin smashed the ball to the boundary after being given out. And yesterday Essex were fined £5,000 and their captain James Foster banned for two matches for persistent ill-discipline. The ECB chastised the county for having “taken no prompt action following umpires’ reports on misconduct of players”.
Evidence of collapsing standards or the system at work? It depends on who you speak to. One first-class umpire I spoke reckons that player behaviour is not getting worse but that umpires are being more “diligent” in reporting and dealing with issues having been instructed by the ECB to get tough on miscreants.
As the stakes are raised financially and in terms of the professional rigour the modern game demands, players, under pressure like never before, are losing the plot. James Foster would not be top of many people’s list of most combustible cricketers.
Previous generations of players would socialise with umpires at the end of a day’s play creating an informal bond of shared knowledge and trust. This practice is by and large extinct these days as the iced bath as replaced the iced beer as the end-of-day wind-down of choice.
The practice of captains’ reporting on the performances of umpires is coming under scrutiny. Umpires receive appraisals from the ECB, just as employees do in other fields, and I understand that some captains have been confronted by umpires who have discovered or deduced that they have offered less than complimentary opinions about their performances.
The Decision Review System has brought many benefits to Test cricket and settled arguments that in previous years would have festered. But there is a sense that its inception has legitimised the questioning of umpires’ decisions at all levels of the game. Bowlers, and spinners in particular, in county cricket are becoming more used to asking umpires why a decision has not been given in their favour.
Below the first-class game, though, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest a major problem simmering away. In league cricket there seems to be an acceptance of bad behaviour. You don’t have to go too far to find stories of unpleasantness and the aforementioned first-class umpire told me that until he retired from playing and went back into the leagues he hadn’t realised how poor the behaviour was.
One club player I spoke cited an example from a recent match. He was batting in a league match and a stumping appeal was turned down by the opposition’s umpire (so no suggestion of home bias). Three balls later he was bowled and the wicketkeeper kicked the stumps down. The batsman inquired of the keeper if he was “all right”. The response was: “F*** off you p****.” The umpires’ report gave both sides full marks for their behaviour.
I heard a story from a match involving two public-school old boys’ sides where two players squared up to each other. One of the players observed wryly that despite being a teacher at an inner-city state school in London, the only time he came close to being into a fight was in a ‘jazz-hat’ cricket match.
It is the responsibility of the various leagues to administer their own codes of conduct but that process relies on umpires to report players who transgress. But that is easier said than done if you are giving up your Saturday afternoons to umpire for the love of it and a bit of pocket money. Do you want the hassle or the paperwork?
The ECB’s recent announcement of a new code of conduct for junior cricketers – a joint initiative with MCC – can be seen as either a proactive response to a growing problem, a depressing sign of the times or possibly a bit of both. They ought to turn their attention to the adult end of the game.
At club level umpires and players are doing it supposedly for fun and yet all too often that fundamental principle is being lost amid what one player describes a “win-at-all-costs mentality that manifests itself in witless, aggressive sledging and arguing with umpires”.
It is easy to be cynical about the Spirit of Cricket message, to dismiss it as twee or out-dated but if we’re honest with ourselves it is an essential truth. Even at the highest level, cricket is a game and everyone should remember that.
John Stern is a former editor of The Cricketer
Follow him on Twitter @Cricketer_John