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the final word

Player Behaviour: It’s Only A Game, Right?

Phil Walker by Phil Walker

For editor and club cricketer Phil Walker, it’s been a summer of aggro out on the field. But has he just been unlucky? Or is it a sign of wider behavioural problems afflicting the amateur game?

Maybe I’d had a bad week (I had). Maybe I was hungover. Maybe I’m emotionally fragile (no maybe about it). Or maybe it was simply this colourless corner of London’s greenbelt getting under my skin. Whatever. Out there at the crease, it felt more like I was kicking around the fag-end spillover of a provincial nightclub than a cricket match on a sunlit Saturday. And I felt it.

We were winning the game. I was a few not-out. It wasn’t especially tense – they hadn’t got enough, and their failure to do so had left a sour taste in the air. Throughout the course of tea, their No.4 whinged on loudly about his dismissal, which had clearly carried to second slip (I was at first). But this is second XI cricket, where a neutral umpire 
is a rare treat, and so there’s a vacuum. And, in effect, this bloke was filling it with slurs about an oppo player’s probity. But that’s OK, right? Because it’s all part of the game.

We’d had a little wobble, so I was trying to bat my age and ‘see us home’. When they saw I was on the block, they crowded me. The skipper, some portly defeat in a tattered cap, announced he was “getting right under his nose”. And then it started. The yob cacophony.

I know I should brush it off. Just a bit of banter. Come on fella, it’s just a laugh! And look, when the game’s over it’s a different story! All’s well that ends… with a limp handshake and a swift half before buggering off.

“He’s gotta be the most boring man in Essex!” was the only line in amongst the standard rubbish vaguely worthy of a smile (not least for its dramatic irony), so I offered one. Because it’s only a game, right? And yet, as I studiously prodded the pitch between overs, I couldn’t help thinking that the scavenging around the joke by the rest of his team for the next half an hour had rather undermined the bravura precision with which it was delivered in the first place.

The famous near-fight between Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad

Violent incidents in recreational cricket are on the rise

And that was my problem: I couldn’t help thinking. Finally, with just a few needed: “Six or gay, mate! Six or gay!” A few balls later, 
I drove a boundary. Two to win. Next ball I ran down the pitch and skewed it straight to cover. They went berserk. “Oooooooh,” said mid-off as he skipped past me. “Can I have your number?” I didn’t give it to him.

A few weeks later, in the same league, our opening batsman – an old-fashioned walker 
– played and missed at a young bowler, whose appeal was turned down by the onfield umpire, who himself had been batting just 
an hour ago. The bowler gave the usual histrionics – head in hands, turf-kicking, chuntering – and went back to his mark. Very next ball, big nick, and our man walks off. The bowler turns to the umpire and spews a volley of abuse. Our umpire, not unreasonably, tells him where to stick it. It then takes five men – including two of ours, both of whom ran on to the pitch – to restrain the bowler, who’d lost it completely, from kicking off there and then. Their captain was full of apologies, but the bowler, even at the end of play, remained unrepentant. In his eyes, it was all fair game.

I’ve played cricket for most of my life. I love its spirit and I believe in it. I’m not about to pretend that it’s all cress sandwiches, ice and a slice, and clapping the batsman for managing to walk to the wicket. Most teams round our way have got a couple of bigmouths who can turn the whitest air blue, and spend large portions of their Saturday afternoons seeking to do precisely that. I know ours does. Hell, even my workplace does. You know the sort – the bantz-merchants, team geezers, the chieftains of chirp. It’s sometimes delivered with a smile but not always, and who cares if it hits the spot or not? The sole point is to create tension, turn the atmosphere uglier, unsettle the opponent and win the day.

Neutral umpires help keep the peace on the field

Neutral umpires help keep the peace on the field

These are austere times for sports participation. It’s a battle out there – for central funding, schools commitment and next-generation engagement. In this regard, cricket is no different.

Yet in other regards… The game still means something. And how many sports can truly lay claim to that? So what about the kids who retreat from this great idea because the edges are too sharp? Or the veterans, fed-up with being insulted all afternoon on their only day off? The umpires, walking off halfway through an innings and heading straight for their car, their old off-white robes of once-unimpeachable authority fluttering in the wind, as happened in our league this season? And what of
 the sideline pundits – invariably parents – who’ve never made 
a single mistake in their lives, vocally refusing to accept the scandalous notion that others have, and do?

“Second XI club cricket seems to hold a specific antipathy towards a good, fair game,” says Jamie Mann, captain of the twos at Walton-on-Thames CC. “All-too-common suspect 
club umpires, egotistical middle-aged men and testosterone-filled blokes who haven’t become the cricketers they had hoped to be, all help push that line where behaviour becomes hostile and unnecessary more often than most would like. You wouldn’t think the question, ‘Any chance he’ll use the bat?’ would lead to the offer of substituting leather and willow for fisticuffs in the car park, but it happens, and it happens a lot.”

Just as neutral umpires help keep the peace, so their absence leaves a hole. The lower down the levels the fewer paid-for umpires, and that brings its own problems. But Nick Cousins, senior executive officer at the ECB’s Association of Cricket Officials (ACO), is concerned that the higher levels 
are being affected too. “Subjectively, I think there are two negatives. One is players who would in the past have come into umpiring, now saying ‘I don’t want any of that, thank
 you very much. I don’t want to be abused on a Saturday afternoon’. And the second one, where undoubtedly existing umpires walk away from the game, certainly at Premier League and top-level recreational cricket, because they no longer enjoy their afternoons.”

Who wants to give up their weekend to be verbally abused?

Who wants to give up their weekend to be verbally abused?

Steve Vear, chairman of the Southern Premier League Disciplinary Committee, agrees. “Sometimes what umpires are expected to put up with, in terms of poor player behaviour, can get too much.” He says that educating players is the
 key to protecting cricket’s distinctive reputation. “We had 
one example of an ex-pro, who didn’t know swearing on the field of play was actually cited as illegal in the league’s code of conduct. The younger generation are often less adept at expressing their disappointment towards an umpire’s decision in alternative ways than to get themselves in trouble by showing dissent.”

“If we try and pretend that the attitudes of players have not changed, then I think we’re deluding ourselves,” says Cousins. “I tend to get a bit defensive because I think it’s not just a problem for cricket or cricket officials. It’s more of a societal issue where you’re no longer conditioned to do as you’re told by teachers, police, anybody in authority, including officials.

And then you add into that the quite brilliant methodologies by which we can now check decisions on the big screens in major games, and you put that together and you have a rather pungent mix, which means that if an umpire gives you out on a Saturday afternoon, you don’t just put your bat under your arm and walk off anymore. You give them a stare, or if you think you’ve hit it you point your bat at them.”

What affect does on-field conduct have on participation?

What effect does on-field conduct have on participation?

So is the game becoming a little less attractive for the 
way some of its players and watchers choose to conduct themselves? “Last year there were five games abandoned because there was fighting on the field of play. Now, on the one hand you can say that’s five games from many thousands. On the other, you can say it’s five more than we had five years ago. The idea that you’d have a game abandoned because of fighting was once unheard of. And in each of those games the umpires can’t do anything. They’ve got no onfield authority to send people off. That’s why we at the ACO fully support and endorse the MCC’s proposal to give the onfield umpire full authority to actually deal with this behaviour.”

The MCC’s proposals would give umpires the power to send players off for stepping out of line. “We may lament the times we live in,” writes Scyld Berry in the Telegraph, “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 increases in physical violence on the field.”

There are obvious procedural problems here. What would have happened in our game, say, if our non-independent umpire had attempted to send off the very bowler who was giving him verbals? And should he, as a stand-in doing his 10-over stint, even be allowed to do so? As ever, the captains must show the way. The hope is that having a deterrent in place would safeguard against it kicking off at all. “I’m a 22-year-old skipper,” says Mann, “and I play cricket with my mates. But if one of my lads is completely out of order on the field, then I’d happily send him off. The integrity of the game is far more important than potentially losing out on a pint from a teammate on a Saturday night.”

Cricket’s always reflected the times. I get that. It’s unrealistic to hope that the game be an island. But those stolen Saturdays spent running after cricket balls and praying for an early
 finish are precious, and perhaps more precious than ever. One reason for cricket’s enduring grandeur lies in the steaming piles of grimness off the field. So let’s not be reminded of it until Monday morning at least.

Have Your Say

Comments (22)

  1. Nick Clark 2 years ago (Edit)

    Really good read - thank you.

    You and your contributors have hit the nail on the head. It is down to the captains. Your next article should be about what it takes to be a captain in today's leagues. They set the tone.

    Bad ones start a fire and pour on the petrol. Good ones know how to keep the team competitive without turning individual players into bit part characters for 28 Days Later...

  2. Hector Jacobson 2 years ago (Edit)

    There are a lot of w****** playing and they need calling out, laughing at, and, if necessary, to be told they can't play. All by their own club.

  3. Richard 2 years ago (Edit)

    Great article. I am a qualified level 1 umpire. After one season of officiating in league cricket I decided never to do it again, due to the conduct of certain teams in my local league. It is friendlies only for me from now on.

    Interestingly, I was playing in a Sunday game, guesting to help out a friend. Two of the team I was playing for 'walked', but opined that they would not have done so had it been a league game. Maybe it is league cricket itself that has become too competitive, leading to a downturn in player behaviour, rather than the social factors mentioned in your article?

  4. Andrew Shields 2 years ago (Edit)

    A great read, and an important issue.

    Captains set the tone - but every individual is responsible for their own actions. A player should never be able to justify bad behaviour on the basis that the captain didn't step in to prevent it.

  5. Mark 2 years ago (Edit)

    Well great to see despite your efforts to not use foul language you manage to publish one when you ask for responses?
    The English language, na Saxon terms ????
    Article good and yes too much going on and no discipline at all, umpires afraid and don't want hassle, players aren't bothered they would walk away if banned anyway so let's get on with it?
    The kids see it all

  6. Simon Prodger 2 years ago (Edit)

    Great and timely piece Phil. There is no question that discipline in the recreational game is now a major issue and the regularity of incidents requiring disciplinary action by leagues is increasing. Within my role leading the National Cricket Conference, the anecdotal evidence clearly points towards a deterioration in behaviour generally: I've even had a scorer tell me he will never score for his club again because of the behaviour of his own team! The card system can only be realistically applied in matches involving neutral umpires; to try to do so at lower levels, where team or club members officiate, will sadly most likely result in an increase in confrontation. Does cricket merely reflect the increasingly intolerant attitudes of our cultural society at large? I think it does; can we hold the game up as a beacon of decency and fair play? We are losing players - regular ones - as well as officials and it exacerbates an already burgeoning crisis in player participation within the recreational game.

  7. Paul Juckett 2 years ago (Edit)

    An excellent article on an issue that I am afraid blights all sports at an amateur level.

    I believe the issue is society as a whole. Nobody believes they can be told what to do (or what is right and wrong) by anyone else. Since the 1980's children have been subjected to less and less discipline and those are now our country's 15 - 30 year age group - the very group that my experience says are the over-competitive, gobby and generally unpleasant players on the cricket field.
    Thankfully, it is still a minority of them, but their behaviour is validated by their team mates allowing it to happen. Stern words, softly spoken by a team mate goes a long way to making these players understand they're not big and it's not clever.

  8. Nolan Wilde 2 years ago (Edit)

    Great article. Sadly players think they can say what they like. Was a time when you could count some opposition players as friends you see twice a year. Now you barely know them despite playing every year because being hostile to the opposition is more important

  9. Adam 2 years ago (Edit)

    As a 2nd team captain myself, I often witness a lot of "banter" changing hands. Sometimes witty, more often than not abusive and arrogant. I personally will allow chat to a certain extent but when it becomes personal and nasty, I draw the line. Unfortunately I have been pushed this season on one occasion to snap and uncharacteristically lose control of my emotions. It was not something to be proud of and would most certainly hope never occurs again. What's it all for? It's 2nd team cricket.

  10. Gordon 2 years ago (Edit)

    I'm in the same position as Richard. I used to umpire for a third XI side on a Saturday. Because of the hostility of players and a home side who thought I should be biased toward them I have given up umpiring league cricket. I now umpire friendlies for my works club and the attitude and atmosphere is better.

    Good article and interesting to see I'm not the only one who has had bad experiences in the past.

    Doesn't change my love for the game - just my impressions of some of the people playing it.

  11. Secret Squirrel 2 years ago (Edit)

    Its not just the youngsters. I recently was asked to score an in-club friendly. The chairman (who has been retired for five years) decided to play for the regular friendly team. Our Sunday friendly team is made up of a hardcore of regulars who love cricket but for various reasons; no longer play or have no hope of playing on Saturdays in league cricket.

    The opposition was made up of regular league level players, who decided to make this match about how much they could smash the friendly team about for. It soon came time for the chairman to bowl a spell. One of the Sunday friendly regulars (who had his elderly parents boundary side) dropped a catch and was subjected to a loud torrent of abuse by the chairman, the likes of which would've made Peterson blush.
    The friendly regular player was devastated to the point where I doubt he will be back next year and his quiet post game complaints were met with "You know XXXX , that's just him". I've seen or heard no sign of an apology taking place since. the chairman obviously assumed his "that's just him" reputation and "that's cricket" belief negated any need for civil communication or retribution.
    Another member subscription bites the dust due to boy's club bullying and poor "cricket playing standards' being offered against goo "cricketing ability".

  12. Jon 2 years ago (Edit)

    I play in a lower division of a Village Sunday League, and some of the teams we've played against this year have been hard to play. There's a universal belief that one team in our league are a "bunch of *****" - I missed our game against them but that was what my team said, and another opponent told us he felt the same. We've also had a flashpoint in one game where swearwords and insults were exchanged - but oddly most of us got on well with the other team.

    Umpires are always an issue in our league. If you get one, they are affiliated to the teams - if you don't provide one, you forfeit the toss - and last season we came across two who were cheats. Fortunately we're nice enough to let it slide, but I did tell one last year that it wasn't a one-day international when he was widing anything his team missed. At the time we were bottom, winless and on our way to conceding 250 in 40 overs - and the umpire, just to make sure, then gave one of our openers out caught behind off his thigh, when one of their men had refused to walk for one of the clearest nicks I've heard. It leaves a sour taste, and that team's post-promotion failure makes us all chuckle.

    Respect seems to have gone out of the game. I like having a laugh with the other team in the field, but too often they just aren't bothered any more. Our ump is brilliant, chats to both teams and tries to make sure we're all enjoying ourselves. Win or lose, we're always happy with him because we know he'll be fair to both sides.

    Sadly though as it's a voluntary thing, reliable umpires are few and far between, and that makes it tough. But for the level we're at, I just want to enjoy a game of cricket. Various factors make that harder... Conceding a ton to a ringer last weekend wasn't a great one, for example... That said, the games against the nicer teams in our league do make up for it. We lost by ten wickets earlier in the season, but they were great blokes and ultimately that makes it better.

  13. Michael Cooper 2 years ago (Edit)

    I'm lucky that I only play friendly Sunday cricket so my team has never really come in for (or indeed been the perpetrators of) abuse. Our belief is that you give up a whole day to play cricket, so if you're not enjoying it, what's the point?

    That said, I have played and watched some local league cricket and it can take a turn towards the unfriendly, with abuse being shouted from the sidelines and aggression towards the umpires. I think that we need to give more powers to the umpires and indeed local cricketing administrations to punish the clubs that commit the acts. Maybe fining a club a few hundred quid for ill discipline might do the trick?

  14. Stuart MacTavish 2 years ago (Edit)

    I'm a premier league umpire and I think there are several points here. Firstly the mythical "spirit of cricket" . There is nothing here not covered by the laws or just being a decent bloke. To me it is an outdated anachronism and needs to be ditched. It could be replaced by a beefed-up law 42 or by introducing a code of conduct enforceable on the field. The CofC would be part of the laws, rather than a preamble. It is unlikely you'll find too many players under, say, 40 who ,frankly, give a monkeys arse about the SofC or many who even know what it means.
    Secondly, a club should not appoint any captain without making sure he FULLY understands his responsibilities under both the laws and the SofC/CofC. Too many have no idea at all, some even see the umpire as someone to be manipulated to some kind of advantage. I think a small laminated card, similar to the ones carried by umpires, should be made available with a list of a captains duties as regards the umpires. Forcing captains to carry this during a game would be no bad thing.

  15. AB 2 years ago (Edit)

    Name and shame. Name the clubs, name the players. If the clubs won't give the players life bans, then the clubs should be asked to leave the league with immediate effect.
    If one of my players mouthed off to an umpire or member of the opposition, they'd find themselves be off the pitch, out of the club house and barred permanently from the ground within the space of 10 minutes. Zero tolerance is the only policy. Captains, chairmen and league administrators who turn a blind eye to this kind of behaviour are as guilty as the louts themselves.

  16. PB 2 years ago (Edit)

    Just like Captain's playing an important role to help keep their teams in check to make cricket game enjoyable for all.

    I do feel some umpire's needs to stay neutral to help with the tone of a game. Sadly it is not always the case

    I have seen umpires feel intermediated to give the decision to support countyex-international players or are sweet talked into not apply the law of cricket e.g. A player using the keepers glove to field the ball and not awarding 5 penalty runsdead ball.

    As per the MCC's Spirit of Cricket "Captains and umpires together set the tone for the conduct of a cricket match. Every player is expected to make an important contribution towards this." I do feel umpires do need reminding of this.

  17. LMR 2 years ago (Edit)

    As a scorer for over 25 years I too, have witnessed the deterioration in players' demeanour. It used to be the norm that a male would never swear in the presence of a female, let alone the females swearing at all. Nowadays, some of the worst offenders I've seen have beenseen have been women's teams. But swearing is only one part of the lessening of behavioural standards. One of the problems I've seen, and in several parts of the country too, is that even when Umpires report individual players, the Leagues concerned don't apply their regulations strictly enough. I don't think that monetary fines are the answer. If Leagues were to apply points deductions to a club, it would most certainly cause the clubs to look at the players, and the worst behaviour would be controlled more as clubs would not allow the worst perpetrators to play any more.

  18. Naz 2 years ago (Edit)

    Good article and I am sure our players will get to read it and would be interesting to gauge their views on it. To be honest we have leadership, we have procedures and we have disciplinary committees etc. However if all of these sit on the shelf and no one is implementing and monitoring then players feel they can get away with things. Club's need to provide leadership and send a stern message as regards who they are representing and what the consequences would be if players step out of line. It is a pity that at the top level players get away with decent by miserly fines. Role models have a huge impact on the game and behaviour of players. Leadership is needed at that level too. Provide good leadership. clarify roles of captains and committees and communicate with clarity to players at the start of the season what the club expects. Be firm and deal with those who step out of line. Believe me if they see one or two suspensions they will think hard before stepping out of line.

  19. AE 2 years ago (Edit)

    Some interesting views of a fantastic article.
    For those who believe the Spirit of Cricket is not worthy must look to how they Officiate the games they are involded within.
    When it quite clearly states that Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game and any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself should be the marker for everybody (sadly not in alot of cases). This is especially relevant for the Captains since the major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with them. This i believe must be a further education role from the Leagues to the Captains at pre-season meetings to continue to instill these requirements.

    Law 1.4 clearly puts the onus on the Captains to uphold the SofC with 3.7 giving the Umpires the authority they should need. But since the majority of the players and Captains do not know the full Laws to which they play, beefing-up laws to take into account the Preamble and removing it would see little improvement i believe.

    As the article states, holding the Captains and Club to account for the conduct of their teams and players is a vital part of the leagues roles and may, if enforced correctly, take note of Steve Veers comments within the article as some of the abuse that Umpires receive is totally unnacceptable and unjustifiable.
    Some Captains do take their roles very seriously and need to be acknowledged for this, but those who allow their players to continually behave in an abuse way towards either the opposition or the Officials should also be cited at the same time as the player. For each incident that is upheld by the league discipline committee for a player, the Captain should also be held to account; 3 incidents upheld equating to a ban for the Captain; a futther 3, double the ban etc etc. Would that help keep things in order on the field of play .. you would hope so, although with the current levels, we may need more Captains.

    The report of one Captain who commented on social media that they would now never move into umpiring because a number of his players had been reported during one incident packed game must be a blessing in disguise as what tone would be taken forward if he believed it was justified that they could act that way?

    The vacuum of available umpires that is seen at lower leagues where only a single 'Club' umpire stands regularly for each match, or even just the players themselves is a hard area to tackle regarding behaviour as reports seldom will get submitted. Its from within these players that we need to look to grow our future umpires but sadly majority will never coem forward havign been on the end of the tongue lashing from an opposition player or players.

    But it is deeply regrettable that as many have heard, many senior umpires are considering their future in our 'beautiful game' due to the innapropriate behaviour of those who also give up a Saturday to enjoy cricket itself. Play hard and play fair and respect the spirit of cricket should be the mandatory working spoken at all pre-toss meetings between the captains and umpires. Lets set the tone from the start and hopefully things should then calmly follow.

  20. Javadali saiyed 2 years ago (Edit)

    I am level1 umpire and umpiring in middlesex premier cricket league on Sunday and few matches I have done for middlesex championship to get experience because I am doing level 1a this year.
    I have read plenty of players bad behaviour in this email. It's not only players who behave like that, my point is; have any of you thought of umpires behaviour? This is my first year doing umpiring and I have found lots of problems with my colleague who are qualified umpires and umpiring for a long time and most of them has forgotten the law of cricket. We are the umpires and it's our job to make sure that the game must play within the law of cricket.
    My suggesion to ECBACO is to find a way to give a refresher lesson to the umpires.
    We have to do something in order to keep this lovely game alive.
    Thanks.

  21. Stephen Kent 2 years ago (Edit)

    There's one problem with the concept of fines and punishment for players: captains and clubs won't do this, someone else has to.

    Outside of the bigger, well known clubs (at least in my area) the smaller clubs need all the players they can get for both the subscriptions and to get a full strength team (or even just a full XI) out for a game.

    Ironically, if the atmosphere was friendlier, more people might play and this problem negated.

  22. Steve Ayres 2 years ago (Edit)

    I made a 200 mile round trip as a neutral to watch one of the semi finals of the National Village knockout. A tense finish was approaching when the in batter was caught low down in the outfield. The closest person to the event was the standing umpire and there appeared little doubt the catch was clean. Clearly the batter was upset, maybe over the catch, maybe he got a send off. It soured the atmosphere of what was a reasonable crowd. 5 minutes later a fight broke out in the crowd stopping the game. Crowd trouble in recreational cricket......

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