Why the red-card proposal is important for grass-roots cricket
In less than a year, by October 2017 if meetings and procedures and decisions pass smoothly, umpires will be able to send players off the field and out of a game, turning a match, any match, into ten players versus 11. This was one of the recommendations made by the MCC's World Cricket Committee, which met in Mumbai just before the India v England Test last week. This is cricket's S-bomb. S for send-off.
That may seem over-dramatic; there is little chance of a send-off actually occurring in an international game. But if a provision for such finds its way into the laws of cricket, it marks a practical acceptance of the fact that while the spirit of the game is a noble idea, it certainly needs some teeth.
According to the recommendation, umpires at all levels will be able to pull out the symbolic red card when "serious disciplinary breaches" are committed by players on the field. These breaches are: threatening an umpire; physically assaulting a player, umpire, official or spectator; or any other act of violence on the field of play. In other words, Lillee v Miandad would definitely be send-off worthy. While in the case of the BBL's Warne v Samuels and the IPL's Pollard v Starc, it could largely depend on the umpire's mood on the night.
The MCC's World Cricket Committee (WCC) consists of 12 individuals, with Mike Brearley as chairman, John Stephenson as the MCC representative, and ten other former cricketers across countries and generations: Jimmy Adams, Charlotte Edwards, Sourav Ganguly, Rod Marsh, Tim May, Brendon McCullum, Ricky Ponting, Ramiz Raja, Kumar Sangakkara and Vince van der Bijl. While the WCC is funded and administered by the MCC, it is meant to be independent and meets twice a year.
In Mumbai the WCC was shown slides and videos of incidents from the game, particularly the infamous Bermuda brawl of September 2016. In a club final between Cleveland County CC and Willow Cuts CC, the Cleveland wicketkeeper, Jason Anderson, clouted a Willow Cuts batsman on the head, which led to a fiery on-field scrap. The WCC was also told that five English club matches in 2015 were abandoned because of on-field violence.
Ramiz, current WCC member, told ESPNcricinfo that the new rule was meant to help umpires at the non-professional level - clubs, leagues, schools - because there is no strong deterrent against what is being seen as an increase in abuse at those levels of cricket, which has led to, the WCC was told, shrinking numbers of umpires willing to stand in games. "It is the lower tier of the game that needs this more - an in-match punishment for violent behaviour," Ramiz said. "It just gives a little bit more power to the umpire so that any act or threat by a player of physical violence will be red-carded and taken out of the game. Your team should also bear the consequences."
It was possible, he said, that incidents of physical threats and assaults may "not even be experienced… It is just arming an umpire in case something like this happens. Because it was felt that the other punishments are not as severe for an on-field physical assault as they should be." The Bermuda perpetrators were punished, but only later.
How might a situation be managed in an international match, where heated words can be the norm? What constitutes a physical threat worthy of a player being sent off in an ODI? I'm going to break your bones / crack your skull? Rearrange your face? Make sure you will never procreate? Fortunately for players and officials alike, it may never come down to having to categorise language as threatening or otherwise. The elite game is now policed by a match referee, four umpires and a dozen television cameras; there are detailed gradations of code-of-conduct violations, and suspension and demerit points are provided for.
The WCC must now put its recommendation to the MCC's cricket committee and get it - among other recommendations, about bat sizes and so on - pushed through into what will be the eighth edition of the Laws of Cricket. The ICC's own cricket committee, which meets in May 2017, will now study the WCC recommendations. It will then propose to the ICC Chief Executives' Committee (CEC) which recommendations should be accepted, which amended, and which ones need not be taken on board in the international game - because cricket is well-served by the ICC's own playing conditions and codes of conduct. The CEC will ratify these recommendations and, if approved, introduce them into international cricket from October 2017.
Research into player behaviour has found that a trend down the ranks often has its origins at the top. Dr Tom Webb and Dr Mike Rayner from the University of Portsmouth conducted three separate studies on abuse faced by referees and umpires in football, cricket and rugby union. The figures from football were almost predictable. When referees were asked how often they received what they considered verbal abuse, the distribution of responses - "every match" (22%), "every couple of matches" (38%), "a couple of times a season" (30%) - told their own stories.
Rugby union and cricket officials were asked, "Have you ever been a victim of verbal abuse as a referee/umpire?" In rugby union 53.7% of the respondents answered "yes"; for cricket the corresponding figure was 56.2%. Of the 763 cricket umpires who were interviewed "across pathways", said Webb, with a majority being from club and recreational level, 21 said they had experienced physical abuse. An umpire from the Derbyshire leagues told BBC Radio Five Live that he had been spat at.
Webb said football research had found that officials say that the kind of player behaviour on show at the elite level, in premier-league and international football, has a direct influence on lower-level games. "I can see the same in cricket. That is potentially something that can happen there as well." It is what the WCC recommendation aims to stamp out.
Football, as Webb said to ESPNcricinfo, has been a professionalised and therefore high-stakes sport for far longer than cricket or rugby union. The exposure to cricket and rugby at the highest levels continues to increase. With more exposure comes greater sponsorship, higher TV-rights value, and more money in the game, "and that means there's more at stake for players and coaches… and associated pressure on match officials". Like in football, where every decision from an official can have an "impact on the team's performance, where they finish in the league, therefore how much money they make and how much players and clubs make".
In the English summer of 2016, the MCC ran trials across certain leagues, schools and universities of the various sanction - from penalty runs to the player being sent off the field - to see their impact on player behaviour. The symbolic "red card", an MCC trials training document emphasises is not intended to replace established disciplinary procedures and that the "on-field and post-match systems operate in tandem and co-operation."*
Elite cricket's big recent dust-ups have come from franchise T20 cricket: Samuels v Warne and Starc v Pollard. Those were seen on TV and debated on social media but punished only off the field. There is little to stop the actions of elite cricketers on TV from influencing behaviour on club grounds and maidans around the world.
Before the arrival of neutral umpiring in the international game, it was, Ramiz said, "open war", which is how Lillee v Miandad came to be. The Bermuda incident looked to him like a throwback to the late '70s and '80s. Stories abound from first-class and club cricket everywhere of players getting into fistfights on the field and umpires being attacked.
An article in the Hindu this week recounted incidents from decades past, in which first-class umpires sent cricketers off the field for a session each in separate games. The umpires were Bomi Jamula and Vinayak Kulkarni, the players Vijay Mohan Raj, for sledging, and Sanjay Manjrekar, for comments about the officiating in the game in question.
Reactions of international match referees to the WCC ruling have not been forthcoming, but they are familiar with the individual quirks and temperaments of umpires. Darrell Hair armed with a red card would always have been eventful.
In terms of radical shifts in the laws of the game, the send-off could rank up there with playing cricket under lights. Except, unlike with floodlights, this latest move is focused not so much on shaking up elite players - who are well policed in disciplinary matters - but mostly those involved in the recreational game, and maybe T20 franchise cricket run by the many national boards. In the "cricketainment" stakes, you have to admit, removing a player from a game does rank pretty high.
*December 16, 8.40GMT: The paragraph about MCC trials in the 2016 summer was added to the original piece
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo