If even Prince Harry had donned his spikes and beaten Usain Bolt on Saturday night, he may well have received a rather lukewarm reception from the British crowd. Ruining a hero’s farewell always heralds something of a frosty response — ask Narsingh Deonarine — but it was a particularly odd atmosphere in the London Stadium, given it was the twice-banned Justin Gatlin who gatecrashed Bolt’s valedictory party.
There are nuances to Gatlin’s case, mitigating to some and irrelevant to others. His first offence related to a condition suffered since childhood; his second he advocated was due to cream containing testosterone being rubbed into his legs. Doping has been a relatively uncommon offence in cricket, but its most famous case did involve a similar defence of inadvertent guilt, albeit with the substance in question being administered by a mother rather than a masseur.
When it comes to actual on-field cheating to gain an advantage, cricket’s attitudes to crime and punishment can be rather confusing. Indeed some outright cheating (such as backing up too far) is benignly condoned by many fans and pundits while the 'Mankading' it occasionally induces is regarded as the work of the devil. The ICC, alongside the MCC, is charged with converting this peculiar labyrinth of value judgments into laws and a disciplinary structure, all of which has to uphold the omnipotent “spirit of cricket”. There are constant tinkerings and, with regards to Mankading, the law was recently changed to encourage the dismissal of creeping non-strikers. However, the most significant change in cricket’s judicial processes was the introduction of the demerit system almost a year ago, a system under which last Sunday Ravindra Jadeja became the latest player to receive a ban.
This new structure sees players receive points for bad behaviour and if they accrue too many they can miss a match or matches. Jadeja is the third player to receive a suspension since September last year, behind Kagiso Rabada and Niroshan Dickwella, who picks up points with the frequency taxis pick up passengers. If you accept the premise for demerits — to punish serial offenders — then the system can be hailed as a success but its fairness, as with all punishment systems, is certainly open to question.
In Jadeja’s case, his first offence involved repeatedly running on the pitch in a Test against New Zealand in October 2016, for which he received three demerits. His second, in Colombo on Saturday, was for hurling the ball at Malinda Pushpakumara after fielding off his own bowling. It’s something which has been done thousands of time in cricket history, but is now worthy of three points which goes on your record where previously you may have got away with a telling off or a modest fine. Jadeja’s weekend demerits took him over the threshold of four within 24 months so he will not feature in the third test in Pallekele. Neither were insignificant offences, but coming nearly ten months apart some may feel Jadeja a little hard done by. Perhaps a two-year window until points are wiped out is a bit too long?
One of the benefits of the new system is that it prevents a player falling victim to a particularly harsh punishment handed down for a single offence by an overzealous referee. In Alok Prasanna Kumar’s fascinating piece on the previous system used between 1992 and 2016, he highlights the discrepancies in punishments handed out by different match officials. With the demerit system it’s not impossible for a player to get an instant ban, but the likelihood is apparently reduced. The problem of inconsistency therefore moves to how the points themselves are handed out and, while there are guidelines, there still seems plenty of scope for players to feel aggrieved.
When Suranga Lakmal committed exactly the same offence as Jadeja, throwing the ball back at the batsmen during an ODI against Zimbabwe, he received two demerits not three. In the case of Rabada, his first three points were handed out for a “physical altercation” with, yes, Dickwella, although the incident seemed rather innocuous, two men in their early twenties giddy on their own natural testosterone. The South African then received the point which got him a ban for giving Ben Stokes a profanity-laced send-off at Lord’s last month, which again was not entirely edifying but, like Jadeja’s ball hurl, something seen in cricket a thousand times before.
This isn’t to defend telling your opponent to “f*** ***” and if you contrast the reaction of Rabada to his dismissals of Stokes in the first and fourth Tests, many will feel the system has worked well. In the first instance he famously suggested the England all-rounder should depart to the pavilion. In the second he did a contained fist pump to himself so perhaps here is a young man who has learnt his lesson, rectified his behaviour and stopped corrupting youthful fans with his potty mouth. Rabada was unlucky, though, not only that the stump mics at Lord’s picked up his outburst but that, unlike so much other fruity language the viewer hears, the ICC decided to act upon it. The stump mic is specifically mentioned within the citation, so if you’re going to swear, do so at a ground with more background noise than Lord’s. Such as Port Elizabeth, perhaps.
Does vulgar language even have to be addressed to the opposition to warrant a fine? UAE coach Owais Shah received a demerit for telling one of his fielders to “'F****** chase it!' and 'F****** get there quicker!” from the dugout. Surely monitoring the language coaches use to their own players is a puritanical step too far, and something which has, as far as can be seen, only happened since the new system came in. Bangladesh’s Tanbir Hayder got a demerit for shouting “F***!” after being hit for six in a match against New Zealand. The citation says it was heard by the on-field umpires so presumably any swearing within their earshot now immediately constitutes censure. But can we really believe the only players who have sworn within earshot of an umpire are those now listed in the ICC’s demerit disciplinary records?
The other aspect where cricket could perhaps have taken this new system as a chance to move forward a little is in relation to what constitutes dissent to an umpire. Players have always been reprimanded or fined for looking at their bats or lingering at the crease after being given out. It has always to me been a particularly pious rule, and is one which now appears even more absurd in light of the fact that DRS now constantly reveal the shocking news that umpires are incredibly fallible. Nevertheless, a glance at your willow or lingering around will still get you one demerit point. If you review the decision, though, and are successful, your insubordination is immediately forgotten. Not a new anomaly, but an anomaly which could have been expunged when the new system came in.
If you attempt to con the umpire by breaking the stumps when not in control of the ball (such as the UAE’s Ghulam Shabbir) or suggesting the ball hit your arm rather than bat (Canada’s Navneet Dhaliwal) or claim a catch not taken cleanly (Mohammad Nabi) then you will get a demerit. But how is this form of conning any different to a player not walking when they’ve hit it, especially as in all above instances they may or may not know what has actually transpired? This again seems the "spirit of cricket" trampling on the "spirit of logic".
Another nugget out of Kumar’s investigation was the fact that between 1992 and 2016, the first and third worst culprits in terms of offences committed were India and Australia respectively. This is of note in light of the fact that by far the most acrimonious series to be played since the new demerit system was introduced was between those two very sides earlier this year. Yet remarkably, as Smith, Kohli and Warner in particularly sledged each other repeatedly, not one single demerit was handed out during the tour. Perhaps the verbals were of a particularly cultured and polite variety, administered in such calm tones neither the umpires nor stump mics were able to pick up anything worthy of censure?
It is welcome the new system dispenses with the sort of instant justice Bolt received for his false start in the 2011 World Championships Final, but it would be a shame if what ostensibly appears a decent scheme couldn’t be tweaked a little further to up the consistency at the expense of the morality. This is especially so if it is going to mean players missing more games than under the old scheme. Kumar notes that 40 bans were handed out in 24 years under the previous structure. We’ve already had three in under twelve months with the new one. No justice system is ever perfect, but when it comes to demerits, the ICC should carry on tinkering.