"That the senior players in the Australian team are oblivious to the fury they raised among many followers of the game in this country and beyond merely confirms their own narrow and self-obsessed viewpoint."
In the wake of the recent incidents involving David Warner and Quinton de Kock, the above lines are as compelling in 2018 as they were in 2008 when Peter Roebuck wrote them for The Sydney Morning Herald after Australia won a thriller against India.
Even as the world is outraged at the behaviour, you can sense that the perpetrators don't have the slightest sense of remorse. Steve Smith defended his team's action with a lame "As far as I'm aware, we didn't get personal towards Quinton". To be fair, "as far as I'm aware" is still a better excuse than blaming it on a "brain fade".
If you asked them in 2008, they would assure you that they never cross the line with their on-field verbals. In 2018, even to the distant observer, the line has clearly moved to a much lower standard of on-field behaviour. It's not just Australia of course, the on-field (and in some cases off-field) behaviour keeps getting worse every year and some Indian players are among the worst offenders. The Australians remain the most sanctimonious lot though when it comes to defending poor conduct.
Australians though are swift to claim the higher moral ground with their superpower of seeing the elusive line when others are still perplexed. Cricket has crossed the point where players can be allowed to self-regulate. We need laws to govern on-field behaviour now, not a bro code. In an international sport, every individual comes in with his own personal and cultural sensitivities. A "yo mama" joke could be acceptable banter in one culture and an inexcusable indignity to another.
How a team celebrates amongst themselves is their prerogative and regulating it is team management's job. How a team behaves with their opponents is where the administrators of the game need to step in. The umpires need to play a much more prominent role in nipping any unwanted chatter in the bud.
While discussing which insult is acceptable and which is not, one must understand the team dynamics of the game. It's always two against eleven on the field. A batsman is trying hard to focus on a thunderbolt that will be hurled at him at 150 kmph shortly and devise the best plan to counter it. Quite often, his career and his livelihood are at stake. Meanwhile, three fielders start chirping in his ear trying their best to get on his nerves.
It's not just the words but the context that differentiates abuse from banter. In this context, even seemingly harmless words have sinister intentions. Quite often the situation results in a batsman snapping at one of the fielders and saying something hurtful. This is what possibly happened in the case of De Kock in 2018 and Harbhajan Singh in 2008 and it will likely happen again. If a cornered warrior gets one chance to push away the enemy, he will go for the jugular.
A batsman is allowed to request no movement behind the sightscreen that affects his concentration. He should similarly be allowed to report any unwanted verbals that hinder his peace at the crease to the umpire, who should step in and warn the fielding captain that any subsequent chatter, however mild, will invite a severe penalty.
Last year, ICC approved sanctions for offences like dissent, intimidation and assault. The punishments ranged from a five-run penalty to a player getting removed from the game. Umpires should be encouraged to use the authority given to them and come down hard on players. If a line has to be drawn for acceptable behaviour, then that line too, as the cricketing tradition goes, belongs to the umpire.
One area that makes me cringe every time I see it are the send-offs where a bowler or a fielder says something in the general direction of the batsman walking off. It's plain disrespectful to mouth off someone who has just lost a mini personal battle and is walking off.
No sport would condone a send-off, not even a contact or combat sport. Footballers are often criticised for having a go at the referee, but even they don't disrespect their opponents like cricketers are allowed to do. Can you imagine a Cristiano Ronaldo beating three defenders with his fancy footwork, nailing a right-footer past the goalkeeper into the net, and then shout in the face of his grieving opponents, who are lying on the turf, beaten and dejected.
Sports stands for much higher ideals than petty celebrations to insult the loser. While most games have their fair share of unsportsmanlike behaviour, most of them also have laws to control it. Cricket seems to be the only professional sport that believes in fuzzy terms like "spirit of cricket" to govern how players must behave. Spirit of cricket is at best someone's philosophical outlook of the game, and however noble a philosophy may be, you still need clear laws to create an environment where it can thrive.