Red cards in cricket: Arming umpires with this disciplinary tool is a bad idea

Is MCC’s World Cricket Committee solving a problem or fuelling it with the proposed red card-arming of umpires in all forms of the game from October 2017?

To understand the import of the question one has to only go back to the turbulent days of 2007-08 when India were playing Australia Down Under in the most acrimonious circumstances imaginable.

This was the series in which the infamous ‘Monkeygate’ scandal involving Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds wrecked cricketing relations between the countries. Then, and indeed later, the culprits leading to the unsavoury stand-off, complaints, banning, threatened boycott, and subsequent inquiry committee hearings, were identified as umpires Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson. Both, particularly Bucknor, did such a rubbish job that they provoked Indian players and media to openly state that the team had been swindled.

 Red cards in cricket: Arming umpires with this disciplinary tool is a bad idea

Representational image. Reuters

The festering discontent with umpiring decisions in that second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground led to frayed tempers and snapping, snarling and hurling of charges by team members at the opponents. In no time these led to a full-blown confrontation involving players, cricket boards and media of either side.

Nearly a decade after the incident, it is unimaginable to even perceive what the two umpires would have done that distant day if they had been armed with red cards! Luckily their powers and that of match referee Mike Proctor were rather limited.

But the cricket committee which met in Mumbai earlier this week was not too bothered about the consequences in international cricket. According to former Australian captain Ricky Ponting who actually filed that complaint against Harbhajan Singh leading to the rancorous ‘Monkeygate’, and who is now a part of the MCC Cricket Committee, there would be little to fear in international cricket as he believed that “with the amount of cameras and microphones on an international cricket field the players have toned things down."

The cricket committee was instead extremely concerned with a spreading culture of violence at lower levels of the game and thus took cognisance of a recent research done by Portsmouth University which revealed that 56.2 percent of 763 umpires surveyed had experienced verbal abuse and 21 percent had reported physical violence. A fifth of the respondents had given up umpiring because of increased abuse.

The committee was thus encouraged to recommend the red card system following the results of a trial last season in New Zealand when yellow and red cards were used and were deemed a useful deterrent. It apparently showed significantly reduced instances of bad behaviour.

Consequently, the MCC Cricket Committee headed by former England captain Mike Brearley has recommended that umpires should have the power to send off players in cases of threats to an umpire, physically assaulting another player, umpire, official or spectator.

Apparently the problem is wide-spread in England where their football culture seems to have crept into the cricket and reduced the time honoured expression ‘that’s not cricket’ to an archaic term. Just last year, five club matches were suspended because of violence.

But for long it was incompetent or biased (take your pick) umpiring that led to issues, not only in village cricket but also international cricket.

The worst was in New Zealand when the famous West Indies side led by Clive Lloyd was brought to its knees in the early 1980s. The main culprit was a school teacher and part-time umpire Fred Goodall, who despite several objections was deliberately posted in all three Tests and later given a national award!

However, the famous photo of Michael Holding sensationally kicking the stumps was actually triggered by the incompetence of another umpire John Hastie. A Kiwi newspaper described it as “back alley behaviour” but in his book Whispering Death, Holding wrote that he was not prepared to bowl again and was actually on his way back to the pavilion when Lloyd and Derreck Murray persuaded him back.

Fellow paceman Colin Croft called the photo, that took the cricket world by storm as the “best sports picture” he’d seen. “He should have been signed up by Manchester United on the strength of it,” said Croft.

At one stage during the Test, the West Indies were on the verge of a walk-out. They refused to come out after tea and had to be coaxed. They had even packed their bags at the end of the day’s play and were on the verge of flying back.

Croft, in fact, was so incensed by Goodall’s poor umpiring that he once barged into the umpire on his run-up. The umpire, shaken-up, walked to Lloyd to protest against Croft’s colourful language and actions but the West Indies skipper was unmoved. Croft himself said later that Goodall’s acting was so good that he ought to have been “given an Oscar for it.”

Of course Test and first class cricket are dotted with unsavoury instances which include Pakistan’s Javed Miandad almost whacking Australia’s Dennis Lillee with a bat; West Indies’ Sylvester Clarke hurling a brick and thereby sending a spectator to hospital in a series in Pakistan; Inzamam-ul Haq going after a spectator with a cricket bat in Toronto during an ODI against India; West Zone’s paceman Rashid Patel armed with a stump chasing North Zone’s Raman Lamba during a match.

But the MCC which sits again in February to ratify the red card recommendations has its eye firmly on behaviour at the grassroot level of the game. Introducing the card system will reduce potential for such incidents at all levels it believes.

That may be so. But the lingering fear is about incompetent umpires. Goodall’s conduct and his irrational backing by NZCC might be passed off as extreme jingoism, but what of neutral umpires like Benson and Bucknor?

Suspending or banning umpires later would be poor consolation for teams at the receiving end. Perhaps the filtration system should be so stringent as to ensure that poor umpires never make it beyond grassroot level. Otherwise, the day is not far off when a red card-armed umpire causes havoc. May be the MCC and ICC need to address that too.

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Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 13:51:05 IST