Steve Smith fines Glenn Maxwell: Why does cricket always penalise players for 'overstepping the mark'?

“The leadership group got together and we decided to fine Glenn. We thought that was a sufficient punishment."

Even in a year where strongman authoritarianism has returned to fashion, the judicial process Steve Smith applied to Glenn Maxwell last week seemed a bit arbitrary. The all-rounder’s crime had been to voice displeasure at batting below wicketkeeper Matthew Wade for their state side Victoria, a move he claimed (rather dubiously) cost him the chance of a Test slot. It was maybe a crass thing to say about a domestic and international team mate, but the response seemed crasser still. Even the phrase Smith used, The Leadership Group, conjured up peculiar images, sounding as it does like a hard-boiled seventies movie about ex-Nazis who’ve regrouped in South America.

 Steve Smith fines Glenn Maxwell: Why does cricket always penalise players for overstepping the mark?

File photo of Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell. AFP

Smith explained the thinking behind the penalty thus: “Everyone was disappointed in his comments, I've expressed that with him myself and spoke to the team. One of our values is respect and having respect for your team mates, opposition, fans and media. I thought what he said was very disrespectful to a team mate and his Victorian captain.” That's all well and good, but there’s something a little bit insidious about a senior clique of players getting together ad hoc and imposing a random fine on a team mate. Under what framework was this done? The Cricket Australia code of conduct? The Geneva Convention? A set of moral rules plucked out of the air like Smith’s astonishing catch against New Zealand in the first ODI? Details were undisclosed, as was the amount of the fine. There were stern words for Maxwell in many quarters, from coach Darren Lehmann to the doyen of pacifism, Dean Jones.

A player showing tunnel-vision ruthlessness was apparently no longer an Australian cricketing virtue, but a finable offence. Maxwell is one of his country’s and cricket’s most delicate talents, a genius, but one whose magic no one quite knows how to best utilise, perhaps not even the player himself. It remains to be seen what effect Smith’s very public punishment has on his all rounder’s on field wizardry. Maybe positive, maybe negative, maybe none, but there were many who felt this was something of a back-to-school moment for Australian cricket, akin to Mickey Arthur’s well-intentioned but much mocked 'Homeworkgate' fiasco. Unfortunately for Maxwell and other unconventional sorts, his chosen sport loves to take a heavy boot to its difficult butterflies. This is not about punishments for drug-taking or corruption – these do have clear laws, reasonably clearly applied – but about moral tut-tutting at an alleged troublemaker.

Last week Kerala’s Sanju Samson also found himself the target of troubled frowns and sighing paternalism after being issued a show-cause notice by his state association for apparently breaking his bat in a temper and then wandering out of the stadium. A four-man panel has been called to investigate by the Kerala Cricket Association. Not to trivialise Samson’s ill-discipline, but there are murders that get assigned less manpower, though at least unlike Maxwell he seems to have been afforded some sort of due process.

There is a long and glorious history of this sort of thing in cricket. Ireland banned the game itself completely in the seventeenth century on the grounds of immorality. In England, a village player was barred from another team’s pavilion for over seventy years for calling one of his own team mates “a big fat fool” when a teenager in 1938. But these are rather quirky examples compared to the more serious disciplinary edicts handed down by boards and leadership groups. It’s not that they should turn a completely hippy blind eye to players’ inappropriate behaviour, whoever is the judge of inappropriateness. It is just that they so often seem to do so to the detriment of both the player and their own team’s long term interests.

Another player who has flitted between beauty and mediocrity throughout his career is Darren Bravo, who last month was sent home from the ODI tri-series in Zimbabwe after an online spat with West Indies Cricket Board chairman, Dave Cameron. Having been denied a top tier contract, Bravo sent a crude and unprofessional tweet, albeit directed towards a man whose WICB reign has proved almost as divisive his British politician namesake’s Brexit referendum. It was also clearly typed in a fit of red mist anger, a state which is never the best time to use social media as probably most people can testify. Cameron’s retribution was swift but not necessarily strategic: The West Indies are currently on the cusp of a period of, if not optimism, then certainly less pessimism. They recently lost but competed doggedly in Test series against two of the top-ranked teams on the planet, India and Pakistan. In the tri-series they failed to make the final and completely alienated an already demoralised senior player along the way. So who benefited from Bravo’s punishment? Not the West Indies. Not Bravo himself. Perhaps only Cameron’s ego.

Similarly in 2014, Shakib al Hasan’s splendid wings were clipped when he was accused by his board of having "a severe attitude problem, which is unprecedented in the history of Bangladesh cricket”. Quite the claim, and an offence – alongside an altercation with a fan – which earned the all-rounder a ban of six long months. The Bangladesh Cricket Board just a short while later decided to reduce this by three and a half months, a decision which the more cynical attributed to the side’s poor performance without him. So was the reduction due to an official appeals process working well (as the BCB suggested), some results-based expediency, or because a decision taken by officials in the heat of the moment seemed rather less fair after they had calmed down and counted to ten?

Legend status is equally no defense when it comes to avoiding a slap down for upsetting the apple cart. Back in 1991, David Gower’s famous Tiger Moth plane ride over an England Ashes practice match landed him with a thousand pound fine. It is reasonable to suspect Gower may often spend a thousand pounds on something to wash down his main course, but his form undoubtedly dipped after the financial and verbal condemnation he received from both management and captain Graham Gooch. After scoring two hundreds and a half century in the first three Tests amid his side’s general haplessness, he failed to pass fifty in the last two. Gower was soaring both on and above the pitch and while it is speculation to put these subsequent failures down to how he was treated for his aerial japes, the punishment clearly didn’t inspire him.

There is possibly no question in life more subjective that what sort of punishment people deserve for erring, but too often in cricket, snap judgments seem to reflect administrators’ – and captains’ – desire to make an example of a flamboyant player who's got too big for his boots. No one wants to relive the Kevin Pietersen debacle, but this week the discarded ex-England flamingo was doing his beautiful thing again in South Africa’s Ram Slam T20 tournament. It also happens to be the week England are playing in Mumbai, four years after Pietersen's 186, one of the finest knocks ever played by anyone on Indian soil. Two years later, his international career was stolen from him because the ECB thought he look firstly “disinterested” and secondly out of windows. It remains an extraordinary judgement, deserving of a rejig of Alexander Pope’s famous complaint about excessive punishment. In life, butterflies get broken on a wheel. In cricket, they too often get broken on a whim.

Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 12:59:27 IST