The incident involving Australian vice-captain David Warner and South African wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock during the first Test at Durban received wide media attention. The two cricketers came very close to getting physical with each other and it was only the intervention of other players that ensured that matter did not deteriorate further. Both the players were summoned by the match referee who imposed stiff penalties on them for contravention of the model code of conduct of International Cricket Council (ICC). However, the disrepute caused to the game would not be washed away easily by the monetary penalties imposed on the players.
The interesting fact is that the fracas took place outside the playing arena but was recorded by closed circuit television cameras which had been positioned in various parts of the premises near the players’ dressing room. The incident took place during the tea break on the fourth day of the match when de Kock, one of the unbeaten batsmen returned to the dressing room. The footage showed Warner being restrained by his teammates from charging up to de Kock with obvious intention of assaulting him physically. The video showed de Kock, who came into the pavilion behind the Aussie players, trying to ignore Warner, even as Usman Khawaja and Tim Paine tried to coax their vice-captain into getting inside the dressing room. Finally Aussie skipper Steve Smith had to come out and pull Warner in even as de Kock moved past him into the South African dressing room.
Stories that emerged after the incident came to light indicated that Warner was incensed because of a comment that de Kock made which he felt was “vile and disgusting about his wife”. South Africans, on the other hand, maintained that Warner had been at their throat during the entire duration of the match. They, in particular, pointed out that during the celebrations by the Aussie players after the run out dismissal of de Villiers, Warner had yelled at and taunted Aiden Markram. It was also revealed that when players were coming off the field for tea interval Warner swore at de Kock using filthy language, near the boundary line. Matters became murkier when de Kock's sister made a post in the social media to the effect that she would hurt Warner, implying that he had made some rude remarks about her.
Match referee Jeff Crowe slapped both de Kock and Warner with penalties for bringing the game into disrepute. While Warner was slapped a level two offence which saw him lose 75 per cent of his match fee and being punished with three demerit points, de Kock was imposed a fine of 25 per cent of his fee and one demerit point for committing a level one offence. Both de Kock and Warner chose not to challenge the charge framed by the match referee though the former attempted to minimise the punishment imposed on him by claiming that he was not the instigator and only said “something” under grave provocation.
In the aftermath of the incident, questions have been raised about the behaviour of cricketers, with many critics and former players coming out in the open against the practice of “sledging” indulged in by the Australian players. They were infuriated by the statements made by Aussie coach Darren Lehmann and some of the players that though they played the game the hard way they “did not cross the line”.
Questions were asked about the sanctity of the “line” and as to who allowed Aussies to decide on it. Even Ian Chappell, who was known to play the game without giving away an inch, called for suspension of not only Warner, but also of the captain and coach of the Australian side. He stated that unless such tough measures were taken, there would soon be instances of fisticuffs and only strong deterrent action against those responsible for on field actions of players would curb this menace.
This incident again brings us to the question of how to maintain aggression on the field of play without allowing it to descend into boorish behaviour. The Australians have traditionally played cricket in a very competitive manner, never yielding a quarter and fighting till the last ball. However, they also developed a reputation for not carrying the events on the field beyond the boundary line. Dennis Lillee could be the most menacing fast bowler when he had the ball in his hand and he would intimidate the batsmen in every possible manner. But he also had the habit of sitting with a beer in the dressing room of the opposing side once play was over for the day.
This practice of playing hard on the field while being friendly off it was changed when Alan Border was at the helm. Border thought that showing any signs of friendship towards the opponents was an admission of weakness. Steve Waugh built on this school of thought to develop the concept of utilising mind games to defeat opponents. The behaviour of present day Australian players is essentially the continuation of this trait of getting under the skin of players of the opposing sides to make the job of their bowlers easier.
Misbehaviour by players on the field are not unusual in any sport but seldom do they descend to the level of fistfights or lead to incidents off the field. The only incident that one can remember where sledging on the field of play led to physical assault off it was the “slapgate” involving S Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh during the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League in 2008. In that instance, Harbhajan slapped Sreesanth after the match got over when players were shaking hands, in full view of the spectators and television cameras, allegedly in response to the latter sledging him when play was in progress.
There was also an altercation between Lillee and Pakistan's Javed Miandad during the Test match at Perth in 1981, when the two nearly came to blows and had to be physically separated by umpire Tony Crafter.
Infamous Duleep Trophy final
An incident that readily comes to one’s mind while on the subject of misconduct of players on a cricket field took place during the Duleep Trophy final between North Zone and West Zone in 1991. This was a high-scoring drawn match which went into record books for the various instances of player misbehaviour. Batting first, North Zone piled up a total of 729 runs for nine wickets, helped by a patient innings of 180 by Raman Lamba. West Zone started off strongly and Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar reached centuries. However, Manjrekar did not take kindly to the decision of umpire K B Ramaswamy to rule him out caught at silly point. During the tea break that followed he went to the umpires' room and had a heated argument with the official who gave him out, an action which went against all canons of sporting behaviour.
After West Zone innings ended at 561, North decided to bat again and Rashid Patel, the opening bowler, stepped on the danger area of the pitch for which he received a warning. This annoyed him and he deliberately overstepped while bowling the next ball, which was a beamer aimed at the head of Lamba. Lamba was understandably upset and he said something which angered Patel so much that he plucked out one of the stumps from the striker’s end and swung it at the batsman. Rashid chased Lamba with the stump in hand till good sense prevailed on other West Zone players who managed to restrain the bowler and remove the “weapon” from his hand. The crowd also got restive and started pelting missiles, bringing play to an halt.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was so embarrassed by this episode that an inquiry was immediately conducted by a committee led by then BCCI president Madhav Rao Scindia. Based on the findings and recommendations of the committee, the BCCI suspended Patel from first class cricket for 13 months and Lamba for 10. This effectively kept the duo away from first class cricket during that season and the one that followed as well. Strangely, no action was recommended against Manjrekar and Shastri and soon enough the former became the first ever cricketer to be sent off the field by umpires in a Ranji Trophy match when his conduct went beyond all acceptable norms.
One of the observations of the committee set up by the BCCI was that the control exercised by the umpires over the proceedings on the field of play was very poor. Incidentally, the coach of South African side as well as independent observers have made similar remarks about umpires in the present controversy as well. This brings one to the question as to what umpires on the field can do to curb misbehaviour by the players and how effective they can be in this regard.
As a former member of the fraternity I must confess that my sympathies lie with the umpires, who are required to discharge the manifold responsibilities vested on them when play is in progress. But more importantly, umpires should be given the powers to intervene effectively in cases of bad conduct and unfair play. Presently the umpires are not given enough teeth for stepping in with authority. Further, the presence of a big brother in the form of match referee inhibits umpires from stepping in forcefully during the initial stages of a confrontation, when it is easiest to cool the rising tempers. Umpires are the best judges about tension levels on the ground and a quiet word from them with the captain when they see explosive situations developing would go a long way in defusing them.
The recommendation that umpires should be armed with powers to send off players guilty of atrocious behaviour has been gaining currency of late. While this would, without doubt, be the best way to curb bad behaviour, it also runs the risk of “trigger happy” umpires tending to exercise this option more often than warranted. The danger of over policing must be weighed against the perils of misconduct and its impact on the game before a final decision is taken in this regard. My experience suggests that most of the umpires would be loath to use the provision for sending out players unless there is very grave provocation. More often than not, the existence of such a provision in the laws would, by itself, act as a deterrent and bring down acts of misconduct on the part of players.
The incident involving Warner and de Kock took place in the pavilion but had its origins in the sledging that occurred on the field of play. Prompt intervention by adequately empowered umpires could have nipped the issue in the bud itself. The ICC should use the lessons learnt from this episode to frame provisions giving more powers to the umpires on the field to intervene effectively if recurrence of such instances are to be prevented.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)