Red and Yellow Cards from the Red and Yellow Club: MCC to issue umpires with red and yellow cards to combat bad behaviour
February 21, 2016
Not long after I stopped playing county cricket, I was selected for the MCC (captain, I’ll have you know) to play a respectable club in the Midlands. I had put myself diplomatically somewhere in the middle order but soon there was a clatter of wickets and out I strode, confident I could rescue the situation. The wicket was a belter, as far as I could judge, and there seemed to be no terrors in the bowling, as far as I could judge. But I was out of practice and nets by then had become a distant memory. I sparred at my first ball and missed, by a considerable margin. The young fast bowler who had delivered the ball followed through a long way, almost joining me in the crease. I looked up and gave him a little smile, as if to say, “Well bowled, young man.” He then vouchsafed me such a volley of abuse the like of which I have never experienced before, even from my children. I started to laugh. “That’s done your chances of being accepted as a playing member of the MCC no good at all,” I told him. He informed me that he had no intention of joining that bunch of toffee-nosed snobs with their poncey blazers and what’s more he was going to rearrange the bone structure of my jaw. Or words to that effect. It would be nice to record that I smacked him all round the park but sadly, I didn’t. My batting was too rusty and I got out early – but not to him. His threats bothered me not at all; he wasn’t fast and his short stuff was of the powder-puff variety.
But later, in the bar, chatting to team-mates and opponents alike, I was bothered. Sadly, I was informed that behaviour like that in club cricket was on the increase. Nobody seemed pleased by it but all that I was given was a resigned shrug; that’s the way the world is going, they seemed to be implying. And this occurred many moons ago. Since then, I have rather lost touch with club cricket. I continued to follow the international game closely and took renewed interest in county cricket once my nephews started to play for Surrey and Middlesex. My impression, from the boundary edge admittedly, was that the standards of behaviour in the professional game were generally of an acceptable level. To make sure, I consulted an old friend, Steve Rhodes, currently the director of cricket at Worcestershire. He agreed. “Ironically,” he said, “the game has never been better policed. There is an all-embracing code of conduct in place and it is strictly enforced. In fact,” he added with a wry grin, “you can’t even show disappointment at a decision these days. No, there is no blight of bad behaviour in professional cricket.”
This wholly accorded with the view of John Holder, the former first-class and Test match umpire, whose biography I have just written. Then something he had told me during our many hours of conversation rang a bell. Following his retirement, he took it upon himself to umpire in the leagues back home in Lancashire, first because he loved the job, and secondly to try to put something back into the game that had served him so well. “But after a couple of years, I gave it up,” he said, “I got fed up with the dreadful behaviour of some of the players, many of whom were not nearly as good as they thought they were.” I revisited the subject with him recently. “It’s got even worse,” he informed me, “Umpires in the leagues are giving up because of the unacceptable levels of abuse, threats and even occasional physical violence they are being subjected to.” I was more than bothered now; I was appalled. He provided me with one admittedly extreme example, which happened recently. During the game, there was an appeal, which the umpire turned down. The bowler, incensed, came up to him and pushed him, so forcefully that the poor fellow toppled over backwards. Whilst still on his back, another fielder rushed up, stood over him and abused him in gutter language. “And do you know what happened subsequently?” John said, his anger scarcely contained, “Both players were reported. And at the disciplinary hearing later, neither umpire was asked to appear. The abuser got off scot-free and the bowler was given a warning. Disgraceful! No wonder umpires no longer want to stand.”
We both quietly lamented the lost innocence of the game that had once been a byword for sportsmanship and camaraderie. “Honestly, I just don’t get it,” he said, “It’s not as if these guys are playing for a living. All right, there’s nothing wrong with taking it seriously but presumably they’re playing for enjoyment. It’s supposed to be fun!” In his retirement, he has been elected the president of the Pennine Cricket League, an amalgamation of the old Central Lancashire League and the Saddleworth Cricket League, as part of the pyramid of club cricket first envisioned by Lord MacLaurin, to form a premier league and to promote competition and standards at club level. But not standards of behaviour, clearly. One of John’s priorities is to assure umpires in the league that he will be chairing disciplinary hearings from now on and that there will be “zero tolerance of poor behaviour on the field of play. Report them and they will be banned!” Good to hear and all power to his elbow but will his be no more than a lone voice crying in the wilderness?
To answer that question, I contacted another old friend, Mark Williams, who is the Laws of cricket advisor at the MCC and serves on the Laws sub-committee and who presumably had been much involved in the recent MCC initiative to trial the use of red and yellow cards by umpires on the field of play. “You could say that,” he agreed, “In fact, I was one of the leading voices for action in committee.” There was, he assured me, no problem whatsoever in the professional game. That was properly watched over and efficiently administered by the ICC and the respective national governing boards. But the message arriving at HQ loud and clear from representatives of the recreational game worldwide was dire. Standards had dropped alarmingly and things were threatening to get out of hand. So bad had it become that the MCC, as guardians of the Laws and spirit of cricket, had decided to act. Hence the proposal of red and yellow cards. “In fact, we’re not actually using red and yellow cards,” said Mark, drily, “That’s too much like football and rugby. Cricket is a non-contact sport.” Is it? I seem to remember coming into contact with a hard red ball on more than one occasion. “You know what I mean, Andy,” he admonished me, “But the principles are similar. The idea is that umpires will have the power to require the captain of the offending player to send him from the field for a certain amount of time for serious breaches, say foul and abusive language, or for the remainder of the match for something that is beyond the pale, such as physical violence. And proper bans will ensue.” It seemed at first that his plea might fall on deaf ears in the committee room. Would not a sanction of 5 penalty runs suffice? Look, he argued, if a player punched someone on the field of play, a criminal offence, by the way, if perpetrated on the high street, can you honestly say that he should remain on the pitch and perhaps later win the game for his side? “Wiser counsel prevailed,” he said, “and we’re going to trial the plan in several leagues and recreational games this summer. Then we’ll review the evidence in the autumn and decide whether to change the Law.” Well done, I told him. It’s about time the powers-that-be rid us of this cancer that has taken hold of the game we all hold so dear.
One nagging doubt continues to bother me though. Will the umpires, not professionals themselves remember, be strong enough of purpose to implement these new rules? After all, had they been strict enough in the first place and properly supported by their cricket associations, wouldn’t these problems have been nipped in the bud long ago? The MCC are hoping that the initiative will act as a deterrent. “Once the players know that if they overstep the clearly defined boundaries and that consequences will follow, things will improve,” Mark said. How can he be sure? He cited the precedent of the Northern Districts Cricket Association in New Zealand, where such a scheme is already in operation. “In the first round of matches, several cards were issued. In the second, there were a few more. Thereafter, none was issued and that has remained the case for two years!” It is often claimed humorously that when you visit New Zealand, you have to put your watches back…by 50 years. All I can say is, good on them. Let the rest of us follow the Black Caps back to a more considerate era, where respect for your opponent was not considered a sign of weakness.