This simply is not cricket

Corruption, violence, pitch invasion â¿“ it's been a bad season for Test cricket. Penny Lewis looks at what can be done to restore the game's tarnished reputation
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The Independent Online

The rules of cricket have gently evolved over the last century without any need for interference from the criminal law. But events of the last month show that this may need to change.

Four serious disturbances have fractured the serenity of the game since the NatWest triangular series began at Edgbaston on 7 June. In the most serious incident, Stephen Speight, a steward, was floored while protecting the stumps from souvenir-hunters. He sustained serious injury. A firecraker was tossed onto the field at Trent Bridge, and in the Australia/Pakistan final at the home of cricket, Lord's, on 22 June, Michael Bevan, the Australian all-rounder, was hit by a can of lager.

Cricket, like many other sports, has become an industry. Aficionados, once a panama-hatted conservative group, realise that today's game draws an eclectic crowd, a predictable by-product of commercialisation. Disorderly behaviour is a disturbing counterpart to off-pitch scandals that have beset the game recently. Hanse Kronje's disgrace was widely reported.

In April, Sir Paul Condon's report into corruption described a rich seam of dishonesty on the international cricket circuit. Greed, bribery and conspiracy are apparently rife. Sir Paul, who was appointed director of the International Cricket Council's (ICC) anti-corruption unit last June, referred to a "climate of silence, apathy, ignorance and fear". It is to be hoped that full cooperation with the ICC and tighter security will restore the sport's tarnished reputation. On 26 June, Alec Stewart, England's caretaker captain, was interviewed by the anti-corruption unit, silencing suggestions that he was unwilling to answer questions relating to an Indian investigation.

Unlike football, domestic cricket has not been associated with physical violence or large-scale pitch invasions. Even now it is tempting to dismiss this summer's outbursts as over-exuberance, not mindless criminality. Complacency might be mistaken. At a grass-roots level, whose job is it to police crowds? The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), cricket's governing body, believes some change is warranted. Mark Hodgson, ECB's media relations officer, confirms that events have made it important to "look at the whole safety policy". One proposal they will be examining is "bringing in legislation to make it a fineable offence to come onto the pitch". He refers to successful measures in Australia, designed partly to deter streakers. Pitch incursion is not a criminal offence here.

While the ECB is responsible at national level for overseeing the game and is involved in legislative initiatives, it is up to clubs to implement safety precautions. The myriad laws of cricket only govern rules of play. Safety issues are particularly relevant in Test Matches and one-day internationals, which attract the largest crowds. After the Hillsborough stadium tragedy, permanent fences cannot be erected to keep people off the grass. Temporary plastic fencing was raised at Trent Bridge on 19 June. In the main, orderly events rely on well-trained ground staff patrolling inner perimeters, backed up by stewards.

Safety also involves policing issues. If there is trouble, ground staff need their back-up. In turn there must be appropriate offences with which marauding fans can be prosecuted. Creating new charges would require Home Office approval.

Police can charge unruly spectators with a range of public order offences under the 1981 Public Order Act. They can also arrest troublemakers where there is a risk of a breach of the peace. These sanctions proved wanting in football and specific legislation has been introduced to combat hooliganism in that game. Cricketing bodies may urge the Government to bring their sport in line with these measures. The Football (Disorder) Act 2000 allows police to ban fans from games and confiscate passports from supporters wishing to travel to overseas events, a visceral response to the behaviour of some English fans at Euro 2000. The Football (Offences) Act 1991 outlaws missile-throwing, racist chanting and trespassing onto the pitch.

A high-level meeting on 27 June between the sports minister, Richard Caborn, John Denham, Home Office minister for police and crime reduction, and representatives from the ECB and the Association of Chief Police Officers. It was agreed that a joint review board should be set up to review "all aspects of crowd management, existing legislation and ground regulations". They will report back in four weeks. After the meeting, Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, confirmed that the organisation was "determined to ensure that all possible measures are exhaustively explored to ensure the safety of players, officials and spectators".

There are compelling reasons why the ECB should strive to protect participants and viewers. One incentive is the potential spectre of legal action. In a landmark decision last year, the British Boxing Board of Control lost a case brought by Michael Watson. Watson suffered brain damage during a contest against Chris Eubank for the super-middleweight title in 1991.

The Court of Appeal said the board should have ensured that he received proper medical attention by suitably qualified doctors, including immediate resuscitation ringside. The rules were changed to require this. The judge, Lord Phillips, said there was both an "assumption of responsibility (by the board) and reliance". Neil Block, Michael Watson's junior counsel, says that "this case sets a precedent for all sports".

The role of local authorities could also come under the microscope. Both cricket and football are subject to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 – a measure that followed the recommendations of the Report of the Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds after the Ibrox Park Football ground tragedy in Glasgow in 1971, when 66 people were crushed to death. Now, stadiums accommodating 10,000 or more people must obtain safety certificates from the local authority. These can impose such terms as are necessary to "secure reasonable safety". Crowd management is a relevant factor. Local authorities may be found to be in breach of statutory duty, but there is some doubt about whether they owe a common-law duty.

In 1999, the ICC's then president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, said that it had approved a detailed action plan for improved safety at grounds. Concerned about increases in crowd invasion and of objects being thrown at players or the umpire, he said that "even one such incident is one too many". He was right.