Cricket: Bad show of the headshakers

Stephen Brenkley investigates a worrying trait among crestfallen modern cricketers
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The Independent Online
IT IS routine among observers of cricket, on witnessing a little triumph, to exclaim such things as "Shot of the day, so far, that was", or "Ooh, ball of the morning, I'd say". Recent evidence suggests that they may soon have to be joined by headshake of the session.

The Second Test at Lord's, for instance, saw some exemplary headshaking by batsmen who trudged reluctantly off believing they were the victims of umpiring injustice and probably much greater conspiracies. Mark Ramprakash's protracted bout, accompanied by some muttered words to the umpire, was a minor classic.

But although it was Ramprakash who was fined, it was Alec Stewart who provided perhaps the superior performance by not only shaking his head but also regularly looking round at the video screen behind him in the hope of having his view confirmed that he did not nick the ball behind. He was doubly unlucky, therefore. The replay took its time in coming.

These might have been mere expressions of disappointment by professional batsmen playing for the place and a series but it seems a reasonably recent innovation in Test cricket. Certainly, 11 years have passed since Chris Broad refused to budge from the crease at all, let alone shake his head, when adjudged caught behind in England's second innings against Pakistan at Lahore. But that was a truly exceptional circumstance.

Then England genuinely believed they were the victims of shoddy, insidious officiating. Now players simply want to make a point that they believe they have been wronged. The Lord's Test exemplified that and, to deter players from further demonstrations, meetings will be held before the Old Trafford Test. While more fines may not be levied, further carpetings and harsh words about the penalties for future transgressions are not out of the question.

"There is no doubt that if there wasn't a referee in Tests today there would be mayhem out in the middle," Barry Dudleston, who was the third umpire at Lord's last week, said. "There is no doubt that standards have deteriorated. Fifteen years ago most players still walked. That doesn't happen now. I'm quite happy about that but then players should be quite happy on the occasions they think they didn't hit it."

Dudleston is prevented by his contract with the ECB by commenting too specifically but he has made it abundantly clear that he is worried by declining standards of behaviour. "In the last Test some people were indicating that the umpires had bad games. Well, I watched all the television replays and there were two or three decisions which may have been wrong in the whole match, no more."

Everybody agrees that umpires are not only under the microscope as represented by an inexhaustible number of camera angles, but also that they are put under more direct pressure by the players.

Bill Athey, now coach at Worcestershire, retired last year after 22 years as a professional. He was in the England side the day that Broad infamously demurred. "I think it's in the nature of players and people generally today to show their emotions immediately whereas in the past they made a bigger effort to keep them under control," he said.

"I tried to keep a firm grip on mine and think I got better as I got older. Earlier this season one of the young batsmen at Worcestershire took a long time to come off the field when he was given out and there were a few gestures besides. I had a quiet word to suggest that he might cut down on the melodrama and he agreed.

"Everybody knows that umpires have never been examined more closely. It's a very tough job. There was a Test match at Headingley when I was given out caught behind and it was a terrible decision. I was always trying to secure my Test place and that was terribly disappointing. I went but I didn't want to."

Athey has some sympathies for both parties and while he might conceivably tolerate a shaking head he drew the line completely at verbally expressing disagreement with the umpire. "Players want to succeed to win and keep their place but if the camera shows they weren't out then selectors will see that, too. I was always told that when players stop making mistakes umpires will learn to do so too."

Recent extravagances may need nipping in the bud. Expressions of disappointment can lead to more excessive behaviour, like soft drugs to hard. And with all this perpetual headshaking the men in white coats may be arriving shortly for some players.