Cricket: Cricket's speech impediment

Andrew Baker asks why players are supposed to be seen but not heard
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Jack Russell is one of England's best-loved cricketers. But the qualities that so endear the Gloucestershire wicketkeeper to the public - determination and self-belief - may shortly cause his first-class career to be interrupted or ended altogether while he is still in his prime.

Russell has written a book, Jack Russell - Unleashed. As required by his contract with the England and Wales Cricket Board and Gloucestershire, he has submitted a draft of the work to the ECB for approval. They do not like it, and have requested changes. Russell, displaying the same stubbornness that stood him in such good stead against the South African bowlers in Johannesburg in 1995, does not wish to make the changes. This time, his defiance is not in England's cause but his own: and it may cost him his job. "I know I am gambling with my career and my life," Russell said yesterday. "But I feel strongly that I should be allowed to say what I feel. If the people I have mentioned can look at my criticism in a logical way I hope they will be able to accept it. If not, they shouldn't be in the game."

The early signs are not encouraging. "The ECB want a complete rewrite of Chapter 10," according to Russell's agent, Jim Ruston, "which deals with Ray Illingworth and Michael Atherton." The ECB have also apparently requested changes elsewhere in the book. But Chapter 10 is the sticking point. "For us to do what they want," Ruston said, "means chucking the chapter out altogether. That would make the book disjointed, and Jack doesn't want to change it. He is honest, and these are his truly held beliefs."

The ECB do not like to be portrayed in the role of censors, as they were when Allan Lamb chose to retire from first-class cricket rather than make changes to his autobiography last year. The Board see themselves rather as sensible advisers, trying to prevent mud-slinging in the game.

"We feel that there is nothing to be gained from people slagging each other off in public," Tony Brown, the ECB's administration secretary, said last week. "You know, if someone writes 'So-and-so is a plonker', then So-and-so rushes into print himself and says, 'Well, I think he's a plonker too' - it all gets out of hand."

Brown pointed out that "fair and reasonable comment" will never be stifled by the Board: what they wish to prevent are "personal attacks" and "breaches of confidence". This is where the key to the Russell problem lies, in that what the cricketer believes to be fair comment may well be construed as a personal attack by the Board.

"In my view the ECB are being over-sensitive," Ruston said. "Jack has toned it down a lot anyway, and considers it fair. He would expect anyone referred to to take it on the chin anyway. He's not just taking swipes at people, and he's not just throwing his toys out of the pram."

But the ECB do not believe that anyone in the game should have to "take it on the chin" from a current player, whose main concern, they believe, should be matters on the field. "If a cricketer wants to be a cricketer," Brown said, "that is what he is. If he wants to make scathing attacks on people then he can do it from outside the game, because that is quite a different job. You get people who have been in the game for 10 minutes being offered money to write and they think 'Ooo, this is terrific'. But the newspapers aren't interested in what a nice day's play they had at Weston-super-Mare last week - the tabloids won't pay to serialise that."

Brown claims that the ECB most often suggest changing no more than a word or two. "For instance," he said, giving a hypothetical example, "if someone wants to write 'They all hate me', we might suggest that there are better ways of putting it. Because they don't all hate him. They might think he is a bit odd, but they don't hate him."

Whether or not they appreciate such nannying, players are grateful the ECB have recently allowed them to take more responsibility for their own actions. Angus Fraser, the Middlesex and England bowler, discussed the matter in suitably careful fashion while his side were batting against Cambridge University last week. "When you reach a stage in life when you have responsibilities," he said, "you know when someone might take offence at what you say." But Fraser also pointed out an unfortunate consequence of keeping mum. "If cricketers are open to fines if they speak out, they wait until their career is over before they do. And the sad thing is that then they might come over as bitter whereas in fact it is their first chance to say what they want. Someone like Allan Lamb obviously weighed that up and did what he had to do."

But what did Fraser think of a player like Russell writing a book while continuing to play? "Jack is a respected professional cricketer and should be entitled to his point of view," Fraser said. "He is not the sort of character to say anything without thinking about it. And if he is critical, you can be sure that it will be constructive criticism.

"A lot of players' opinions are not being heard," Fraser went on, "which means decisions are being made by people who don't find out what players are thinking. And I think it is only fair that players' opinions should be deemed important."

For Tony Brown, the issue is clear-cut. "People like Jack have signed contracts, and if they have contracted to do certain things it seems only fair for them to do so. I'm certain that Jack doesn't want to be in breach of contract, because I know that he wants to keep playing cricket and keep playing for England." Many cricket fans will hope that Brown is right.