Cricket: Players are told to play the game: Board instructs umpires to take a strong line on misdemeanours as concern grows over standards of conduct and sportsmanship

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ENGLAND'S cricketers, more or less bottom of the class when it comes to the exam results, have now been summoned to the headmaster's study for unruly behaviour in the playground, writes Martin Johnson. The Test and County Cricket Board's disciplinary committee, worried that the phrase 'it's not cricket' will soon be taken to mean 'well behaved' as opposed to the other way around, has now delivered a thinly veiled 'if you can't be good, at least be good boys' message to England's full-time professionals.

Alan Smith, the board's chief executive, said yesterday that current standards of conduct and sportsmanship left 'much to be desired' and pinpointed loud and orchestrated appealing by whole teams and open dissent at umpires' decisions as 'only the two most blatant examples of unacceptable conduct'.

As a result, Frank Chamberlain, the TCCB chairman, has written to all 18 county chairmen inviting them to address the problem, and Smith has delivered an even stronger missive to all members of the first-class umpires' panel, instructing them not to soft- pedal on incidents involving player misdemeanour. 'You may be assured,' Smith tells them, 'that if you act in this way the board will support you unequivocally.'

It is more likely, though, that the board's promise of full backing will not so much raise umpires' spirits as their eyebrows. Umpires have long since born the brunt of professional cricket's increasingly hostile environment.

However, as long as English umpires are judged by the players (the marks awarded to them by the county captains meaning the difference between Test panel promotion and next year on the 2nd XI circuit) the system is not likely to encourage harder attitudes. As for the board assuring its 'unequivocal support', umpires will remain far from convinced that the high casualty rate among hard-line disciplinarians is entirely co-incidental.

There is also the feeling that this initiative is not entirely co-incidental to recent incidents in the Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord's when Lancashire's Wasim Akram hit Derbyshire's Chris Adams with a beamer, followed by a lunchtime conversation a long way removed from 'pass the salt please, old chap', but upon which neither the TCCB nor the two clubs chose to act.

Whether this is true or not, and the board claims that it is not ('Merely a response to a slow but noticeable decline over a number of years,' according to Smith), it is still a laudable initiative and has the backing of the players' own union, the Cricketers' Association.

Peter Bromage, the chairman of the board's disciplinary committee, said that the 'spirit' of the game was now suffering and that the committee was urging umpires to be 'even more vigilant to ensure acceptable behaviour'. The board has invited comments from all counties and the issue will be aired again at the full August meeting in two weeks' time.