Snarl in the game for the pitch battlers

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The Independent Online
When it comes to good behaviour and sound discipline, running a tight ship has proved to be well beyond the capacity of most of our big sports. In the matter of controlling their more boisterous participants, many of them have surrendered so much leeway they have reached a level only slightly higher than the sport of all-in wrestling who long ago ceased trying to give Dr Death a red card.

Now, we have the sad prospect of one of our last bastions of civilised sporting conduct tottering on the edge of the dark abyss. As the oldest of all our main team games, cricket has its roots bedded in sterner stuff and has managed to keep all intimidations and insults as private affairs between dissenting adults. Not any more, I'm afraid.

It would be easy to over- dramatise what happened in the NatWest Trophy semi-final between Essex and Glamorgan at Chelmsford on Tuesday and even easier to dismiss it as an excusable flare-up between the hot and the bothered but, in themselves, the incidents were not as disturbing as the conflict contained in the reaction to them.

The way the two counties concerned jumped in quick to fine each of those animated arguers, Mark Ilott and Robert Croft, pounds 1,000 showed how eager they were to display united disapproval. But it didn't stop the England and Wales Cricket Board announcing that they are to set up an inquiry. When it takes place, I suggest they should take into consideration more than just the bristling indignation of the old school.

The case centres not on foul play but on the hostile attitudes of sportsmen when under the pressure of a big event. The line between what is forgivable and what is not tends to be redrawn during successive generations and usually reflects the spirit of the time. In the particular time we find ourselves, aggression is regarded as an appealing part of most entertainment and sport is proving to be no exception.

The snarling free-for-all has become an integral part of ice hockey's attraction and you don't get many rugby fans tut-tutting over the frequent brawls at the highest levels of both codes. As for football, the game has done nothing to eradicate the spite that dominates so many games.

Arsenal's Ian Wright, for instance can be a very appealing footballer. When it comes to ball control he is but a shadow of his attacking partner, Dennis Bergkamp, but he is quick and alert and ceaselessly endeavours to be in the right place. His demeanour, however, is appalling. He comes across as an extremely nasty piece of work and remains so despite a catalogue of punishments that would have interested the Marquis de Sade. He is beyond chastening, as we saw when Arsenal played Coventry on Monday. He scored two goals to bring him within a goal of Cliff Bastin's record (now, there was a nice man) but still managed to show his unpleasant side.

Off the field, of course, he is charm itself and the Football Association, in whose side he is a constant thorn, are actually involving him in promotional work. The BBC, who you would have thought had some duty to propriety, are signing him up for some high-profile work or other.

Another leading player who proves how content we are to accept truculence as part of the game is Roy Keane, who is now captain of our champion team, Manchester United. After their unimpressive win over Southampton on Wednesday, Keane told the television interviewer how he was trying to control his temper. We might have been more sympathetic had we not seen him booked half an hour earlier for a display of dissent that could be entered for an award.

The crowd seem quite happy to embrace such sights as part of their money's worth and, judging from what I've heard from those who witnessed the Essex- Glamorgan game, it is in the nature of some cricket fans to enjoy a glimpse of raw feelings amid the neat white flannel. Indeed, it is quite ironic that the week after Lord MacLaurin introduced his blueprint for a brighter cricket season Essex and Glamorgan should produce a match that, arguments apart, was as dramatic a sporting encounter as you could hope to see.

When the cricket's leaders come to judge the Chelmsford Two, I trust they will take that into account as well as the backcloth against which the game was played. England had just lost the Ashes to a cat-calling chorus, in which word "wimps" was one of the mildest, and the day before Chelmsford the acting Essex captain, Nasser Hussain, called for more genuine competitiveness in the English game which he reckoned was a bit tame in the terrier department.

And long before Ilott and Croft began their little spat, the tone of belligerence had been introduced into the game by the reaction of Stuart Law, an Australian you'll be amazed to learn, to an accidental beamer flung by Glamorgan's Darren Thomas. First Law threw his bat down, then he took off his left glove and tossed it away; slowly and provocatively he peeled off his right glove and dropped it to the ground before removing his helmet and delicately jettisoning it. He was either auditioning to be a lap-dancer or trying to crank up the embarrassment for the apologetic Thomas.

What happened later between Ilott and Croft cannot be viewed outside an unusual context that was applying its stresses even before this close and compelling encounter began. Cricket is the only team game in which the officials have no disciplinary jurisdiction - the inventory of an umpire's pockets contains no red or yellow cards, thank Heaven, and we hope it never does.

Cricket hasn't been innocent of aggressive moments since the days of W G Grace but they have mostly laid beneath a superficial covering of gentlemanly behaviour and a thin veneer is better than no veneer at all.

The job of the ECB inquiry will be to reinstate that priority without being too reactionary. Draconian punishment - at the wages these boys get, pounds 1,000 is harsh enough - is not going to win the day any more than it has in any other game. Cricket at the moment needs a spot of wise guidance and, above all, a set of cool heads.

I Have long been unable to control the evil thought that all the javelin entrants should throw at the same time, thus creating a far quicker and more spectacular event and saving much measuring time. But I fear that the drive by Primo Nebiolo, the IAAF president, to make his World Championships into a more spectacular showpiece than the Olympics will eventually involve more sinister developments than that.

More malevolent brains than mine, for instance, would have noted, after careful study of the javelin event in Athens, that it takes a top thrower eight to nine seconds from the start of his run-up to the point of his javelin penetrating the earth 86 metres or so away.

It requires only the slightest twist of the mind then to calculate that if you put the 100 metres track down the centre of the stadium and start off both events simultaneously, the javelins and the runners would be reaching the 80-90 metre mark at about the same time...

The thrill of watching the sprinters hurl themselves ahead of the flight of those sharp points would treble the viewing figures and take at at least one second off the world record without troubling the drug industry. It would bring much extra profit to the IAAF - not to mention the potential savings in medals and bunches of flowers. Remember where you read it first.