A pitch invasion of petty law-tamperers

Mark Lawson
Monday 22 August 1994 23:02

SPORTS fans have often regarded as incongruous the part of the English summer in which cricket, the sun game, and soccer, the mud game, are played simultaneously. But this year the two sports have something in common. They are being taught manners.

The England cricket captain, Mike Atherton, has so far this season handed over nearly pounds 5,000 in fines: the most recent debit being for a shake of his head at the umpire. If he no longer carries dirt in his pocket - the cause of an earlier payout - it may be because there's no room left after packing his American Express card in his flannels. These penalties are the result of a process that has doubled the number of officials presiding over a Test match from two - the traditional on-field umpires - to four, with a third umpire watching a television set in the stands, and a 'match referee' checking up on the other three sentinels and on the players.

At Saturday's Premier League football matches, referees were under instruction to introduce the tough laws tried out at this summer's World Cup - rules that penalise tough tackling and, again, dissent. At the same time, the first 'match observers' (retired referees) turned up in the stands to keep an eye on the referees, the managers, the players.

The links are clear. In both sports an attempt is being made to render absolute the authority of the presiding officials. On both pitches, the aim is to create a kinder, gentler game. In fact, a quite serious piece of cultural engineering seems to be under way, in which football will become less and less of a contact sport, and cricket will again be a game for gentlemen. Well, if so, we should blow the whistle, raise the finger, quickly.

Let's bat cricket around first. The numerous law reforms in recent years have had two broad aims: to limit the options of the bowlers (fewer bouncers, less visible doctoring of the ball), and to cement the discretion of the umpires. In the last regard, in addition to the 'third umpire' and the 'match referee', one 'neutral' umpire (from a country not involved in the series) will now usually be in the on-field pair to counter traditional assumptions that the home captain had the umpires in his pocket, not dirt.

The story of the neutral umpires, though, is a useful illustration of the treacheries of law-tampering. A new set of suspicions has been created. In, say, an England v India series played in England, one of the umpires is a 'neutral' Australian. This reassures India that no patriotic umpiring will take place, but worries England, who may, if decisions go against them, start to wonder just now neutral an Australian is, given cricketing and cultural history between their countries. This is an example of how doubt and dissent are natural to highly competitive sport and cannot be legislated away.

After his first-innings dismissal on Friday, Atherton shook his head on the way back and was fined. After Sunday's second-innings dismissal, he moved his hair through the air in an almost identical way. On the latter occasion, the assumption seems to have been that he was angry at himself - just as John McEnroe used to claim that his scatological monologues were self-criticism - but I could not have told them apart in a blind test. Similarly, two bowlers, one from either side, quite openly mouthed expletives when an umpire declined their appeals. Presumably a fifth official - the International Cricket Committee lip-reader - will soon be reporting for work with the other four.

Bizarrely, the amateur English public school concept of stiff upper lip and punishment taken dumbly seems to have been imposed on professional cricket. But dissent is not cheating unless it becomes an attempt to intimidate the umpire, which has happened only rarely. Dissent is the combustible by- product that results when perfectionism meets adrenalin.

A player short of form may see his whole career disappearing when an umpire makes a decision he regards as misguided. Fining a batsman for shaking his head at an umpire is like withholding redundancy money from an employee who cries when told they are sacked. It is generally forgotten that the new national cricket hero, Devon Malcolm, expressed very public dissent against the England selectors when omitted from an earlier Test this summer. Under the new honour code of cricket, he should probably have been banned from the team for the rest of the season, and not taken his nine for 57.

Atherton's comedy of manners would have been impossible in soccer, where such objections are conventional. The most common example is when two players involved in a tussle by the touchline both claim a throw-in if the ball goes out, although they will generally know who last made contact. This is both cheating and dissent, though it is never punished. Similarly, the award of penalties is never greeted with a shrug, and facial dissent, at the very least, follows all bookings and sendings off.

Perhaps the soccer authorities seriously hope that the get-tough instructions to referees this season will replace the long tradition of 'lip' in the game with that of the stiff upper lip. But their innovations demonstrate, like the cricket reforms, the fatuity of trying to engineer respect for officials. It is in English football that the disparity between scrutineers and participants, though also present in cricket and tennis, is most stark.

The top players are millionaires, international celebrities. The top referees, like all the rest, are part-timers, officiating for pounds 300 for a Premier League game ( pounds 120 for linesmen), and the prospect of seeing the odd shot of themselves in the television highlights. Yet on the decisions of these well-meaning moonlighters rest, potentially, millions of pounds of income to clubs and individuals. On their interpretation of this season's revised laws may rest the very way in which English football is played. This pro-am arrangement seems increasingly weird.

With the stakes so high in modern sport, the miracle is that there is so little dissent and gamesmanship. I suspect that the torrent of new laws in cricket and football - and referees to keep an eye on referees - are not directly do with sport at all.

'Discipline' is, famously, the comfort- word of the disenchanted older generations. Many of those in charge of cricket and football are, perhaps, of this genre and generation. What they are enacting therefore is a kind of deferred version of national service and birching, a compensation for other disappointments. You can't expect professional sportsmen to behave like amateurs, although, as the England captain has pointed out, his fines ensure that he is not currently playing cricket for the money.

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