When I sat an umpiring exam many moons ago we were told to make liberal use of Law 43 – in other words basic common sense.
The best officials in any sport are those who keep sight of the human element, understanding that games were invented by fallible people for fallible people.
A smile or a nod or a quiet word is frequently more effective in handing a potentially tricky situation than battering players around the head with the book of rules…or laws.
But the NCL season starting on Saturday may be the last without umpires having the authority to instruct – not request – a captain to remove one of his players from the field, for either a stipulated period or the rest of the match.
The idea of introducing ‘red and yellow cards’ into cricket has been around for a while, and discussed periodically in this column.
Now at last we have the detail.
The new Law 42 – headed ‘Player Conduct’ – will come into force on October 1 with graded responses to four levels of misdemeanour.
All four will attract five-run penalties to the opposition – but Level Three means a ‘sending-off’ for a number of overs depending on the length of the game, and Level Four would see the player pointed to the pavilion for the duration.
The law changes have been driven by an MCC committee including former Northamptonshire opener Alan Fordham, currently the ECB’s Head of Cricket Operations for the first-class game – and frankly not a chap likely to fall foul of these sanctions in his playing days.
Recreational leagues like ours will need to decide whether to implement them in any, some or all divisions.
“It could depend on whether there’s any inducement or pressure from ECB,” says long-time Northamptonshire official Paul Joy, who has sat in a number of national Board meetings on the subject.
“Personally I think they need to be careful, but the point has been raised that ECB has influence because they provide funding for their Premier Leagues.
“That said, there was no pressure brought to bear a few years ago when the five-run penalties were introduced (for incidents of unfair play including time-wasting and ball-tampering) and it was agreed in the NCL that they would only be enforced in those divisions with panel umpires.
“But there has to be a discussion about whether a similar ‘cut-off point’ is needed for the new Law 42.
“And it’s not just about the umpires. The captains will also need to be made aware of their responsibilities.”
Not least because the option is there to award or abandon the match if one or both skippers refuses to co-operate.
As someone who may end up having to go out and explain the changes on behalf of ECB, Joy agrees with my contention that imposing this in NCL divisions where non-playing umpires – let alone qualified ones – are the exception rather than the rule would be an absolute minefield.
“At a couple of meetings I’ve used the phrase ‘what a wonderful way to even up a game of cricket!’
“But ECB believes it has to be tried in the recreational game so that’s where we are.
“You could have a situation with a club umpire doing both ends and players doing their ten-over stint at square leg, and in those circumstances it would seem to make sense for the one umpire to make the decision.”
Although, as he points out, the new law states that whilst EITHER umpire can intervene and stop the game if a player’s conduct is deemed out of order, BOTH would then need to consider whether an offence has been committed and, if it has, into which of the four levels it falls.
The new Law 42 also makes it clear that if penalties are imposed – whether five runs or ‘sending-offs’ – these must be reported ‘to any Governing Body responsible for the match.’
This potentially opens up a fresh can of worms.
An experienced NCL panel umpire told me recently that one of the biggest plus-points of the new law is that the ‘innocent’ team benefits immediately if an opposing player is guilty of bad behaviour, either in the scorebook or by getting him or her off the pitch.
But let’s suppose a bowler throws a huge wobbly in the first over of the match and is banished for the remaining 99.
Is that sufficient punishment, or should the league’s disciplinary committee still get involved?
Joy’s concern is that someone incurring penalties on a regular basis – a ‘repeat offender’ – might not be picked up by officials if the reporting mechanism doesn’t work properly.
“The laws of cricket only deal with what’s happening here and now – there has to be a whole process about what happens next,” he says.
“You must remember that the five-run penalties except for the ball hitting a helmet are also reportable offences – so it could be a busy time for disciplinary committees!
“Initially I wasn’t sure about the whole idea of taking action on the pitch, but having listened to people around the table at lots of meetings I think it had to come.
“I know Alan Fordham hopes it never has to be used at first-class level because it would be splashed across the back pages if it was.”
As was indeed the case recently when the Cricket Discipline Commission (another organisation Joy is involved with) imposed a 16-point penalty and a fine on Leicestershire – whose captain Mark Cosgrove also landed a ban – following a series of conduct issues.
I’m certain NCL officials, clubs and umpires will give the new law serious consideration in the coming months.
For what it’s worth, my own view is that adopting it in divisions without panel umpires would make the task of persuading former players to don the white coat and help out their club on a Saturday afternoon even harder than it is already.
Ultimately, though, the solution rests with the players.
As we head into another NCL season let’s hope the old Law 43 – incorporating Law 43.1 (It’s Only a Game) – continues to thrive.