Warner and de Kock, the unwitting candid-camera victims

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The newspeak of the ICC’s catch-all clause brings everything and nothing under the ambiguous definition of ‘disrepute’, leaving the line free to be contorted as the sports body chooses.

The ICC code of conduct seems to kick in only to douse public relations crises. | Getty Images / ImageCreator / AFP

David Warner and Quinton de Kock were charged by the umpires with “bringing the game into disrepute” during the first Test of the 2018 series between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead, Durban. Let’s be completely clear about what this really means. It means that there was video footage available to the public to show what happened.

This, like every other broad, general statute from the Code of Conduct which the ICC trots out from time to time, is about public relations and, as the ICC puts it, is concerned with preserving the “public image, popularity and integrity of cricket”. On cricketing points, the code of conduct is necessary and comes into play. But there is no cricketing element to this dispute and the ICC should stay out of it entirely. However, the ICC doesn’t, because it looks bad. It is not reasonably plausible that altercations like the one between David Warner and Quinton de Kock do not otherwise occur, or that the things they are reported to have said to each other are not otherwise said on the field (and off it during games).

The original report about the incident told us that “[t]he on-field umpires — Kumar Dharmasena and S Ravi — are understood to be claiming not to have heard anything that could be considered a breach of the code.” It was the fact that there was a (very mild) physical altercation which was caught on surveillance cameras which were subsequently made available to the public, which forced the ICC’s hand. It is not news that language can fly on a cricket field.

 

 

It is one thing for the ICC to adjudicate on cricketing issues. Players who break the laws of cricket should be hauled up. Actual cricket-related cheating should be hauled up. Efforts by players to intimidate umpires should be shut down. But the ICC’s forays into general matters of “conduct” are schoolmasterly and imprecise. Is the ICC interested in policing aesthetics and morality? If so, why does it assume that it is equipped to do so? The ICC’s broad-brush “disrepute” charges have forced teams over the years to deploy rhetorical devices of their own. Every team claims to play “hard but fair” and does not “cross the line”. Allied to this newspeak is the idea of the “spirit of the game”. Otis Gibson, the South-African head coach expressed confusion about where the line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct lies. South Africa evidently thought that Warner’s verbals were beyond the pale. The umpires clearly disagreed.

The line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct has been the target of much commentary after this episode. Sharda Ugra is fed up of it: “Unseemly and juvenile conduct is then gift-wrapped into convenient catchphrases: ‘playing hard but fair’ and ‘not crossing the Line’. And what a shapeshifter of a Line it is: imaginary, planted into quicksand, travelling where and when it suits those who claim to own it.Greg Baum calls it “the most mutable and manipulated construct in world sport”. But the players are not responsible for the existence of this line. This line is entirely the creation of the moralists and aesthetes in the press and the administration of the game who think that the game should embody some unspecified virtuous “spirit”, that there is self-evidently good conduct and, therefore, self-evidently bad conduct and players have a duty to stay within the good and away from the bad.

 

 

Imagine a situation where only some of the occasions when a catch is completed legally result in dismissal, because only some of these occasions are noticed by umpires. This situation would rapidly invite allegations of bias. “Why do the umpires always notice catches being completed when Virat Kohli is batting? Why do they miss them so often when Steve Smith is batting?” Pretty soon, you’ll get a line which decrees that players should walk when they know that a catch has been completed, regardless of whether or not the umpires sees it or not. And some players will stray on the wrong side of that line.

Replace catches with “bad conduct” and you begin to get to the difficulty with “bringing the game into disrepute”. To make matters worse, unlike in the case of a catch, which is precisely defined in the laws of the game, “bringing the game into disrepute” is not defined even remotely precisely. Inevitably, it becomes ridiculously easy for there to be a serious difference of opinion about what is disreputable and what isn’t. When some parties involved are interested, mutually antagonistic (as opposing teams are supposed to be, by definition) and other parties involved are disinterested, over-burdened adjudicators who have precise definitions for some things but not for others, there is no possible way to resolve these differences of interpretation in a sustainable manner. A press contingent desperate to gin up loud headlines is kerosene on this bonfire of confusion.

Laws work because they are precise. Catch-all clauses like the one about “bringing the game into disrepute” could be said to be designed to create confusion. Consider the extent of ICC’s definition for its basic Level 1 charge:

2.1.2 Conduct that brings the game into disrepute.

NOTE: Article 2.1.2 is intended to cover all types of conduct of a minor nature that bring the game into disrepute and which is not specifically and adequately covered by the specific offences set out elsewhere in this Code of Conduct, including Article 2.1.1.

By way of example, Article 2.1.2 may (depending upon the seriousness and context of the breach) prohibit, without limitation, the following: (a) public acts of misconduct; (b) unruly public behaviour; and (c) inappropriate comments which are detrimental to the interests of the game.

Almost anything could fall under this category. England’s players, who celebrated their Ashes victory in 2013 at the Oval by urinating on the pitch after the game, did not fall under this category (since they were never charged). Here was a “public act of misconduct” which could be easily interpreted as being disrespectful of the game, the ground, the opposition and the series, by cricketers immediately after a game, while celebrating in their Test match uniform on the very pitch where they won the series. The fact that it happened after the game is irrelevant. The Code of Conduct specifies that

All Players and Player Support Personnel shall continue to be bound by and required to comply with the Code of Conduct until he/she has not participated (in the case of a Player), or assisted a Player’s participation (in the case of a Player Support Personnel) in an International Match for a period of three (3) months and the ICC shall continue to have jurisdiction over him/her under the Code of Conduct thereafter in respect of matters taking place prior to that point.

So, why did the ICC not apply the Code of Conduct against Kevin Pietersen, James Anderson and Stuart Broad in this case? Your guess is as good as mine. England toured Sri Lanka in 2012. In a tour match, off-spinner Graeme Swann accused a Sri-Lankan batsman of cheating. Dilruwan Perera disputed a low catch by Andrew Strauss at slip and neither umpire was willing to give it out. Nor were they willing to take Strauss’s word about the legality of the catch. This is not cheating by the batsman. Later, Swann was quoted by Vic Marks in The Guardian as saying he “wanted to kill” Perera. The ICC’s Code of Conduct (1.5.2) specifies that for tour matches the touring team is subject to the Code of Conduct while the host team is subject to the host Board’s rules. Swann was never charged, according to the ICC’s communications officer at the time, for the amazing reason that the ICC did not appoint a referee for tour games.

When the ICC makes rules which are not adaptations of the MCC’s Laws of Cricket, it does so shoddily. These rules are typically written for public relations reasons (i.e. to protect the ICC) rather than to protect the players and the game. For this reason, the rules tend to be imprecise, extremely general (“bringing the game into disrepute, which the ICC refers to as a ‘catch-all clause’) and impossible to enforce with consistency. They end up being weapons available to match officials, to be used when things look bad on TV.

With increasing player power, the day is not far when a player, either backed by his or her home board or otherwise, will sue the ICC for defamation after being the subject of an inquiry under one of these draconian clauses. These clauses impugn the character of individuals instead of governing the cricketing conduct of the players. Otis Gibson and South Africa ought to realise that trying to locate the line is futile. By design, the line is going to be wherever it is convenient for the ICC in the moment.

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