By Derek Pringle
Passion they call it, and it seems that it can get you in trouble if not harnessed properly. But does that mean it should be discouraged, as the International Cricket Council seem determined to do with their two-match ban of Kagiso Rabada, arguably the most exciting fast bowler in the game at present?
Test cricket, we are told, is ailing enough without ICC banning shining talents like him for allowing their emotions to bubble over. Rabada’s sin, if you can call it that against the obnoxious Aussies, was to nudge Steve Smith’s shoulder after he’d dismissed him lbw for 25 in Australia’s first innings of the second Test at Port Elizabeth.
It wasn’t his only transgression. In Australia’s next innings, he bowled a fast and furious new ball spell at David Warner, the pitbull turned paragon, before getting up close and personal to scream his joy when he eventually dismissed him.
South Africa won the Test to level the series and Rabada finished with 11 wickets, his fourth ten-fer in 28 Tests. He will now miss the remaining two Tests of this riveting series for little more than getting carried away, surely the default position for a 22-year old in a demanding profession like fast bowling.
Now, nobody wants to see argy-bargy on a cricket field but a little nudge like that was hardly a collision of note. Before the ICC decided to apply ultra stringent codes of behaviour to international cricketers, the umpires would have dealt with that, possibly even with a smile, by having a quiet word with Rabada and maybe even his captain. Latitude was their byword when dealing with on-field misdemeanours and not just the name of a music festival in Suffolk.
But with bans in the offing Smith, while not collapsing as if disemboweled by a spoon – like some footballers would have done – still made sure the umpires knew that contact had been made. Only he and his team will know if it was part of a deliberate strategy, yet there seems little doubt that the Aussies set out to wind opponents up and then watch them get hauled in by the match referee when they cannot control their anger.
Goading opponents and then entrapping them in the hope they will be censured in some way, seems to have become part of modern sport. But then that is what a punishment culture brings.
In England’s recent rugby international against France, Maro Itoje tried to draw the referee’s attention to a bite mark on his arm. It smacked a bit of “Teacher, teacher,” and while biting probably breaks the hard man codes of rugby, it still looked like Itoje was trying to get an opponent sin-binned.
As for Warner, Australia’s winder-up-in-chief, does he seriously think he is immune from those who return fire at his jibes? He must realise that there is nothing off limits about personal abuse, as that is the nature of it. But then if you don’t want to hear unedifying stuff about the missus, don’t dish it out in the first place.
Not that Rabada appeared to be abusing Warner. The primal scream seems to be something of a trademark whenever he takes a wicket. It’s just that on this occasion he got close to Warner and was looking directly at him when he emitted it.
Australia’s Merv Hughes used to do much the same thing to those he dismissed, though I never recall him being punished for it. With Rabada, geography was the problem and had he been facing extra cover when he screamed his triumph, you cannot help feeling there would not have been the same fuss. ICC will no doubt argue that any leniency, even it is shown to players in exceptional circumstances, risks opening the floodgates, but I’m not sure that is true.
A good captain will keep his players in check so it does not become habitual. Indeed, don’t ICC insist upon it these days, which makes it strange that Faf du Plessis has not also been punished.
Tense situations in sport affect some players more emotionally than others, but they are often one-offs. In the Benson & Hedges final of 1985, between Essex and Leicestershire at Lord’s, I reverse-swept Peter Willey off the first ball I faced.
Annoyed at the cheek of it (reverse-sweeps were still quite rare then), he called me every name in the Viz lexicon as I ran down to his end. He also elbowed me hard in the ribs as I turned for the second, in full view of the umpire, who didn’t utter a word.
It didn’t worry me in the slightest and although unusual it shows how times have changed. Willey apologised afterwards, once Leicestershire had won, but he wasn’t in the habit of doing such things so it was a one-off in the heat of the moment.
As such, it was right not to punish him. Perhaps Rabada’s persistence with the verbals (he was banned last summer after giving Ben Stokes a volley at Lord’s) has singled him out. If so, it still seems a bit rich with everything the Aussies get away with.
One thing that cannot be tolerated, however big the provocation, is for players to bash into umpires, as Colin Croft did to New Zealand’s Fred Goodall back in 1980. Frustrated by some poor umpiring decisions in the Test series and Goodall’s persistence in calling him for no-balls for breaking the side crease in the match at Lancaster Park, Croft decided to run in straighter with the consequence that he struck the umpire’s left shoulder as he attempted to bowl.
Mean and moody with ball in hand, Croft made far more contact than Rabada did on Smith. It looked deliberate, too, so was likely to have been pre-planned before the ball was bowled. By contrast, Rabada would not have known that he’d take a wicket at those particular moments, nor possibly the potency of the emotional surge that would guide his actions.
By trying to rid Test cricket of questionable behaviour, the ICC are trying to rid it of excessive emotion at a time when players need to be fully committed. Let’s face it, hardly anyone seems to be punished for getting carried away in T20 games. Which suggests that Test cricket is still the one that really matters and stirs the synapses of those involved. The ICC messes with that dynamic at its peril.