Having A Word: ICC Rap Sheet Could Suffocate Test Cricket’s Competitive Edge

Today Mark Cohen is back with his take on the growing number of fines issued to players for celebrating, swearing, and arguing. Is the ICC’s stance necessary to protect the game’s reputation or are they simply causing a storm in the proverbial teacup? 

The words “15% fine and one demerit point” seemed to become synonymous with the South Africa v England Test series. These were the punishments meted out to Vernon Philander and Ben Stokes in consecutive days at Johannesburg as a competitive but tetchy series drew to a close.

Other players (on both sides) have been on the receiving end of the ICC’s trigger-happy disciplinary system over the past few weeks. Stuart Broad received the same punishment for his confrontation with Faf du Plessis (who fortunately escaped without censure), as did Jos Buttler who was caught swearing on the stump mic.

Although England went on and won the fourth test handily, and with it the series, these incidents produced quite a few negative headlines. Instead of focusing about a team rejuvenated by the successes of Pope, Bess and Sibley, it appears that Test cricket is trying to find yet another way to sell itself short.

Those of us who grew up in the 90s were not treated to a cavalcade of English cricketing success. It was more than compensated for by the Allan Donald stare, the Merv Hughes’ ‘retuning’ of the ball back to the keeper at the end of an over (which nearly decapitated opposing batsmen), and the towering Curtly Ambrose giving diminutive opposition the most intense death-stares imaginable.

The Philanders, Stokeses and Kagiso Rabadas of today are not so different from their predecessors. Like Donald and co. they have had to fight tooth and nail to pull on a Test cricket shirt for their country. The difference with this generation is the intense media microscope that now hovers above them both on and off a cricket pitch. Of course, Stokes knows this more than anyone else.

Conspicuous by his absence from the South African attack in the final test, Rabada exemplifies the impossible tightrope test match players are currently expected to tread. Aggression is an integral key to his success. It’s the same with Stokes, who Rabada pointed off the pitch in 2017.

Asked after that incident whether he would maintain his aggressive approach, Rabada said “it’s simple: just don’t swear but be yourself”, adding that he and Stokes would share a beer after the match. Yet Rabada was still deemed to warrant a demerit point and subsequent one match ban for his animated celebration after bowling Joe Root in the third Test.

Michael Holding made a spirited argument on Sky Sports that Rabada should have known better than to celebrate in that way given his history. Context, he said, was everything – the bowler had been banned four times for aggression towards the opposition so why make the same mistake?

Although one can see where Holding is coming from, it’s worth pointing out that the paceman didn’t swear or gesture towards the dressing room on this occasion. Surely that was a sign he had indeed learnt his lesson? Not so, said the ICC. The players themselves seem to know where the line is. A disciplinary system should be there to penalise those who forget.

There has also been no indication that coaches are going to do anything to curb their players’ competitive spirit. Chris Silverwood gave a very casual response to Jonathan Agnew when asked about whether he thought the test series had been overly aggressive.

Meanwhile, Jos Buttler questioned the need for stump microphones as he sat on the ICC’s naughty step. I’m not sure I agree that test cricket should be filtered for TV, but Buttler’s comments also suggests the players aren’t going to stop sometimes calling each other “f***ing k******s” anytime soon.

International players and coaches thrive off “a bit of niggle”. Nasser Hussain gave some insight to this when responding to his Sky colleague Holding. He claimed it was easy for pundits to forget how it felt on the other side of the white lines. It’s hard to be calm and emotionally detached when you’re under intense pressure and desperately want to win for your country (and your career).

I agree with Hussain that Rabada’s actions in Port Elizabeth should be seen in this context. He’d been bowling in 33-degree heat without the new ball. When he dismissed the England captain he proved a rather large point. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy that?

One is left to wonder how Donald et al would fare now. Are modern players held to a higher standard beneath the media microscope than their predecessors? Although the current generation do occasionally go too far – Stokes was clearly foolish to swear at that spectator – neither should players suffer unduly at the hands of a rigidly draconian rulebook.

Perhaps one solution would be to hand some control back to the match referee? He can then deal with incidents on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. Banning players cannot be the default option otherwise Test cricket’s competitive edge will be blunted beyond repair.

Mark Cohen


  • I don’t think players are held to a higher standard today and the rules are abundantly clear anyway but we have seen a degradation in civility in cricket (and sadly most walks of life) from the eighties through the noughties and I think this simply reflects a desire to get back to a more courteous, respectful approach and a recognition of ‘The Spirit of the Game’.

    Whether one can put that genie back in the bottle is another matter. With the horrendous rise of popularism in many countries and the ability to abuse, hiding behind social media I doubt it.

  • I’m not convinced there ever was a “more courteous approach” or a worsening in civility, pre today’s intense media scrutiny largely to catch people out. I’m not sure Larwood or Vice would have said “sorry about that one old chap” back in 1932 or indeed the Demon Spowforth bowling to Grace even earlier and if you like Waquir Unnis more recently to name but a few. Unfortunately the more rules and restrictions forced upon society these days tends to encourage rebellion rather than curb it, and social media certainly doesn’t help.
    The ICC needs to realise that largely these are grown men letting off steam in a competitive environment. Often it’s directed more at themselves than an opponent. Fines? No just a chat afterwards is generally all that needs to be done.

    • The South African TV cameras were certainly trying to catch England out. They didn’t need to broadcast Stokes swearing but they did so deliberately a minute after it happened with no editing whatsoever. Then there was an apology for the bad language, which they’d wilfully and deliberately shown!

      Before they showed the incident they forgot to turn the sound off completely; therefore you could hear them editing the snippet (putting the swearing centre stage) as they showed an overhead view of the ground. Then they broadcast the incident as if it was live. I can’t remember if the commentators then discussed what happened but any indignation would’ve been completely contrived.

      On day 5 they also showed footage of Root putting what looked like a sweet in his mouth, walking up to the umpires, and then polishing the ball a few seconds later (in full view of the umpires). It was a completely innocuous scene but they seemed to be suggesting something. Hmmmm.

      Re: players from the past, they didn’t have the stump mic turned up back then (I think). Did they even have stump mics? The microscope therefore seems to have got a little more intense.

    • Just watch footage from the early days, celebrations were non-existent. I happened to watch the body-line tapes again last year, hardly a word spoken out in the middle all the fireworks by the administrators, etc., watch Laker’s 19, not even polite clapping from the fielders! Even the Aussies with Bob Massey in 1972, congratulations all round but not even a look at the batsman on the way out. So there has been a definite shift in civility on the pitch…whether we like it or not.

  • I saw the Hussein Holding spat and totally agree with Holding. What it pointed to was showing in your face disrespect. As they were standimg next to each other Holding got into Hussein’s face and asked the question, to which of course he avoided replying, but when asked if he would be happy to see his kids behaving this way he was happy to affirm. Hussein actually seemed to celebrate it as merely showing passion, but that’s just nonsense. As Holding pointed out this is being copied by youngsters in club cricket and offending older players. It’s gamesmanship at it’s most tasteless. It doesn’t matter that no one gave it the verbals, which has always been an integral part of competitive sport. The key is that it is intended to show disrespect, which should be discouraged at all costs. I think Rabada now understands this.
    You never see boxers standing over each other in the ring striking poses like that. They are told to make for a neutral corner to avoid this sort of celebration. If the boxing fraternity recognise this why not cricket.

  • No problem with players showing their emotions on the pitch, even if it means the odd naughty word … it shows they care. I’d rather have that any day than robots.. and if you constantly ask them to be “role models” you’ll end up with robots.

    • This was Hussein’s, I felt pathetically inadequate response to Holding’s charge of disrespect.
      Hussein’s assertion that international sportsmen, when they retire lose an ability to relate to the pressures of the moment seem to me ludicrous.
      I do agree that the advent of the stump mic. Is a totally unnecessary development. As you say no one wants to see robots, but the amount of stick Stokes gets for showing his ‘passion’ which has never been obviously disrespectful on the field, shows how slim the dividing line is between what is acceptable to the role modellers and what is yobbish.
      Personally I hate the self righteous approach of the media, now there is an example of corporate robotics, as they look to sanitise the whole experience for players and spectators. They’ll stir and distort till the cows come home, but printing an expletive is beyond the pail.

  • How would the likes of Donald fare nowadays? As you point out, a lot of earlier players simply didn’t start mouthing off at opposition players: Ambrose was famous for not doing it. So nothing would have happened to them because they wouldn’t have done anything except stare at the batsman from several metres away. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every player–ironically Holding was one who could do histrionics fairly easily!–but I agree with Chris that it is more prevalent these days.

    I also agree that it is both unnecessary and unpleasant to be calling the opposition or spectators fucking cunts, fucking knobheads or threatening to start fights with them. It adds nothing to the game–it’s just boorish yobbery. If we can’t see any middle ground between being a characterless robot and calling people cunts, motherfuckers and wankers every three sentences then we’re really in trouble!

    Re Rabada–regardless of whether the penalty here was a bit over the top, he should have been more careful simply because of his points situation. (In contrast to what many papers printed, he wasn’t banned because he yelled at something or somebody–he was banned because he’s a repeat offender). I don’t have much more sympathy for him than for a motorist who already has nine points and gets an additional three even though s/he was “only” doing 55 in a 50 limit. Of course you could argue that the police were maybe a bit over-zealous but the ban isn’t exactly their fault…

    Of course there’s pressure but in the end he’s playing a game, not fighting a war. And as the man said, pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse, not playing a game of cricket…

  • What happens in international cricket works its way down the chain and is imitated at county level, then club then, very sadly, at junior level. I don’t want to see that.
    Which is not to say I object to playing tough cricket, as long as it’s fair.
    Let’s get rid of those damn stump mics. I hate to hear commentors apologise for foul language picked up by the mics – just turn ’em down or remove them.

  • Administrators who act like f*****g k******ds (to quote Jos) should be banned. Those who brag on camera that “I make no apology for putting the interests of my board first” for example.

  • People are going to swear like it or not. Yes it’s a question of degree, but you can’t put players in class houses of control them like robots anymore than kids who hopefully learn from their mistakes. Pointless fines by the ICC don’t help anything and probably make matters worse. Some people are just more volatile than others, in all walks of life. May not be ideal, but it’s reality.

  • The ECB are about to call the 2021 Test against Afghanistan off because they are cramming five white ball series into that summer before playing five Tests against India (because recent series against India have been such top quality…. ).

    A May Test against Afghanistan in England will probably be pretty dreadful anyway but at least Afghanistan do have some potential to learn and get better (unlike Ireland, sad to say). Growing the game and prioritising Test cricket? The ECB’s actions speak louder than their words.

    • I don’t get this even given the “logic” they’ve expressed. I can come up with a perfectly coherent schedule for that summer which finishes a day earlier than the 2019 international season and on the same day as the 2020 season–and includes the Afghanistan test. It starts 22 days after the 2019 summer and 10 days before the 2020 one–that is, it runs from May 25 to Sept 15.

      As you can see, it’s slightly more intense than the 2020 season, but then one of the 2021 tests is not a WTC test and none of the five one-day series is against a country that finished in the top half of the 2019 World Cup–compare that to 2020 when six of the twelve one-day matches are against Australia and another three against Pakistan in a format where they’re the no.1 ranked team. It’s at the very least no more intense than the 2019 season, and probably less so.

      Incidentally, the idea of five one-day series is more than a bit dishonest by the ECB–what they mean is two lots of 3x ODI and 3x T20I, or what we have always called two series in the past; and one away series of 3 ODIs which means that England don’t have to play any one-day cricket at all between the end of the 2021 World T20 and June, or maybe, July 2022.

      Even looking at a worst-case scenario there’s no need to make the decision now: given that two weeks of the 2021 summer is the final of the WTC and a warm-up match for it, which may well not even involve England, the ECB could make a last-minute decision to schedule it then at the other end of the country. Or they could play it on May 14, which is still eleven days after the 2019 season started.

      As you say, this is more about attitude than logistics.

  • All those years of people moaning about how mean the nasty Australians were with their sledging, and yet now when the ICC actually starts to enforce a code of conduct it is suddenly The End Of Cricket As We Know It.

    I wonder how many complaints we’d see if these penalties had been handed out to Australian cricketers during an Ashes series. Probably many from Down Under, but on this site?

  • I hope they start to properly punish sledging and send offs. It’s a blight and needs stamping out. These are professionals


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