It just isn't cricket

The views of Ricky Ponting (left) and Steve Waugh on sledging show a lack of leadership and concern for the game.-V.V. KRISHNAN The views of Ricky Ponting (left) and Steve Waugh on sledging show a lack of leadership and concern for the game.

WHEN I retired from Test cricket the first time around, I was 31 and I vowed to myself that I would not be one of those boring old-timers who could see nothing good about the modern players and nothing wrong about us, the old-timers. I, no doubt, was inspired to think this way by Sir Donald Bradman, who had, at all times, an open mind about the modern game and a truthful and honest appraisal about the players of his time.

In the 50 years I had the pleasure to know the Don I was always fascinated by the freshness of his mind and the thoughtful consideration with which he assessed the talent of all players he had seen. I have always followed this credo and I believe I have kept an honest and open mind in my appraisal of modern players.

This has obviously been aided by the fact that I have been very close to the youngsters mostly as a coach. I've obviously had a greater appreciation of their skills, attitude and commitment to the game. I have also been very aware of the changing moods of society and how this could affect the behavioural pattern of young cricketers.

In many ways, the expression to often describe unfair or bad behaviour, "it isn't cricket", has been somewhat of a cross to bear for modern cricketers. Obviously, different times throw up different behavioural patterns and I have always felt that it was unfair to expect modern cricketers to behave in the same way as those brought up in more genteel times.

Most of the times I have thought the behaviour of the majority of modern players was acceptable and a credit to the modern game. Of late, though, I am finding it more difficult to follow the thinking of many players, both of the present and the near past. The ICC has, in my view, rightly expressed a desire to cut out the sledging which has now become more personal and regular.

What has been the most disappointing, however, is that Ricky Ponting sees nothing wrong with the level of sledging and Steve Waugh has expressed the view that it draws more spectators through the gate. I have been very disappointed with these comments for they seem to show a lack of leadership and concern for the game.

While first-class cricket is the public face of the game, the majority of cricketers who play the game will never reach that standard. What happens at the top level, whether it is good or bad, is what the younger and less qualified players copy. It is unfortunate that so often the major coverage is on the less suitable aspects of our game. This makes players at the lower levels believe that sledging and other insidious aspects of the game are now accepted as normal. Therefore, sledging now has become widespread at all levels of the game.

Those who are involved as officials in school cricket and park cricket tell me sledging has now reached epidemic proportions and that barely a match goes by without an incident. I went recently to watch my 16-year-old grandson play in a school match. He attends a well-known private school, where it has been suggested they turn out well-mannered young men. That may well be the case and we certainly like the way his school is implementing discipline at all levels.

Two weeks ago, my grandson's school team played against an equally well-known and respected school in their Saturday competition. The match was played in a competitive manner though I thought there was too much of meaningless chatter supposedly in support of the two teams. Suddenly, a batsman of the other school team was given out by his own coach. It looked close and certainly didn't warrant the abuse by the batsman against his teacher. The student, on his way back, continually turned around and hurled expletives. His tirade continued even when he reached the boundary, when several of his own teammates quietened him down. It was an astonishing and unprovoked display of rank bad manners and sportsmanship. On my scale of discipline, it should have brought a four-week suspension. After the match, I spoke to the teachers and was dismayed to hear that outbursts such as this are not uncommon at this level. This is an example of how poor sportsmanship and a breach of the spirit of the game can quickly lead to major ruptures in behavioural patterns.

While present-day cricketers promote the need for the spirit of cricket to be adhered to, many of them do not propose to follow in action this norm, which they publicly endorse in words. This, of course, not only includes sledging but excessive appealing, disrespecting the umpiring decisions and using their well-paid, generally ghost-written columns to bait opposition teams and players. I find all of this rather distasteful and not in the better interests of the game. In fact, public criticism of the opposition now seems to be part of the team tactics. All this reminds me of the behaviour of small children and the bravado they use to disguise their own fallibilities.

What does happen, occasionally though, is that those players writing articles show a surprising lack of common sense and knowledge of cricket. I have read two in recent times, which has made me wonder just how the modern player thinks and who is guiding them.

Australia's captain Ricky Ponting shocked me to the core in recent weeks when he declared that the Australian team is now practising as though they were in a match and presented this form of practice as the answer to the problems they had in England. Just how long this form of practice has been going on and who invented it hasn't been announced. Ricky's pronouncements caught me by surprise for when he came into the Australian team, practising what you had to do in a match was the accepted thing.

I was also incredulous when I read that two of the top New Zealand batsman never bothered to bat against fast bowlers, but relied on throw-downs generally from 15 yards to hone their skills. I have never heard anything as incredulous as this and it probably explains why the New Zealand batsmen were so uncertain against the quicks. Playing genuine fast bowling requires courage, skill, concentration and a burning desire to succeed. You must practise against the quickest bowlers available if you hope to succeed against the ultra-quick men. If you don't learn to take a few knocks and fight on, you will not be successful. Whoever is coaching New Zealand should keep a close eye on those who only want to have a few throw-downs at their leisure.

Throw-downs have become a bit of a disease in modern cricket much to the detriment of batting skills. The only really hard part about batting is judging the length of the ball. You have to master this art if you have to go forward when you have to and go back when the length of the ball dictates you should. Next time you watch a match either on television or live, note how many batsmen misjudge the length of the ball and invariably play the ball from the crease. There is a surfeit of such players at present and this accounts for the number of batsmen who are out leg before or bowled.

In this so-called "more professional era" the thing that bugs me the most is the number of bowlers who cannot bowl accurately. One of the great areas of debate at present is how much quicker the batsmen score runs than what was the case in the past. Obviously, the shorter boundaries now in play throughout the world make it easier to score runs. For a period of time, Australia was scoring at an incredible four runs per over in Test cricket. Not so many seasons ago, this would have been impossible, for batsmen just wouldn't have received enough loose deliveries to score at this rate. Now, I am amazed just how inaccurate most Test bowling attacks are. It seems as though most bowlers, on an average, deliver at least one four-ball in an over.

Some of the modern fields also make it easy to pick up runs with little risk. Two examples stand out; there will be no third man to the quicks, even though between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of all the runs are scored in this area and two men will be behind square leg on the boundary and one at mid-wicket. Batsmen only have to place the ball on the leg side, even when it pitches on the stumps to pick up easy twos. Sometimes, only two men are placed on the leg side against the quicks, and runs are there to be had.

If the bowler is consistently able to bowl a tight line and length, the batsman won't score at four runs an over all day. The risk required to score at this rate would lead to the batsman losing his wicket. Pressure is still the best way to get wickets and it can only be applied with good concentrated line and length, which dries up the opportunity to score easy runs. If there are no easy runs, it means more pressure for the batsmen. And pressure forces the batsmen into making mistakes.

Two extraordinary run chases in the second and third one-day internationals between New Zealand and Australia in New Zealand recently illustrated this point. In both matches Australia batted first and set New Zealand over 320 to win. In the first clash, New Zealand got within two runs of victory and in the second won. They were exciting dramatic games, which held the public enthralled.

A cold analysis, though, said that New Zealand should not get close to either total and Australia would have to bowl poorly for the Kiwis to win. Australian bowlers put themselves under pressure, bowling on both sides of the wicket and either being too short or too far up. This, however, seems to be the pattern of one-day bowling with few teams capable of bowling accurately or with variation.

It is crazy the number of times teams score over 300. For some reason, all teams have lost the ability to bowl tight on good wickets either in Tests or ODIs. All we hear these days is that ODI bowlers must aim to pitch it in the blockhole, in other words a yorker. Don't they realise that a yorker is created when a batsman hits over a full toss? That is what it is. Trying to continuously bowl yorkers increases the margin of error and takes out the uncertainty and variety given by bowlers to lull big hitters into making mistakes. The sooner coaches and captains realise this, we will see variety in one-day cricket and that will be a welcome addition.