No substitute for fair play

WITH the passage of each Test series, a little worm of paradox gnaws away steadily at the heart of world cricket. Every spring the game's glitterati assemble at Lord's to listen to the Lord Cowdrey-inspired lecture: `The Spirit of Cricket.' Far away from the hallowed precincts, however, hypocritical influences are at work steadily undermining the pseudo-altruistic sentiments being mouthed at headquarters. And the latest example of this ambivalent morality is the disputation which has accompanied the 2005 Ashes series on the issue of substitute fieldsmen. This bone of contention reached its climax with the Aussie skipper, Ponting, exchanging words with the occupants of the England dressing room as he left the field after he was run out at Trent Bridge.

It almost made me think that the substitute law of the 1947 code was better than its modern equivalent. In post WW2 cricket, substitutes were only allowed to field or run between wickets for players who were, `during a match,' incapacitated from illness or injury, 'but not for any other reason' without the consent of the opposing captain. The law went on to state that `consent as to the person to act as substitute in the field shall be obtained from the opposing captain who may indicate positions in which the substitute shall not field.' Such regulations were specifically aimed at restricting substitutions to those players who were incapacitated in the course of the match being played — and then blocking the employment of `gun' fielders, such as those in the slips, from gaining advantage for their team by taking up positions in the field in which they were particularly adept.

The MCC 2000 revision of the Laws retained many of the principles outlined in previous codes. For instance, law 2 paragraph 1 still specified that substitutes for batsmen or fieldsmen should still be limited to those players `who satisfy the umpires that they have been injured or become ill after the nomination of the teams — and that any injury or illness occurring after the naming of sides contesting the game until its conclusion shall be allowable, irrespective of whether play is in progress or not.'

Ponting and the Aussie team are not deliriously happy that England has been calling upon substitutes for bowlers who are not injured during the game, but who are simply looking for a rest and recovery period after a bowling spell. Of course, umpires who are on the ball should not permit these acts of gamesmanship. But it appears that the rising generations of Stephen Potters have been getting under their guard. Moreover they have been able to legitimise the tactic under the conditions laid down by paragraph 1(b) of Law 2. This states that "the umpires shall have the discretion, for other wholly acceptable reasons, to allow a substitute for a fielder or a runner for the batsman at the start of the match or at any subsequent time." Thus when an umpire sanctions a bowler's absence from the field for a rest period, he must be of the opinion that the bowler's need for a breather constitutes "a wholly acceptable reason" — a strange logic alongside law 2 paragraph 1(e) which does not even permit a substitute for a player who leaves the field to change his shirt or boots!

The batting skipper's rights on the score of substitutions are further eroded by paragraph 2 of Law 2, which denies him the right to object to substitutes being used in specialist positions save those of bowler, wicket-keeper and captain: a regulation which sparked off the confrontation between Ponting and the England dressing room when the Aussie captain was run out from cover by Nottinghamshire's equivalent of `Jonty' Rhodes. It is also a Law which defies reason, for it delivers an extra weapon into the hands of the fielding side. I wonder what the reaction of the Australian management would have been in the 1960s if South Africa had been permitted to use Colin Bland as substitute and field him at cover point! I can certainly tell you that England would have strenuously objected to Neil Harvey or Paul Sheahan being employed as a substitute cover in the '50s and '60s. Why should a fielding side be presented with the advantage of what is virtually an extra fieldsman? The failure of the umpire to act when a player leaves the field to recharge his batteries is all the more difficult to understand in the light of paragraph 5 of Law 2, which states that if a player fails to take the field with his side at the start of a match or at any later time or leaves the field during a session ` the umpire shall be informed of the reason for his absence and he shall not thereafter come on to the field during a session of play without the consent of the umpire. The umpire shall give such consent as soon as practicable.' I am of the opinion that changing the fielding personnel during a Test is currently too casual and that when a substitution is made the umpire should require a full and meticulous explanation as to how the player being replaced was incapacitated and how serious the injury or illness is.

Should a player seek to leave the field without due cause to rest after a bowling spell — and represents himself as being unwell or hurt, as I fear is often the case at the moment — such a tactic falls into the category of `sharp practice'. For it flies in the face of the altruism constantly preached in `The Spirit of Cricket.' Such hypocritical gamesmanship necessitates a far more stringent policing by the umpires of Law 2. The law-makers have not hesitated in placing other restrictions of surrogate fielders. If, for instance, a man leaves the field for a period of 15 minutes or more, he is not permitted to bowl thereafter until he has been on the field for at least that period of playing time for which he was absent — subject to certain conditions. However, after the recent verbal `stoush' between Ponting and the Poms, I feel that the time has come for the MCC to give the substitution law a good laundering — followed by the umpires ironing out its creases. The war-cry must resemble that of the 1777 American Colonists: `No substitutions without Incapacitation.'

But having laid down such revolutionary precepts, let me add that there is no room in the game of cricket for on-the-field dissent — such as that displayed by the Australian captain after his dismissal at Trent Bridge. There is a strict protocol for registering disagreement with the laws of the game and how they are interpreted by the umpires during a match. Australians and Englishmen should stick to the guidelines of acceptable conduct — as described in the preamble to the Laws of Cricket, and denounced in `The Spirit of Cricket'. The rest is loutish anarchy.