Allan Border was angry. His team had just failed by a couple of wickets to conjure victory over the West Indies at the Gabba, and now he was informed that thanks to the newish ICC code of conduct and network of match referees, he needed to face a hearing in front of Raman Subba Row to answer a charge of dissent. Border had stood at the non-striker’s end when Damien Martyn and Greg Matthews both fell lbw to Curtly Ambrose late on day four, and when a Merv Hughes appeal against Richie Richardson was turned down by Steve Randell, he said something like “you were giving lbws yesterday, why aren’t you giving them today?”
Fewer than 12 months after he refused to take the field in Adelaide upon hearing of his longtime deputy Geoff Marsh’s omission from the Test team, Border had another “captain grumpy” moment and chose to skip the hearing. What followed were hurried communications between Subba Row and the ICC president Colin Cowdrey in England, resulting in Border being fined half his match fee (AUD 2,000) rather than being banned for the next Test, in Melbourne. Amazingly, when Border was again charged with dissent in the series’ final match at the WACA, another referee, Donald Carr, gave him only a reprimand. So much for repeat offenders.
Twenty-five years later and the Kagiso Rabada saga has many of the same elements: misbehaviour, politics, and questions of consistency. Only this time the code and its enforcers have been through two decades or more of various scrapes and arguments, and in the place of Border’s “captain grumpy” there is a South African team with a mounting sense of victimhood where disciplinary matters are concerned. On the other side of the ledger is an Australian team with a bad reputation on the field but a better one in terms of negotiating the human side of the code: dealing with umpires and match referees, and getting feedback about interpretations. While one side plays to the gallery, the other works the match officials’ room.
For the Australians, the origins of this approach can arguably be traced back to “Monkeygate”, the fraught summer of 2007-08 when Harbhajan Singh was charged with racially vilifying Andrew Symonds, found guilty, and then subject to an Indian team appeal against the charge that led – via a foul-up of Harbhajan’s prior-offences record – to the bowler sidestepping a ban. It is difficult to overestimate how much that episode changed Australian attitudes, both from the players towards their administration and also from the team and their management to the ICC code and its enforcement.
“Australians… have become very much the minority in terms of where they see the line being drawn, and so on the field of play seem to expect that other teams are supposed to have their lines crossed in silence on the premise that it is all part of the game”
Since that time, the Australian team has been on an individual journey in terms of on-field behaviour; attempting a less hostile approach for some years before being given more licence by Cricket Australia’s Board and management in in 2013. But they have also evolved a sense of letting the umpires and match referees decide what behaviour is appropriate and what is not. It is from here that the now hackneyed concept of “the line” has grown, for in Australian eyes it is judged not by the players themselves but by the umpires, in much the same way as “line” decisions about run-outs and stumpings are to be judged by the umpires. In this there can also be seen a far more traditional Australian attitude: umpires are there to make decisions, walking is for the English.
Unchanged by the Harbhajan affair is the Australian team’s strong association with stepping over everyone else’s line, wherever it may be drawn in the minds of opposing teams, on a regular basis, and drawing increasingly common bouts of retaliation. When the subsequent retaliation goes over either the Australian line – as was the case with Quinton de Kock and David Warner – or the ICC’s, then the response is something like “oh, no, I’m perfectly justified to react, because that’s my line”.
An intriguing element about the way the Australians see the line is that they have become very much the minority in terms of where they see it being drawn, and so on the field of play seem to expect that other teams are supposed to have their lines crossed in silence on the premise that it is all part of the game. Those from a more removed vantage point, ESPNcricinfo’s Sharda Ugra among them, have recognised that Australia’s cricketing culture now sits outside the norms elsewhere, raising the question of whether it is they who should now conform.
Conformity, though, is very much at the core of the way Australia deals with any instance of being charged under the code of conduct. By repeatedly insisting that the umpires and the ICC are responsible for deciding where “the line” is drawn, they have become duty-bound to accept the umpire’s decision, and by extension the match referees’. In the words of the coach Darren Lehmann: “From my point of view we’ve had no issues with it in the past. We normally put up our hand and move on and that’s just the way it’s been. They give you a charge overnight and you make a decision from there, and that’s how it’s been since I’ve been involved anyway. Each country to their own really on that one.”
Since 2011, in fact, the Australians have only once challenged a charge: when both Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes were charged with making deliberate or inappropriate physical contact on the field in Adelaide in 2013. The match referee presiding at the time was none other than Jeff Crowe, who agreed to overturn the charge after a pair of separate hearings.
When the Australians do have a question to raise about the code’s application or process, they are careful not to do it in the context of a hearing. There was enormous angst within the Australian camp around the dissent charge brought against Smith the day after Josh Hazlewood had been charged for his reaction to a failed lbw decision referral against Kane Williamson in Christchurch in early 2016. But it was not publicly evident in Smith’s acceptance of his charge and fine, and instead conveyed privately to the ICC after the tour’s conclusion. In the minds of match officials, these things add up.
A major difference between Johnson/Stokes and Rabada/Smith was that the former did not follow a dismissal. This exception rather proves the rule as far as Australian interaction with the ICC code: the team manager Gavin Dovey seeks to build co-operative relationships with match referees, the coach Darren Lehmann sits on the ICC’s cricket committee, and the longtime chief executive James Sutherland has never so much as uttered a syllable in public criticism of the code. Contrast this with the former Cricket South Africa chief Haroon Lorgat, standing in open defiance of the code alongside Faf du Plessis after his ball tampering charge was upheld in Adelaide in 2016.
If South Africa mess up in a cricketing sense, the captain often walks into the post-match press conference to accept responsibility for a mistake. But when it comes to the code of conduct, there is now a long record of South Africa denying wrongdoing or questioning the merit of the charge. This pattern had its most outsized example between the second and third Tests in Australia in late 2016, when du Plessis was charged for altering the condition of the ball by the use of a mint.
At a memorable appearance on the MCG outfield, Hashim Amla fronted the television cameras with the entire South Africa squad behind him. As an illustration of a siege mentality it lacked only the drawbridge. The subsequent appeal left many to scratch their heads about the grounds on which recourse could be sought, given what the laws of the game state about foreign substances. But there was a sense of preserving honour to it all.
South Africa’s players and management are extremely proud of their success, particularly so given the numerous historical, economic and cultural disadvantages they have had to cope with relative to Australia in particular. The sport is not, as in Australia, the No. 1 in the land, having to compete with the unassailable popularity of football and the Afrikaaner loyalty to rugby.
“If South Africa mess up in a cricketing sense, the captain often walks into the post-match press conference to accept responsibility for a mistake. But when it comes to the code of conduct, there is now a long record of South Africa denying wrongdoing”
Money is tight – the best players in the national team are paid nowhere near their Australian equivalents, and hold-ups to the T20 Global League have cost not only money but the job of Lorgat. Pitches and cricket grounds are of high quality, a huge contributing factor in the national team’s continued success, but there are plenty of facilities now in need of upgrades, where they exist at all. At the same time, the growing pains of transformation have tested many within the system, even as its rightness has been underlined by the emergence of Rabada himself. In maintaining such a strong on-field record in spite of all these obstacles, the ICC’s disciplinary process has come to be seen as another challenge to be surmounted.
Before “mintgate” was even a glimmer in the minds of controversialists, Rabada had been the dominant bowler in the first Test of the series in Perth, before playing a supporting role to Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott in Hobart. In the third, a day-night match in Adelaide, Rabada proved a threat to debutant New South Welshman Nic Maddinson, who after scratching around for 11 balls could do nothing when the 12th sped and swerved past his bat to knock out the stumps. Rabada turned and offered him some fruity advice on the way off, in an instance that did not attract censure at the time from the match referee Andy Pycroft, largely because the umpires did not hear what had been said to Maddinson. It was, however, noted for the future: umpires became more aware of what to look for. There was no indication that South Africa did likewise.
The Adelaide Test occurred a few months after the introduction of a demerit points system for repeat breaches of the ICC code. With its introduction came an expectation from match officials that there would be more hearings and appeals, quite simply because one of the criticisms of the old system was that players simply signed up for whatever the referee gave them because a ban had been avoided. There were instances of players repeatedly breaching the code in different clauses without any real escalation and penalty.
Referees sometimes looked at individual cases more dimly because of the player’s record, but in the case of a level 1 offence the player in question needed to offend in the same area three times in a year to merit a ban: Warner’s change from “the bull” to “the reverend” followed one such instance, but they were truly few and far between. Instances of a player being banned for a single offence were rarer still: Dinesh Ramdin was docked two matches for claiming a catch from a ball that clearly bounced in the 2013 Champions Trophy, but criticisms of why this was so, when so many batsmen stand their ground after being caught behind, arguably warded off other such decisions.
Players and teams alike viewed the code as something of a joke, necessitating the formulation of a system that had greater consequences. The designation of offences has not differed much under the new system, but their consequences have shifted greatly. So as Rabada kept adding consistently to his rap sheet for send-offs, the demerits mounted up. He was duly banned in England for an offence – swearing at Ben Stokes after dismissing him – more or less identical to that incident for which he avoided sanction against Maddinson, and continued to tally up the points. In Durban, he was warned by the umpires after sending a volley Warner’s way upon his second-innings dismissal, but went on to further send-offs and the physical brush with Smith in Port Elizabeth. So when Crowe ruled against Rabada, he was addressing not only a pattern of behaviour but implementing a system now devised to stamp just this out.
South Africa, though, have continued to see inconsistency and hypocrisy. Among the most telling lines from du Plessis was in revealing part of Crowe’s modus operandi for not banning Warner after his stairwell confrontation with de Kock. “The match referee said there are bigger things to play for here, that’s why he didn’t want to ban Davey Warner,” du Plessis said. “Because he wants him to play the rest of the series. I just said I would like the same to apply to KG [Rabada].”
On a public commentary level, this is equivalent to political populism, ignoring the two players’ relative disciplinary records and playing up to the Australians’ poor on-field reputation. Similarly fanciful was floating a concept of defining different degrees of physical contact in cricket and assigning penalties accordingly. Cricket, of course, has never been a contact sport.
But du Plessis did follow up with something a little more pragmatic when asked about why the team had taken to challenging, if not outright appealing, most code of conduct verdicts they are presented with. “Our strike rate is 0% at the moment with trying to challenge these cases – it will probably stay at 0%,” he said. “I don’t think there is a big turnover when it comes to [challenging] these things.
“If there is inconsistency in the application of the ICC code, old or new, then it is no more so than the application of law in different courts, by different judges, in different countries and jurisdictions”
“It’s so difficult to always be consistent because there will always be different interpretations. An umpire sees Test cricket as a game of playing hard and he lets a few things go, and then you get umpires that are much more by the book and they look at every single incident. That’s why it’s about trying to let the game play on, let cricket be the main focus.”
If there is inconsistency in the application of the ICC code, old or new, then it is no more so than the application of law in different courts, by different judges, in different countries and jurisdictions. As Subba Row himself said in 2005: “It is a question of judgement. There isn’t anything written down and one match referee’s judgement may be different from the other. Just as it happens in court, no two judges give the same decision, although they have the same set of guidelines. You have to take a view; that’s your job.”
In appealing the Rabada decision, South Africa are seeking a different judge. But the question of his guilt or otherwise will be put to the test of an appeal process that seldom rules in favour of the charged. Since the Harbhajan matter in 2008, James Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja have been the only two players to have their charges thrown out, when the Australian Gordon Lewis ruled neither man had a case to answer over their corridor fracas at Trent Bridge in 2014. Perhaps Rabada’s advocate Dali Mpofu had that in mind, even as he told South Africa’s Times that the case had wider consequences at stake. “I do believe this is an important case for all South Africans and has implications for our shared project of nation-building,” he said. “We should all wish Kagiso luck for Monday.”
What is clear above all else is that both Australia and South Africa have some thinking to do about their conduct in relation to the code. For Australia the conversation should be less about the way they negotiate the ICC’s rules and regulations than how the players wish themselves to be seen to the rest of the world. For South Africa, the team’s perception is far less of a problem than the nuts and bolts of dealing constructively with the game’s governors. If that means starting a conversation about redrawing the code, or reassessing the roles and qualifications of umpires and match referees, then it is one for the ICC committee room.
Their contrasting dilemmas do not recall Border’s early brush so much as the closing exchange from The Mission, a 1986 film about conflict over the colonisation of parts of South America in the 18th century. Discussing the destruction of one Jesuit mission with an emissary for the Pope, sent to decide on whether to close it, the pragmatic local governor states: “We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.” Comes the rueful reply: “No, Senor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.”