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Kagiso Rabada's conduct exposes the ICC code

Rabada's suspension after his latest run-in with Australian captain Steven Smith sets a dangerous precedent for fast bowlers the world over.

Feature 14 Mar 2018, 15:27 IST

Rabada sending off the Australian captain Steven Smith after dismissing him in the first innings at Port Elizabeth
Rabada sending off the Australian captain Steven Smith after dismissing him in the first innings at Port Elizabeth

A series that was shaping up to be one of the most compelling contests in Test cricket in recent times has been dealt a significant blow by the two-Test suspension handed out to South Africa’s pace sensation Kagiso Rabada, the newly crowned Number 1 ranked bowler in the ICC Test Rankings.

The severity of the blow to South Africa’s chances in the series is accentuated by the news coming out that Dale Steyn, their greatest ever bowler and one of the best of all time worldwide, will return from his injury-enforced absence only in time for the series-deciding fourth Test at Johannesburg starting on the 30th of March instead of the third Test at Cape Town, as was originally planned.

But the circumstances leading to Rabada’s ban have caused a greater dissension among the cricketing fraternity on the implications this has for the fast bowling breed and the game as a whole.

KG - The great and the less good

Before deliberating on the broader issue, let us consider these facts for a second. Kagiso Rabada is 22 years old, just over a couple of months shy of his 23rd birthday. He has taken 135 wickets in 28 Tests at an average of 21.45 runs and a strike rate of just a fraction under 39 balls per wicket. He has picked 9 five-wicket innings hauls, also encompassing 4 ten-wicket match hauls.

Only three bowlers in the history of the game had more Test wickets before their 23rd birthday – Waqar Younis, Harbhajan Singh and Kapil Dev. Only one South African bowler has more ten-wicket match hauls ever (1 more than Rabada in this instance) – none other than his illustrious teammate Steyn who has achieved the same in more than thrice as many Tests as his younger protégé.

If mere numbers aren’t astonishing enough, consider this. Rabada can swing the new ball and get the older one to reverse with equal aplomb. He can bowl in excess of 150 kilometres per hour and has a mean bouncer. Unlike most young bowlers in the game today, he has an exceptional fitness record and is a natural athlete with a smooth, fluid, repeatable action that puts minimal strain on his body. All in all, he is an extraordinary fast bowler. The complete package, if ever there was one. But there has been one issue that has dogged him throughout his short career.

This is the second time in less than 9 months the Gauteng speedster has been handed a suspension on account of his on-field conduct that has seemingly violated the ICC’s Code of Conduct.

His latest suspension was after he was found guilty of a Level 2 ICC Code of Conduct offence for 'inappropriate and deliberate physical contact’ with a player after dismissing the Australian captain Steven Smith in the 52nd over of the first innings of the second Test at Port Elizabeth when he screamed "yes, yes, yes" in Smith's face and then brushed his shoulder as he went through to the slips.

Rabada was charged 50% of his match fees by the ICC match referee Jeff Crowe and received three demerit points for the incident under the ICC’s demerit points system. In isolation, this wouldn’t have been an impediment to his chances of playing in the third Test at Cape Town but herein lies the catch.

The Demerit Point System - Multiple punishments for the same offence

The ICC’s demerit points system is based on an accumulation of demerit points received by a cricketer that last on a player’s record over a 24-month rolling period. A player who has accumulated 3-4 demerit points over the last 24 months attracts a ban of one Test or two ODIs (whichever comes first) and the punishment is doubled (two Tests or four ODIs) for a player who has accumulated 7-8 demerit points over the same period.

This means that unlike in football, where a player goes into the next match with a clean slate upon serving his suspension for his previous indiscretions, a cricketer shall continue to have a cloud hanging over his head due to the carrying over of the demerit points until 24 months have elapsed from the time the respective points were accrued.

This does result in a player getting punished twice for the same offence, which is exactly what has happened with Rabada here. Having already been suspended for a Test in England last August due to the demerit points accruing on account of ‘avoidable conduct’ with Sri Lanka batsman Niroshan Dickwella in February 2016 (a similar incident to the latest run-in with Smith) and giving England all-rounder Ben Stokes a send-off involving inappropriate language, the implications of those incidents didn’t end there.

Those points carried over, coupled with the demerit point received for sending off Indian opener Shikhar Dhawan in an ODI at Cape Town a fortnight ago, and this latest run-in with Smith has aggregated his demerit points to 8, leading to a two-Test suspension despite having already served a suspension for the first 4 of those points accrued.

While the logic behind the points staying on a player’s record even after suspension is sound as a player on the edge could be encouraged to commit another offense and get himself banned in an insignificant match/series so as to start with a clean slate from the next “big” series, there remains a lingering feeling that 24 months is way too long a time for the cloud to be hanging over one’s head.

This could turn into farcical situations especially in global tournaments like the ICC Cricket World Cup next year where teams are allowed only a limited prescribed squad size which could leave a team a player short for a few matches midway through the tournament for incidents that might have happened 23 months prior.

Inconsistency in the application of the system

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the same number of demerit points are often accrued for varying levels of offences. This is due to the fact that the ICC Code of Conduct is imprecise and impossible to be enforced consistently since it is subject to the discretionary judgement of the ICC Match Referee and the on-field umpires.

For instance, there is no objective measure to prove that Rabada’s shoulder contact with Smith was “deliberate” and is entirely subject to individual judgement. In fact, the Australian captain himself admitted in the post-match press conference that Rabada is a “world class bowler” and that he hoped to see him play in the rest of the series.

Clearly, he didn’t think it was a big issue, so for Rabada to be suspended due to mere perception of the match referee feels rather preposterous. It is this subjectivity in the application of the ICC Code of Conduct that is invariably going to lead to inconsistent application of the same with a player unfairly copping penalties for an offence that another might get away with due to the natural dissimilitude in human perception.

The fact that these offences, which are subject to the possibility of inconsistent human judgement, roll over a 24 month period leading to multiple punishments for the same offence only render it a more aggravating issue. Multiple small offences are arguably less exasperating than a big offence. Yet the ICC system of simple mathematical aggregation of demerit points fails to differentiate between the severity of the offences that actually warrants immediate action as against multiple smaller misdemeanours that may be non-issues in isolation but are needlessly compounded by the aggregation system in place.

Do not robotize human emotions

Last but certainly not the least, we must remember that Rabada is, at the end of the day, a fast bowler. No other breed of cricketers put their bodies through as much pain, sweat and toil as genuine fast bowlers. They are professional sportsmen playing in a highly competitive environment. Emotions are bound to flow on the field in the heat of the moment. Raw emotions are what add to the beauty of any sport. Joy and despair, triumph and disaster are what our sport is built upon.

Who can forget the abiding memory of AB De Villiers and Morne Morkel lying on the floor motionless, a picture of hopeless resignation on their faces, tears rolling down their eyes after a heart-stopping defeat against New Zealand in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup at Auckland while the Eden Park stadium went rapturous, the crowd of 40,000 carrying the energy and spirit of four million people as their team clinched their berth in the summit clash, 23 years after a similarly gut-wrenching defeat of their own at the same stage of the tournament at the same venue?

As a fan of the game myself, I can think of countless occasions where I have embarrassed myself with the manner in which I have celebrated the success of my favourite sporting teams/players from the comfort of my sofa and bed. To deny the players, who put themselves through pain and torture to achieve success, to celebrate the same in the manner they see fit when they do, eventually, achieve their goal would be akin to forcing a wild animal to live well outside its natural habitat.

Moreover, the game of cricket is brimful of examples when cricketers, and not just fast bowlers, let their emotions out far more egregiously than any of the incidents Rabada has been charged for.

Does anyone remember the great confrontation between Sir Curtly Ambrose and Steve Waugh in the Port of Spain Test in 1995 when the giant Antiguan fast bowler charged to hit at the Australian middle order mainstay after a war of words before being pulled away by his captain Richie Richardson? Or Michael Holding, the man who many think should be a role model for the likes of Rabada, kicking the stumps down, after failing to win a caught behind appeal against New Zealand batsman John Parker in a Test at Dunedin in 1980?

From Javed Miandad to Dennis Lillee, from Glenn McGrath to Inzamam Ul Haq, there are countless such instances where passionate cricketers, who wear their hearts on their sleeves have lost their cool in the heat of the moment. The nostalgia-induced belief that the behaviour of cricketers has worsened in recent times is rather mythical, to say the least.

One only wonders how many suspensions some of these great cricketers would have faced had they been playing under the modern-day heavy-handed rules or whether they would have been as successful if the authorities had tried to temper down their passion and modulate their emotions to meet their standards of ideal behaviour.

Especially in case of fast bowlers, aggression is arguably the biggest emotional weapon they possess. Taking that away from them would be like handing Superman a piece of kryptonite. Viewed in this context, Proteas skipper Faf Du Plessis’ comment that the ICC may as well replace batsmen and bowlers with robots and bowling machines to conform to their idealistic norms does not seem out of place.

The way forward

Does that mean the authorities are wrong in looking to control indiscipline and wrongdoings on the field? Of course not. I am personally of the belief that any behaviour that doesn’t seek to physically harm or personally abuse another on the field should be seen as acceptable.

But irrespective of whether my views of acceptable conduct are on the same wavelength as that of the ICC, the least one can hope for is precise, well defined, structured norms to be laid out regarding the same seeking to reduce(if not completely eliminate) the scope for human interpretation to the least possible extent and ensuring the consequences of the on-field indiscretions that violate the norms are immediate and not deferred through accumulated demerit points .

This will help in ensuring only serious offences are penalized and minor issues are not blown out of proportion through accrual of demerit points.

As an Australian fan, I want my team to face and beat the strongest possible South African side. There is still a glimmer of hope if Cricket South Africa (CSA) decide to seek legal counsel and present an argument to the ICC appointed judicial commissioner to allow Rabada to play while the appeal is pending.

If the commissioner agrees, that could open the door for Rabada to be part of the XI for the third Test at Newlands. The possibility of that, however, remains extremely remote. As a cricket fan, however, I wonder if a high profile ban in a high profile series is *maybe* *just maybe* what was needed for the ICC to realize the fallacy of the system in place and get their house in order.

If this incident turns out to be the catalyst for a much needed change in the ICC’s Code of Conduct, something good may yet have come out of it. Alternatively and perhaps, more likely, they will all forget this in a few days and move on as if nothing had happened. Alas! One can always live in hope.

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