You're off! Gentlemen's game to use red cards

Early bath: Umpire Billy Bowden pretends to send off Australia’s Glenn McGrath in 2005. © PA

Cricketers have been trusted to uphold the spirit of the game since the 18th century. Now, for the first time, umpires will send them off. Should society mourn the demise of self-policing?

On February 25th 1774, a group of distinguished gentlemen met at the Star and Garter pub in London’s Pall Mall. They had gathered to write the first official laws of cricket to be used throughout England.

Those rules have since grown more complex. But until now, only a team captain has been allowed to ask a player to leave the field. In October 2017, that will change for the first time. The MCC’s world cricket committee has recommended that players should be sent off for violent or threatening behaviour.

‘Umpires have to be respected and given the best possible chance,’ said Mike Brearley, the committee’s chairman. He said the change was a response to increasing abuse of officials and violence, particularly at amateur level. The ‘pretty drastic’ change should only be used ‘in extreme cases’.

Red cards are familiar in football or rugby. But cricket, which was popular among the English gentry, is based heavily on trust. There should be no need to send a player off: those involved are taught from a young age to play honestly and fairly — upholding the spirit of cricket, not just its laws. Captains are expected to take particular responsibility.

Some fear this trust has frayed in recent years. Professional batsmen now rarely ‘walk’ and detailed TV replays are often used to study whether catches have been taken cleanly. In 2000 the MCC responded by writing a preamble to the laws, which said the spirit of cricket gave the sport ‘much of its unique appeal’.

And is this a parable with a broader social significance? Just as trust has waned between cricketers, it has declined more generally in several Western countries. Just as umpires are being given more power, political attitudes are becoming more authoritarian.

In the UK, there is growing support for arming police officers; it has become more common to carry identification; and in the wake of the Leveson inquiry, there are demands to place more control on Britain’s press — which has operated a system of self-regulation since 1695.

Just not cricket?

What a shame, cry some. Unofficial codes of conduct provided a reassuring social glue; they made us consider the greater good, not just the letter of the law. Respect meant more than a game’s result and police officers did not need guns to be listened to. Now we take less responsibility — so we need more supervision and lead micro-managed lives.

Foolish nostalgia, opponents retort. Trust is easily abused: look at recently exposed sex scandals at the BBC and in football clubs, or how phone-hacking journalists behaved when they felt invincible. Unofficial rules were emblematic of an era of social hierarchy — and powerful, unscrupulous people exploited the grey areas they created.

You Decide

  1. If all your school rules were unofficial, would you follow them?
  2. Should we mourn the decline of unofficial codes of conduct?


  1. Think of a sport or hobby you enjoy. Make two columns: one for official rules you must follow, and one for unofficial rules (which it is rude not to follow). Discuss with a partner how important they are and how they should be upheld.
  2. Think of three possible reasons why trust may have declined in Western societies. Then do some research and feed back to your class — how accurate were your guesses?

Some People Say...

“People are their own best guardians.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like cricket! Does this matter?
Cricket is a very popular game around the world, partly because so many people watch and play it in India and Pakistan — two very populous countries. But this is not just about one sport. If cricket umpires have to send players off, it suggests we are giving more power to people in authority generally. You may worry that this will be too intrusive, or you may be grateful that someone will take control.
But I can’t change that. I have to follow my school rules, for example.
Soon you will be able to vote, so you can influence society’s direction. And one day most of you will be in positions of authority — you may become a boss or a parent, for example. It will help you to consider how to strike a balance between trusting people and instructing them.

Word Watch

Marylebone Cricket Club, based at Lord’s. Their world cricket committee oversees the game’s laws.
According to a survey by Portsmouth University, 40% of umpires had thought of giving up because of increasing abuse. One in five had done so.
Five club matches were suspended in England last year because of violence.
The MCC’s preamble to the laws of the game notably says ‘the major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains’— not the umpires.
Admit they should have been given out when the umpire incorrectly rules in their favour.
In last year’s World Values Survey, just 30% of people in the UK said ‘most people can be trusted’. In the 1950s, nearly 60% said so. Surveys suggest a similar trend in the USA.
Almost 3,000 police officers are now armed in London alone. A poll last year, by BMG Research, suggested 58% of Britons wanted the practice to become routine to deal with terrorism.
An inquiry into the ethics of the press, set up after widespread phone-hacking was revealed at the News of the World.

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