Steve Smith's latest gaffe - What do the Laws say?

It was the final drinks interval on the last day of the latest Australia v India Test match. India were batting resolutely for a draw and Australia were frustrated at their inability to take wickets – not helped by dropped catches.

The ‘all-seeing eye’ of the television camera focuses in on Smith who walks on to the pitch and proceeds to scrub away the batsmens` guard marks around the popping crease with his footwear, scratches a new random guard mark and walks away.

As I write this piece, the incident has had over 3 million viewings and as one might expect has generated lots of comment. The question has been asked “What should the umpires have done, and what could they have done?”

(Steve Smith after Australia beat Ireland in 2015)

Why would Smith have done that ? It was a totally irrational and infantile act that, clearly, was not affecting the match situation, or incommoding the batting side. A childish stunt, more appropriate to a school playground than a test match arena. And when play resumed the batsman, unaware of any wrong doing , simply asked for a fresh guard and play continued.

The above paragraph might well persuade a few people to suggest that the umpires should have done nothing – no harm done – so let`s just carry on. But this, of course, cannot be. The man has form. The whole cricket playing world knows about 2018, when he was the leader of the “gang of three” in the `Sandpapergate` scandal, which cost him the captaincy of his country and a very lengthy spell away from cricket.

The Preamble to the Laws, the Spirit of Cricket says “Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket”. It exhorts everyone to “ Play hard and play fair. Create a positive atmosphere by your own conduct, and encourage others to do likewise, and Show self- discipline , even when things go against you.” (I extracted a promise from a former N.C.U. President that the Union would produce this document in an eye-catching poster format and have it displayed in every club and school changing room in the Union`s jurisdiction. It hasn`t happened yet, but I live in hope that his promise will come to fruition).

Back to the Laws, that the umpires must adhere to when appointed to any cricket match. Law 2. The Umpires. The umpires have to control the match as required by the Laws with absolute impartiality. So ignoring Smith`s actions was not an option. The pitch (22 yards x 10 feet ) is a `no go` area for fielders at any time during an innings , unless they have to encroach onto it to effect a catch or field the ball. (This limitation includes the change over between overs, when they have to cross behind the stumps at either end, not walk or run across it.)

Law 41. Unfair play. (Fielder damaging the pitch). It is unfair to cause deliberate or unfair damage to the pitch. A fielder will be deemed to be causing avoidable damage if either umpire considers that his/her presence on the pitch is without reasonable cause. Smith was in breach of this Law, and his captain would be given a caution and informed that it was a first and final warning ( any further offence would incur Penalty runs.)

Law 42. Players` conduct. Level 1 offences here includes :- “wilfully mistreating any part of the cricket ground.” Again this was exactly what Smith was doing, and it also incurs a first and final warning. So, depending on what may have gone on before in the match, the umpires would act under one or other of these Laws, as they saw fit in the circumstances. The consequences - first and final warning, may seem a very ‘light touch’ penalty – and indeed it is - but it is for the Governing Body (ICC) and the player`s country board (C.A.) to make a final judgement. Once the umpires have done their on-field job , they should not be concerned in any way, with the final outcome.

A test match has a team of four umpires, television coverage and an ICC match referee. I should imagine that between them and after all the necessary reporting and paperwork, there may be consequences for Mr. Smith and his captain.

And a post script – nothing to do with the above. Groundsmen must be close to despair with the way today`s batsmen mark their guard. What began as a modest scratch on the turf has - in many cases – turned into a form of vandalism! The longer their innings , the longer deeper and wider these gouges get.

A generation ago this never happened. Then, the batsman took his/her guard from the umpire and made a modest divot on the popping crease with the toe end of the bat. I think the West Indians have the best practice of all, which I have seen used by some of them coming over here. They get down on one knee, take a bail off the stumps and hammer the long spigot into the popping crease with their bat handle, to mark leg, middle and off with neat round holes. A lovely, tidy way to make one`s guard.

Groundsmen could do this as part of their pitch preparation and the brutal gouging of the ground could be banned by a playing regulation!