The Sad Decline in the Spirit of Cricket

Jon Willington


Jonathan Willington (now retired excellent cricket umpire) who has sadly decided to discard his white coat for good...

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. The major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains but extends to all players and match officials.

Respect is vital

Respect is central to the Spirit of Cricket, which includes the basic tenets of respecting opponents and the authority of umpires, accepting the umpires’ decisions, showing self-discipline and creating a positive atmosphere through your conduct.

Fine words indeed, but not my words. These words are in fact the preamble to the Laws of Cricket and have forever been a cornerstone of a game first played by gentlemen and intended to always be played by gentlemen.

Such is the importance of the Spirit of Cricket that it is in fact written into the Laws; Law 1.4 to be exact, which states; ‘The captains are responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the Spirit of Cricket as well as within the Laws.’

Scorers - Jon Willington and Becky Badham

Spirit of cricket in decline

Across Pembrokeshire, the Spirit of Cricket is in a steady but definite decline. I would challenge anyone who participates in or follows local cricket to declare they had not seen evidence of this decline.

On field behaviour is poor, the standard of conduct is increasingly poor and the often blatant and vitriolic abuse of and disrespect for umpires from players, officials and supporters is now commonplace.

To coin a phrase, this is simply not cricket, yet in reality the majority of those responsible for ensuring the Spirit of Cricket is upheld do nothing. Just to be clear, this is not the primary responsibility of an umpire.

To bring some balance, cricket is of course not the only sport that is seeing a decline in standards of conduct and behaviour. Turn up and watch a game of football or rugby at any level anywhere and you will witness the systematic abuse of match officials.

Professional sportspeople are role models to those in grass roots sport so when you consider that their conduct often ‘scrapes the bottom of the barrel’ then it is perhaps no wonder we see what we do in local sport.

Jon Willington and Ian Milsom

Two aspects must be addressed

I want to focus on two linked aspects of the Spirit of Cricket, that is the respect for umpires and acceptance of their decisions. Or in the case of cricket across Pembrokeshire, the disrespect for umpires and unwillingness to accept their decisions.

That is not to say that all club officials, players and supporters display these unacceptable behaviours, but the count is rising fast in my experience.

The irony of player attitudes towards umpires and each other is difficult to ignore. Where a player bowls a bad delivery and gets deposited over the trees for six, he is generally met with, ‘don’t worry, back on it’ or words to that effect. When a catch is dropped the player hears, ‘don’t worry, you will have the next one’.

When a dreadful shot is played and the batter gets out its, ‘never mind, you’ll get runs next week’. You get the picture. Yet when an umpire is perceived to have made a mistake, the reaction is all too often very different.

An umpire is challenged, often robustly and rudely and all too often is met with a barrage of often very personal expletives. Players cross the line far too often. It is and always has been unacceptable!

Players also make lots of errors

It is the fact that players, supporters and club officials deem this acceptable and is the root of the problem. Umpires have many things in common with others involved in the game.

They are human beings, they are fallible, they make mistakes. I have been involved in cricket all of my life and have yet to play in or watch a game of cricket where the umpires have made anywhere near as many mistakes as the players.

Yet there is an intolerance of umpires that has now reached the point of being beyond unacceptable. Remember, players and umpires are not adversaries. There is no reason the relationship cannot be cordial.

Pembrokeshire Cricket Vikings

Even top umpires are not infallible

Michael Gough, a Yorkshireman, is currently regarded by many as the best umpire in world cricket. He is a professional umpire. That is his job. He trains and studies hard. He is not the best by chance. And yet, he gets only 80% of his decisions correct.

I say only 80%, that is remarkable. I should add that he is aided by the best technology cricket can buy and no longer has to call no-balls or run outs as the third umpire does that for him.

Still not an easy job but significantly easier than an umpire standing in a local game, often on his own, with no technology or support. Do those in local cricket genuinely expect umpires in Pembrokeshire to get every decision correct?

Trash on social media makes things worse

The almost complete disrespect for umpires has led me to retire with immediate effect. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time than stand on a cricket field and routinely receive vitriolic abuse from what are in many cases, pretty poor cricketers.

And worse still, read the absolute trash posted on social media by what I would call ‘boundary muppets’ deriding local umpires. Who are these people? What is their standing in the game? I would suggest they are akin to cricketing nobodies.

Pembrokeshire has already reached the point of having too few umpires to cover five first division games each Saturday. It is now commonplace for umpires to stand on their own and be even more vulnerable to problems and incidents given they have no support at hand.

Vital questions for answering

Let me pose two rhetorical questions to those involved in local cricket i.e. club officials, players, supporters and spectators.

Firstly, at what point in time did you discover it was acceptable to disrespect and abuse umpires?

And secondly to players; how would you feel and respond were umpires to openly and vitriolically abuse and criticise you for playing a poor shot or dropping a catch? Think about it.

I fear as a sport that cricket has crossed the Rubicon and the decline of the Spirit of Cricket is irreversible. With this will come the day all too soon when Pembrokeshire cricket will no longer benefit from the presence of neutral umpires. And it is a benefit!

An awful outlook if things aren’t addresses

I wonder then how players, club officials and supporters may feel when promotion and relegation from all divisions is determined by unqualified umpires who do not know or understand the Laws of cricket.

Or even a cup final. The onus is firmly on clubs, captains and players to take a serious look in the mirror and act now to prove me wrong and reverse this decline. Do nothing and your sport will descend into chaos.

Sadly for me, I will no longer be part of it; at least not as an umpire.   

Jon Willington during his playing days