Stump mics have their uses but beware the manipulation

Joe Root and Shannon Gabriel face off Getty Images

It's hardly cricket's gallery of shame - for there's match-fixing and various forms of cheating and instances of graver misconduct - but in the first two months of this year, cricketers have brought varying levels of embarrassment on themselves and the game through the words they have spoken on and off the field.

It has led to bans and suspensions and, crucially and somewhat alarmingly, exposed several levels of prejudices - sexism and misogyny in the case of Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul, racial profiling in the case of Sarfaraz Ahmed, and oblique homophobia in the case of Shannon Gabriel - among elite cricketers. On a wider level, it's a reflection of the gap between expected behaviour and prevalent behaviour.

The boundaries of acceptable behaviour and conduct have been redrawn in this more global, connected, but decidedly elite world the cricketers now inhabit. But it is one they are ill-prepared for on account of a combination of factors - background, lack of opportunities to develop societal skills, and the insularity that celebrity brings.

Given where and to whom it was addressed, it was staggering that Sarfaraz was unable to grasp the terrible nature of his lapse - even assuming that it was a general venting of frustration, and he hadn't intended for Andile Phehlukwayo to understand the meaning of kaale.

Just as in the case of Pandya - and to a lesser extent, Rahul - who couldn't have excused his performance on the grounds that it was an extension of boy banter in a casual setting, it would have been no defence for the captain of Pakistan that the term isn't as pejorative in the subcontinent where the abhorrent practice of coining nicknames from skin colours or other physical attributes isn't uncommon, and those at the receiving end are resigned to it.

"The keys at the moment are in the hands of the home broadcasters and, in many cases, the live feed is produced by the home board. As it stands, it's open to manipulation, or at the very least to accusations and perceptions of manipulation."

It was right for the players to cop the punishment, but the question remains whether the accountability shouldn't extend to their employers.

As society evolves, lines are constantly redrawn. With a contemporary lens, a lot of on-field banter now part of cricket folklore becomes, at the very least, cringe-worthy. Consider this exchange - perhaps apocryphal - between Ian Botham and Rodney Marsh, among cricket's most celebrated sledges.

Marsh: "How's your wife and my kids?"
Botham: "The wife's fine, but the kids are retarded."

But who's going to drum this in to the players, who come from different backgrounds and cultures, and don't receive the same education or sensitisation, but who must always be judged by a uniform code of behaviour?

Cricket treats itself as a corporate entity on most counts and, apart from being heroes and celebrities, cricketers are highly remunerated employees of cricket boards and franchises. Enormous resources are spent - rightfully so - on developing their primary skills, but since they are also the game's primary ambassadors judged for their conduct both on and off the field, should they not be adequately prepared? Franchise cricket has done its bit in exposing players to different cultures, but how much institutional training do the cricketers receive?

Two of these three instances were brought to light because the stump mics were turned on, and given the nature of the transgressions, it's difficult to feel sympathy for the players in question. But however tempting it might be to draw obvious conclusions, we must assess these two issues - on-field verbal transgressions and broadcasting of the chatter - separately.

The ICC is now an enthusiastic advocate of the idea of keeping the mics on, which has received the unqualified support of Moeen Ali, who claimed in his recent autobiography to have been at the receiving end of a racial taunt that was not caught by mics.

It is a persuasive argument. Switched-on stump mics have the potential to cut down personal abuse and bring greater accountability from players. The game needs its tensions and emotions, but once players are aware of repercussions, they are likely to stay within the line.

And it can make the game both more accessible and entertaining for fans. MS Dhoni behind the stumps to spinners provides the perfect mix of insight, wisdom and hilarity for the television viewer who can now feel part of the plot. And for a sport in constant pursuit of finding new ways to engage the fans, this is an attractive option.

"However tempting it might be to draw obvious conclusions, we must assess these two issues - on-field verbal transgressions and broadcasting of the chatter - separately."

However, cricket must be wary of the potential dangers. To start with, it would only be natural, as FICA articulated, if players were concerned about the inconsistency of its application.

The keys at the moment are in the hands of the home broadcasters and, in many cases, the live feed is produced by the home board. As it stands, it's open to manipulation, or at the very least to accusations and perceptions of manipulation.

During their last tour of India, the Australian cricket team complained about the selective airing of an exchange between Mathew Wade and Ravindra Jadeja. The reverse happened in Australia when the home broadcasters clipped out a mild spat between Jadeja and team-mate Ishant Sharma during a drinks break. The Indian team management felt it was mischievous.

More interesting was the practice of making the stump mic the primary feed during certain overs. It produced some entertaining exchanges between Rishabh Pant and Tim Paine, which culminated in that photo Paine's wife posted on Instagram going viral. But the fact remained it was the broadcasters who chose the overs, and a feeling persisted in the Indian camp that Pant, a young player on his first tour to Australia, might have been set up as easy prey.

Just as in the cases of ball tampering, which are now invariably unearthed by the broadcasters and almost always expose the touring players, the selective use of stump mics has the potential of attracting accusations of bias.

And finally, stump mics have limited surveillance value. They cover only a fraction of the ground, and as demonstrated in the case of Joe Root and Gabriel, the recording can sometimes be partial - it was that which prompted Gabriel to release his part of the conversation. ​Most of these incidents, of course, occur in the vicinity of the stump mics, the stumps being the focus of cricket's central confrontation. But that doesn't mean no infractions take place in other parts of the field, and those these mics can't capture.

Those who abuse as a tactic will simply get smarter about it. Already, there are examples of players muttering under their breath, or with their hands covering their mouths. Finding a way around the stump mic is unlikely to be an insurmountable challenge. It could also encourage entrapment of gullible cricketers - not everyone has the wit or the felicity of language to respond in kind to provocations - by those more adept at the art of sledging.

Before hailing stump mics as the cure to a persistent but minor irritant, cricket must pause to consider these side effects.