CRICKET is governed not by rules, like other sport, but by laws. Famously, there are 42 of them and the law makers have managed to keep this number constant through various editions, including the latest that came into force on 1 October. Revisions usually deal with the technicalities of maintaining a fair balance between bat and ball, cricket’s eternal dilemma. This time the state of the game requires new disciplinary measures covering misconduct that empower umpires to dismiss players from the field of play temporarily or permanently.

For cricket this is truly revolutionary. The explanatory report that places these law changes in context speaks of ‘deteriorating levels of behaviour’ and four levels of misconduct involve the award of penalty runs and ultimately the expulsion of a player from the rest of a match. No mention is made of the drama of red cards although each level of offence is covered, in true cricket tradition, by appropriate signals to those forgotten stalwarts of the game, the scorers. Ultimately, umpires can award or abandon a game. Somewhat optimistically, the lawmakers justify their new provisions by arguing that they will act as a deterrent and hopefully will never be invoked. This seems a somewhat old-fashioned view.

My twenty-year career as a cricket umpire ended abruptly about fifteen years ago during a first division club match played at Dalry Park in Pietermaritzburg between local team Standard and a visiting outfit called Durban Varsity. In the afternoon session of 30 overs, during which the visitors were fielding, the f*** word was uttered over one hundred times; in other words every other ball. The main offender was the so-called captain, although all the players on the field including the Standard batsmen seemed to accept abusive language as perfectly normal. At home that evening I decided to call it a day and from then on umpired only in social club cricket. A complaint lodged with the University of Natal (Durban) was apparently taken seriously, but subsequent correspondence included a submission from the foul-mouthed captain. Bizarrely, according to him the umpires – me and the late Paddy Ewer – were the problem.

Historically, cricket relied on umpires, captains and senior players to maintain a decent standard of civility on the field. That disappeared at international level years ago, but has in recent years done so at grassroots level, too, as the Dalry Park match so graphically illustrates. However, this jolt of modern realism should not be met with any sense of sentimentality. Cricket never was a ‘gentleman’s game’, its laws originally devised to accommodate betting. Its first mass media figure, W.G. Grace, was its greatest cheat who got away with extraordinary transgressions and unbelievable arrogance. In more recent times Australian players perfected sledging, a combination of profanity, provocation and infantilism designed to unsettle batsmen that should have seen some cricketers banned for unsporting behaviour.

Matthew Engel, one of the game’s best-known writers, recently published an article in the Guardian arguing that cricket is rotting away and would soon be left with little of value. He is correct, not because of the loss of supposed moral worth, but because profiteers have turned the game into a just another commodity. Franchises and the electronic media that promote a game consisting of little else but a six-hitting contest of brute force packaged in contrived emotion and fuelled by money are destroying the essence of the game. Who remembers these frenetic slogging matches? Who on earth cares, except perhaps those who make fortunes very rapidly – promoters and rootless cricketing mercenaries like Kevin Pietersen?

Cricket at its traditional best is a contest of many variations and subtleties that make it a useful metaphor for life. Its ups and downs and tactical shifts encourage a long view, patience and a philosophic realism that fortune and misfortune will probably even out over time. This underlay the roots of authority in cricket, particularly the position of umpire. Today misfortune of any type is regarded as unparalleled tragedy with blame to be apportioned somewhere, usually some hapless official. Commentary and interviews encourage a one-dimensional, mechanistic view of a game that centres on strike rates and the meaningless verbiage of ‘hitting straps’, ‘hunger for success’, and ‘putting hands up’ and ‘bodies on the line’. Only rarely, for example, is anything significant said about the style and manner in which a batsman has made runs. This is a production line approach to a game that once offered much more. It is now just another commodified branch of mass entertainment made for screens of varying size. Player behaviour, and that of young imitators, declines accordingly.

Cricket is basically a lost cause, terra incognita for those of us who grew up with it anything more than, say, a quarter of a century ago. The accompanying photograph shows that great cricketer Derek Underwood bowling in an age when the game contained greater meaning. This raises questions about sport as a whole. We are constantly told that present-day economies are information driven and that the most successful in future will depend on education and innovation. Why the obsession with physicality, often accompanied by embarrassingly limited world views? Why do newspapers devote so much space to sport, vastly less to business, enterprise and innovation, and virtually nothing to labour issues and the plight of the precariat?

Professional sport has been stripped of any essential worth, packaged for profit and truly turned into the opium of the masses.