Former England captain Mike Atherton has come out in support of embattled South Africa pacer Kagiso Rabada.

In his column in The Times, Atherton clamoured for more leniency towards impulsive acts of aggression from the fast bowlers and instead sought enhanced scrutiny of players guilty of premeditated attempts at sledging and abuse.

The 22-year-old pacer has been found guilty of having shoulder-barged Australia skipper Steve Smith and given a send off to opener David Warner. Atherton labelled the clampdown of the ICC with regards to Rabada’s recent infringements as trifling. He felt that the incidents were not considered in isolation.

“Rabada found himself front and foremost of the harassed match referee’s mind in the second Test by dint of two infringements of the ICC’s wide-ranging code of conduct,” Atherton wrote. “First with Smith, then a further demerit point for shouting in Warner’s face.”

He added, “To my mind at least, both seemed trifling occurrences: trifling, but not inconsequential, because under the present system, a player’s actions are not judged in isolation but by what has gone before.”

Flawed demerit points system

The Englishman was highlighting what he feels is a flaw in the ICC’s revised method of evaluating code of conduct transgressions based on a new demerit points system. For two years, any demerit earned by a player stays on his record. If the number of infringements cross four, the player penalised.

Rabada, who finished with match figures of 11/150, has been reprimanded five times between February 2017 and March 2018.

Ironically, he also climbed to the top of the ICC Test bowlers rankings thanks to his efforts with the ball in the Port Elizabeth Test. There has been an outcry among fans to have have his ban revoked.

The pacer has since appealed against the suspension.

The player has been found to have breached the ICC Code of Conduct for two incidents of “inappropriate and deliberate physical contact”, involving the Sri Lankan Niroshan Dickwella and, one with Australia skipper Steve Smith during the ongoing series in South Africa.

The other three are for excessive celebrations, or send-offs to batsmen – England’s Ben Stokes and India’s Shikhar Dhawan. The most recent of his infringements came as he waved Australia opener Warner off after his dismissal in the second Test.

“It all sounds bad until you watch each of Rabada’s ‘misdemeanours’ in isolation,” wrote Atherton. “To call the shoulder barges against Dickwella and Smith as such is an insult to shoulder barges.

“The faintest brush of sleeves would be more appropriate. He shouted a swear word when he dismissed Stokes, not at him, mind. He waved Dhawan cheerily on his way, after the batsman hooked into the deep, and screamed in celebration in Warner’s face upon the dismissal.

“Taken in isolation each incident was trifling: none was premeditated, all occurred organically and spontaneously after the culmination of intense effort,” he added.

Warner infraction the last straw

Warner has been at the centre of the ill-rempered series, having clashed with Proteas keeper Quinton de Kock in the first Test. Rabada’s send-off for him did not sit well with match referee, who was quick to issue the fifth and the most crucial demerit point.

“Every player knows the system that is in place and the consequences are clear,” admitted Atherton.

“Rabada is an extremely intelligent young man and his actions have been dim-witted. However, the demerit system is such that he has now been punished twice for the same action (he missed a Test at Trent Bridge for the Dickwella and Stokes infringements, but they stay on his record), and for incidents that, to my mind, are trivial in the extreme. Either a transgression is serious, and worthy of censure there and then, or it is not,” the Englishman wrote.

“We all have our thresholds of acceptability and mine, as someone who enjoyed the cut and thrust of the contest, may be more relaxed than yours. But I am not necessarily arguing for more leniency – only for more specific targeting of transgressions and for them not to be carried over,” he added.

Atherton further wrote: “Abuse, sledging, call it what you will, that is premeditated and designed to put a player off his game, deserves censure. Captains should be hammered immediately for it. Incidents that occur spontaneously and organically, emanating from intense passages of play, especially from fast bowlers busting a gut, deserve more leniency.”

The Englishman based his arguments on comments made by South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis ahead of the second Test.

Du Plessis had told reporters that his side would target Warner, who was coming into the game following the “stairwell” fiasco. The flashy Australia batsman was just one demerit point himself from facing suspension.

“If you can entice someone to make a mistake to get them missing the rest of the series, that’s probably a tactical move,” Du Plessis had said then.

“That’s not tactical, it’s appalling. In that instance, the demerit system is encouraging the kind of behaviour it is designed to stop – the result of a situation where a transgression stays on a player’s record, instead of being dealt with there and then in an appropriately swift and just manner,” Atherton concluded.