June 16, 2006

International Cricket Confusion!

By H Natarajan

If ICC match referee Jeff Crowe’s idea of fair play and deliverance justice in the Antigua Test was a shocker, then the ICC defense of Brian Lara’s public show of pique and petulance towards authority has left people foaming at the mouth in anger.

Let us go back to the incidents to refresh our memories at the Antigua Recreation Ground in St. John's. Referee Crowe docked Virender Sehwag 20% of his match fee for celebrating even before the batsman was declared out. Though Sehwag had apologized to the umpire at the end of his over the violation of rule invited the punishment. Fair enough.

However, just a day earlier, an angry Lara had wagged his finger at umpire Asad Rauf before grabbing the ball from his hands. Lara’s anger at the umpire came at the end of an indecisive 15 minutes during which time even the third umpire (Billy Doctrove) and the TV replays could not conclude if Mahendra Singh Dhoni was caught on the boundary or if the fielder (Darren Ganga) had stepped over the line after taking the catch. The law clearly states that the benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman. In that respect it was failure on the part of the umpires.

Often times a fielder is not in a position to say if he has stepped over or not when concentrating on taking the catch inches from the boundary line. Dhoni told newspersons that in this instance, too, the fielder admitted he was unsure about the fairness of the catch. Lara had no business to ask Dhoni to leave, especially after Ganga had said that he was unsure if his foot had crossed the line. The batsman had every right to stay put when he was not been given out. But what really fouled up the atmosphere was Lara snatching the ball from umpire Asad’s hands. It was sheer contempt of authority and a poor example from a legendary player. Would Lara have had the temerity to behave in the manner he did against stronger and experienced umpires like Dicky Bird or S Venkataraghavan? Rauf was officiating in just his sixth Test and Lara found a soft target in the Pakistani.

Lara’s disgraceful behaviour came up for discussion at the end of the day's play at a meeting involving Crowe, umpires Rauf and Simon Taufel and the two captains, Lara and Rahul Dravid.

Shockingly, Lara did not even receive a slap on the wrists. Worse, Crowe said that "everyone went away feeling pleased" at the end of the meeting. It stumps me what umpire Asad or even Taufel could have been pleased about. In my mind, as in the case of the vast majority of people following the game, Lara got away with murder. There was clear miscarriage of justice. It was like a judge condoning a man for bank heist because he was under financial duress while handing out a year's jail term to another man for stealing $100.

There is widespread belief that Lara’s iconic status in the game and almost divine stature in parts of the Caribbean may have enabled him to escape the rap.

Justice not only has to be fair but must be seen to be fair, no matter how big the player may be. Tennis sent out that message, loud and clear, by throwing out a huge draw like John McEnroe from the 1990 Australian Open for his rage against officials.

The Antigua tragi-comic saga did not end with the Test. The latest we hear is the asinine defense of Lara by the ICC. "Lara showed a little frustration but it was borne out of circumstances," ICC's General Manager-Cricket Dave Richardson said. “Little?” …“Borne out of circumstances?”…the defense is all the more staggering because Richardson has a legal background.

If Lara’s public display of anger against the umpire is termed “little” and acceptable by the ICC, what can be termed as “big” and “unacceptable”? If somebody commits a murder under grave and sustained provocation, would Richardson pardon the murderer because of the “circumstances”? I thought the ICC expects all players to remain in control of themselves, especially the captain of the team. By condoning Lara….sorry, defending Lara, the ICC has not only set up a wrong precedent but sent out wrong messages as well.

In the third Test at Trent Bridge, Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene was fined 20 per cent of his match fee for breaching the ICC Code of Conduct. Jayawardene knocked a stump down with his bat as he left the crease after being dismissed.

"In reaching my decision, Mahela Jayawardene's previous very good record was taken into consideration but, as captain, he must set an example not only for his own players, but for fans of all ages that follow the game," said ICC Match Referee Alan Hurst. Jayawardene’s act – like in the case of Lara – was a spontaneous reaction in frustration. And as Hurst himself pointed out, the Sri Lankan had immediately regretted his actions and apologized to the umpires before he left the ground. But as the match referee rightly explained, the captain’s role has to be exemplary.

It’s clear from the case studies of Lara and Jayawardene, that administration of justice is too subjective, too inconsistent and even flawed.

Now the ICC has clarified the protocol regarding situations where a boundary decision and a catch decision or a boundary decision and a run out are components of the same incident. It has issued this protocol to all members of the Emirates Elite Panel of ICC Umpires.

The protocol says that “when a batsman hits the ball in the air to a fielder near the boundary and the on-field umpires are uncertain whether a catch has been completed or a boundary scored, the on-field umpires are entitled to refer the boundary decision to the TV umpire”. The protocol adds that “once the boundary decision request has been referred to him, the TV umpire has the responsibility to make a decision solely on whether a boundary has been scored. If the TV replay evidence is inconclusive, the TV umpire must still make a boundary decision. His decision must be made using the existing convention in cricket which dictates that the status quo prevails - i.e. because no evidence exists of a boundary being scored, no boundary is awarded. This decision is conveyed back to the on-field umpires. In these circumstances, as no boundary has been scored, the only decision left is for the on-field umpire at the bowler's end to give the batsman out - caught. "

Television replays may be inconclusive because the cameramen – they are humans, too – may miss the occasional perfection panning the cameras in the right direction. But the rules of the game since ages state that in the case of dismissals, the benefit of the doubt should go to the batsman. The latest ICC protocol, however, could cause more heartburn and conflict. On-field umpires could refer a doubt to the TV umpire who in turn may not be able to arrive at a decision following inconclusive TV replays. But what do we have here? A batsman could actually find himself NOT getting the benefit of the doubt!

It’s rightly said two wrongs don’t make a right. The ICC has bent itself backwards to try and justify the happenings at Antigua that will only serve to add more confusion.

I am reminded of what Harry Truman, the former US President, once said: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them!”

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