August 24, 2006

‘Hair-brained’ decision plunges cricket into crisis

By H Natarajan

Darrell Hair was wrong. Inzamam was wrong. The Pakistan team management was wrong. And, not the least, the International Cricket Council (ICC) was wrong. The game of cricket was wronged, the paying spectators were wronged, the sponsors were wronged, the TV broadcasters and its advertisers who had shelled out megabucks were all wronged. And all this could so easily have been averted had plain and simple common sense not been wrong.

Hair’s decision was subjective, arbitrary and even autocratic; one that would not stood the test of a fair trial in a court of law. There was no conclusive evidence of a mala fide act on the part the Pakistan players. None of Sky Sports’ 26 high-tech cameras captured anything remotely suspicious to support Hair’s decision in accusing the Pakistanis of ball tampering and subsequently slapping them with five penalty runs that triggered one of the biggest rows in Test history. Hair, historically, has come across as less official and more officious. That was evident when he chose not to extend even time-honored courtesy to Inzamam as the captain of Pakistan team.

Hair was thus wrong on two counts: penalizing a team without conclusive evidence and not showing due respect to the Pakistan captain.

Inzamam, I can vouch from personal interaction, is a mild mannered man. He did well to remain remarkably cool under grave provocation. In a similar situation, things could have been instantly explosive had it been a more fiery captain in place of Inzamam. Somebody like, say, Arjuna Ranatunga. That makes it clear it was others in the team management or influential men in the Pakistan Cricket Board who took/or influenced that belated decision not to take the field right after play was to resume after the break. The Pakistan team management seemed a confused lot as they later went back on their protest, by which time the damage was done.

It was not smart thinking. Emotions got the better of logic and reason. Pakistan had a chance to turn the heat on Hair and rub the point in that he is decidedly anti-Asian, but by not coming out on the field they were incredibly foolish. Not only Pakistan lost a Test which they were in with a good chance to win but also lost much sympathy by disdainfully rebelling against the rule book. In one careless stroke, they tainted their image and, in the bargain, made Hair look good.

Had Pakistan continued playing, albeit under protest, the overwhelming opinion of the world may have gone against Hair for penalizing a team without adequate proof. Inzamam should have summoned the team manager and protested without leaving the field when Hair accused the Pakistanis of tampering the ball. The arguments between the Pakistanis and the umpires could have got very lengthy – a la Dhoni controversy in West Indies recently, where Billy Doctrove was in the eye of the storm - leading to extensive stoppage of play, but the visiting team could have saved themselves the ignominy of being the first side in history to forfeit a Test. Even if they were fighting a losing cause against Hair, they should have protested and played. The team could have sported black bands to show the world that they are playing under protest.

Inzi and the manager could have told the world media at the end of the day that their national pride was damaged by a man who had no conclusive proof to substantiate his allegations and that the team played still went ahead and played because the game was bigger than individuals. They could have said they also factored the fact that they did not want to deprive the paying spectator of their rightful due and the many entities that had invested their money in the Test.

But, sadly, the one poor decision by Inzamam – even if the decision was not his, the discredited buck stops with him - made the victim endure more suffering and paved the way for the perpetrator to escape.

It’s a widely held perception that Hair is anti-Asian, if not a racist. He had almost jeopardized Sri Lanka’s tour of Australia in 1995 he no-balled Muttiah Muralitharan seven times. The fact Muralitharan switched ends and bowled another 32 overs without being called by New Zealand umpire Steve Dunne proved that the Lankans had every reason to be upset with Hair.

Where Hair cannot be faulted is in applying the forfeiture rule, but where he failed is his cavalier attitude towards the spirit of the game. He also showed little concern or appreciation of the political climate. Britain is feeling the heat of the racial divide after attempts by terrorists to blow up ten jetliners was thwarted. The Muslim population in UK is angered and feeling victimized after two passengers conversing in Arabic were taken off a flight in Spain following the refusal of other passengers to board. Hair can dismiss that as nothing to do with cricket, but sensitivity in handling matters is what distinguishes a good umpire from great.

Hair comes across as an uncompromising, unsmiling and unfriendly man who does cannot see the difference between being an official and officious. Imran Khan, in inimitable fashion, said when Hair assumes the role of umpire he “metamorphoses into a mini-Hitler.” Strong words.

It’s important that the ICC instills the need for umpires to have a more meaningful appreciation in matters that are sensitive. Sportspersons from India and Pakistan, especially the cricketers, are given pre-tour pep talk by their respective governments on how to conduct themselves when they cross the border for sporting ties. At stake is not just a match or series. Any insensitive remark or ill-timed behavior by the players could have grave repercussions among the masses.

The ICC has equally lacked sensitivity in allocating umpires for Test matches around the world. What’s the great idea in appointing a man like Hair who has repeatedly been in the centre of controversies involving Asian teams? Hair has officiated as a ground umpire in 34 of his 76 Tests and 75 of 124 One-Day Internationals in matches involving Asian teams. In politically troubled times, the ICC must show greater awareness to ensure that nothing is done to escalate global tension. An umpire willing to share a joke with the players and remain cheerful will contribute much to ease on-field tension. Look at Hair and look at somebody like David Shepherd or Billy Bowden to appreciate what I mean. The likes of Simon Taufel or Aleem Dar are firm without trying to grab the attention.

Pakistan’s stand-off immediately has presidential approval. President Pervez Musharraf has reportedly phoned Inzamam and unambiguously said that he is with the players.

The ICC has given little indication of feeling remorse for the Pakistanis. There is, thus, little hope of Inzy escaping the ICC rap. Mercifully, the scheduled ICC disciplinary meeting on Friday has been postponed indefinitely - ostensibly because of adjudicator Ranjan Madugalle’s non-availability. But it could well be a master stroke to save the tour from any adverse decision that may not go down well with the Pakistanis.

The one ray of hope ahead of the hearing is Madugalle himself. I have had the privilege of interacting with him in his playing days and post-retirement as ICC match referee. I think he is the right man for the job – pleasant, erudite, unbiased but at the same time firm and not one to be influenced. His judgment will be based on issues and not personalities. My guess is that his primary aim would be to defuse the situation from escalating into a global stand-off on racial lines.

The point Madugalle has to keep in mind is the initial provocation. Was Law 42.3 correctly interpreted? The said Law states that in "the event of any fielder changing the condition of the ball unfairly ..." There was no fielder identified by Hair. In which case, was the law correctly applied?

Madugalle can build a case around this point. Hair was technically correct in following to award the Test to England, but what needs serious thinking is whether his initial decision to indict the Pakistanis for tampering with the ball was correct. I guess therein lies sympathy for Inzy and the Pakistan team. Under the given circumstances, the option that will please everybody is to let off Inzy with a slap on the wrists and ensure that Hair does not stand in future matches involving Asian teams.

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