Michael Jeh March 4, 2010

Where is the justice?

We keep talking of consistency from umpires when it comes to lbw decisions or wide calls or anything else on the field

Mitchell Johnson and Scott Styris during their mid-pitch clash in Napier © Getty Images

"Many remark justice is blind; pity those in her sway, shocked to discover she is also deaf." - David MametFaustus

A few months ago, when Suleiman Benn clashed with Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, I wrote a piece critical of the seeming double standards that the ICC applies when dealing with such unsavoury incidents.

Much earlier, I wrote a similar-themed piece when Gautam Gambhir and Shane Watson clashed in India in 2008.

Watching the live telecast from Napier yesterday when Mitchell Johnson (again) and Scott Styris clashed tongues and heads, there was never any doubt in my mind that justice like the type meted out to Benn and Gambhir was unlikely to happen here. An insignificant fine perhaps, depriving already rich men of some pocket money, and talk of responsibilities towards the Spirit of Cricket and role models but nothing that really resembles justice.

After the Benn-Haddin-Johnson incident, one could have been forgiven for thinking that physical contact on the cricket field was a clear no-no. Nothing ambiguous about that. Both Gambhir and Benn were suspended on the basis of making physical contact with an opponent, regardless of provocation. Fair enough too. So long as that applies to everyone.

How then does Johnson, a repeat offender in the last three months, escape with a mere 60% fine when it was clear that he headbutted Styris (albeit fairly gently - quite sensible too considering Styris was wearing a helmet!)? One explanation is that the Australians and New Zealanders know how to play it just that bit smarter when it comes to limiting the post-match post-mortems. They both explain it away with quotes like "harmless banter, heat of the battle, nothing untoward out there, a friendly exchange, part of the game, international cricket is competitive etc etc" which then ensures that both parties provide a bit of protection for each other and the case is then judged through more tolerant eyes.

Isn't it funny how similar incidents involving Benn and Gambhir weren't explained away so casually? Would Styris have been that forgiving if his opponent had been Benn or Gambhir? Or is just something unique about Australia v New Zealand that makes this, as Styris said, “nothing more than normal”. “The Australians play good competitive cricket and I'd like to think that we'll match them in that competitiveness; there wasn't anything untoward out there,” he said. On the question of a head clash, he actually feigns some ignorance, claiming only that "he might have come quite close. I don't know, he may have done."

Perhaps it's a cultural thing where some cultures are more accustomed to this sort of competitiveness on the field, which would explain both Johnson and Stryris being relatively unfazed by the incident. The problem with this convenient explanation is that these same cricketers generally seem to be much less relaxed when their opponents don't share the same cultural values.

Also, the argument fails on another front too; considering that Chris Broad was Match Referee for the Benn and Gambhir incidents, you would think that he too would share similar laissez-faire views on these sorts of incidents. Instead, surprisingly, we find that Ranjan Madugalle is the only Match Referee who shares the Aussie-Kiwi sense of competitiveness that Styris dismissed so casually.

The inherent danger with adopting a cultural tolerance when ruling on such cases is that it then becomes open to suggestions of bias, based on race, ethnicity or colour, even if it was never intended that way. Cricket's family is too global and too dispersed to allow such latitude in interpreting the rules of engagement. As we saw a few years ago, Brad Hogg was given a slap on the wrist for calling an Indian player a "bast***" because it was deemed that in his cultural make-up, such an insult was not too offensive but to another person from a different background, this might be a deep insult.

With something like physical contact, why should there be any grey areas of uncertainty? If you make deliberate contact with an opponent, how can one player cop a two-match penalty and the other get a small fine? Oh, that's right - plead guilty and you can play the next game. Easy as that. Cop a small fine, pay it from petty cash reserves and put it down to "good competitive cricket". And when you do it again in three months time, plead guilty again and so it goes. Meanwhile, some other players who fight for justice cop two-match bans. That's justice?

Interestingly, in todays Australian newspaper, the coverage of the cricket was buried deep, three pages into the sports section. Completely coincidence of course that Australia lost this match! More revealing was the writer's preview of the incident, referring to "the talkative Styris". Clearly, the Australians keep their mouths shut at all times and only ever get caught up in friendly fire. Poor lambs!

We keep talking of consistency from umpires when it comes to lbw decisions or wide calls or anything else on the field. Likewise, match referees need to adopt a similar stance when dealing with clear breaches that apply to any cricketer, regardless of which country they come from. If not, there will be accusations of bias, of East v West of Rich v Poor. And cricket does not need that sort of divisiveness.

"Justice is a whore that won't let herself be stiffed, and collects the wages of shame even from the poor" said Karl Krauss in The Good Conduct Medal. I tend to think that Anatole France was more on the money in Crainquebille: "Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned".

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane