July 23, 2013

Recalling India's collective vow of silence

Akarsh Sharma
The nation's greatest series win had more than a tinge of controversy, which nobody in India really wanted to talk about

Trigger finger: SK Bansal gives Glenn McGrath out lbw on the last day of the 2001 Kolkata Test Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

Dave Richardson, the ICC chief executive, has called for the debate on neutral umpires to be reopened. It is a logical step too, since the nations that produce the best officials are unfairly deprived of the highest standards in officiating.

Umpires, their decisions, the DRS, and general human competence in the face of technology - all have come under the scanner during the ongoing Ashes series.

Ah, the Ashes! The fourth sequel to the greatest series ever - a title that is vehemently contested in India.

The greatest series ever? Neutral umpires? Combine the two and it serves as a natural trigger to take our minds back to 2001, a year before the Elite Panel of ICC umpires was appointed.

It seems a good time then to - if sheepishly rather than fondly, for reasons that will become clear soon - reminisce about the actual greatest series ever when free men stood against the immortals and, unlike in the Battle of the Hot Gates, miraculously won the combat of the dust bowls.

India isn't so much the land of snake charmers as it is the land of unrivalled cricket fanatics. Fanaticism by definition leads to voluntary blindness and mutism. And from late afternoon onwards on the first day of the famous Laxman-Dravid Test match at Eden Gardens, the symptoms manifested themselves across the nation.

Harbhajan Singh had just become the first Indian to bag a Test match hat-trick, in circumstances so dubious that had Dean Jones been commentating, he'd still be muttering about the injustice in his sleep.

But, fortunately for us, we had the honour of being enthralled by the late Tony Greig, an Englishman whose brand of commentary every Indian could relate to: full of infectious enthusiasm that often came in the way of the facts. Thus, a cricket-mad nation perpetually charged up on adrenaline was further enthused by Tony's awe-inspiring words, and hope of immediate retrospection was lost.

Ricky Ponting was caught plumb in front. Adam Gilchrist smashed a ball that pitched miles (cricket metric) outside leg stump into his pads, but was given out lbw. The swashbuckling wicketkeeper, who had bludgeoned the Indian bowling en route to a match-winning ton at faster than a run a ball in the previous Test, left with a rueful smile.

And finally, Shane Warne was adjudged out caught, though replays were at the very least inconclusive, if not favouring the batsman's claim of a bump ball (though Sadagoppan Ramesh's unbelievable catch alone deserved that wicket, or so we convinced ourselves).

It was probably the most fortuitous hat-trick ever, and we were probably well aware of it at the time. But did we really care? Not a single bit.

An inherent detestation of anything Australian had clouded our senses. The visitors had won a record 16 Tests in a row. They had humiliated India in Mumbai, home of the nation's favourite son. Mark Waugh's paltry spin had made a mockery of batsmen who were born to play spin. Matthew Hayden and Gilchrist's combined onslaught had made a mockery of turning pitches. Ajit Agarkar had made a mockery of himself. Again.

But the tipping point was when Michael Slater - upset at his appeal for a catch being overturned - got in the face of Rahul Dravid, a cricketer for whom Indian mothers would be prepared to go to war, with rolling pins for swords.

And so, there was little remorse about the way India were thrown a lifeline.

The next morning, in offices, in schools, at bus stands, in shared cabs, in autorickshaws, on the footpaths, on news channels, in newspapers, the discussions would revolve around those five minutes of earth-shattering cricket the previous day.

Those who did dare point out India's extremely good fortune were shushed and banished. The implied embargo was added alongside the traditional laws of our cricket culture, which include: No remark can be accepted against the actions of Sachin Tendulkar, even if he unnecessarily paddle-sweeps his way back to the pavilion. And a Pakistani cricketer's communication skills ought to be laughed at irrespective of their educational backgrounds, and independent of how mediocre our own players' English-speaking skills are.

You were to muse over the Test match only in a 2:98 ratio, where 2% of the time is to be spent acknowledging the timing of the hat-trick and 98% of it admiring the lengthy batting partnership that followed two days later. If you were to watch the feat again, it ought to be done in 30 seconds and without replays. You were tacitly prohibited from indulging yourself in the finer details.

Six on-field umpires were used in the three Test matches. The three neutral umpires were experienced ones: David Shepherd, Peter Willey and Rudi Koertzen. All three were selected to be on the Elite Panel a year later, though Willey chose not to take up the option.

The three home umpires are worth looking at. S Venkataraghavan, who was later chosen as the only Indian umpire on the Elite Panel, stood in his 43rd Test in Mumbai. Unsurprisingly, the match went without a glitch.

SK Bansal, who stood in only his sixth Test (and incidentally his last) in Kolkata, and AV Jayaprakash, who stood in his ninth in Chennai, were the other two home umpires. Bansal, in particular, presided over a host of controversial decisions, which included the series-changing hat-trick calls and some key rulings that triggered Australia's second-innings collapse.

The speed at which his decisions were made - as Glenn McGrath found out when batting bravely to save the match in the final hour - suggested they were more impulsive than considered. He was an Indian after all, and only the most hard-hearted of professionals wouldn't have been affected by the screams of 100,000 people.

Such key moments, when the series was completely turned on its head, had more than just divine intervention about them. They also had a very human helping hand - or rather, finger. But a nation awash with patriotism and a renewed sense of pride chose to overlook factors that could possibly dampen their most famous victory.

The greatest series ever? Maybe. One of the greatest endorsements of the need for neutral and qualified umpires? Definitely.

Akarsh Sharma is a writer based in India. He writes on football and cricket for various publications. He occasionally tweets here

Comments