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 have now been closed for this article

  • Naresh on July 29, 2013, 7:45 GMT

    The Elite Umpire panel and training are best for the game like now. Use of technology is now making umpires like robots and I feel the power should remain in their hands. No use writing an article going back to those days when the level of umpiring was generally bad and trying to view it from a modern perspective. The best umpire has left the game and is now a commentator. Thus technology is reducing the job of the umpire and causing controversies.

  • Nikhil on July 27, 2013, 23:45 GMT

    @rishwolfhound: The title of the blog is the issue - calling it India's Collective Vow of Silence is implying that the whole Indian nation is guilty of wrongdoing and has sealed her lips about it. It's nothing more than a cheapshot by a wannabe journalist who knows that attacking the BCCI is the fastest claim to fame in today's world. He chose a wrong topic though - the umpiring in that series falls pale in comparison to the patriotic deeds of Steve Randall, Darrel Hair, Peter Willey, Khizar Hayat, Shakoor "finger pointing" Rana etc. over the years. So why single out Bansal?

  • Adi on July 27, 2013, 16:55 GMT

    You do make a few good points but overall your argument is flawed. Introducing neutral umpires is not an issue but improving the quality of existing umpires is what the issue is so why rollback something that has brought a lot of good to the game to mask the need for better training for umpires. At the very least, training umpires to use technology effectively. Also, remember with technology like hot spot etc.the umpires are now contending with things like real time vs a million replays.

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2013, 11:12 GMT

    Great article! 2001 was a long time ago but I still have memories of the match. The euphoria of the victory was tapered by some doubtful umpiring decisions that went in India's favour, particularly in the last two days. Apart from the ones you mentioned, Laxman and Dravid also benefited from some very close calls going their way on day 4 of the test match. When a team is winning, like the Aussies were during that period, it normally is less vociferous with its complaints. This may be due to the reduced public pressure on the team and absence of media scrutiny that an inconsistent run brings about. I dare say, the Aussies in their current state, would have latched on to every one of the decisions that went against them. On a separate note, I agree with you on the standard of Indian umpires. Barring Venkat, India has not produced a single world class umpire.

  • Raghav on July 25, 2013, 6:59 GMT

    Mate, both Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie were plumb leg-before! And they were not given out! Such decisions used to even out in those days. To impute a bias on the part of the umpires is positively defamatory. Why are underachieving Indians like yourself so diffident about acknowledging the success of our national icons?

  • SRIVATSAN on July 25, 2013, 6:11 GMT

    Ha ha ...but the irony of it all, the worst decision was to give VVS out LBW in the first innings of a front foot sweep attempt. Dunno who the umpire was. The way Laxman was batting there was a very minute chance of avoiding the follow on and who knows what would have happened.

    But right on, the umpiring was not up to standards. Before neutral umpires, I guess every abroad trip was mired with umpiring controversy's.

  • Aditya on July 25, 2013, 6:05 GMT

    wow! is this Pandora's box or what?! Akash Chopra is really courageous to have written this article. Wonder what effect it may have on his fledgling career as a columnist and commentator? Because when it comes to BCCI, they rule with an iron curtain. Everyone seems to have forgotten match fixing/spot fixing in IPL already!

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2013, 4:30 GMT

    And that's why Australia and Steve Bucknor took revenge in Sydney in 2007-08 series !!!

  • I on July 25, 2013, 2:39 GMT

    @ntalgeri I don't understand your point; your saying we should remember all the bad umpiring that has ever gone on, but when it favours India it means it is a great series?

  • Patrick on July 25, 2013, 0:30 GMT

    Indian fans are not going to like this article, for the exact reasons mentioned in the article itself. Ironic. Stand by for a plethora of excuses.

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