July 31, 2002

A clarion call for the MCC

They call it the cathedral of cricket, the home of the glorious game. It's the ground where every cricketer wants to make his mark, where centuries and five-fers are chalked up for posterity on wooden boards in the dressing-rooms. But to be perfectly honest, Lord's as a ground hardly matches up to the dozens of sobriquets bestowed on it by cricket writers over the ages.

Admittedly the pavilion is among the prettiest one can find, and the press space-ship is plush, modern and without peer in terms of facilities. But these are only to be expected from what is the world's oldest and richest cricket club. Given the time that the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) has had to get its act together, many other venues would easily match it. What would be difficult to match is the sheer height that noses at Lord's attain; one would expect that it would be physiologically impossible to get them that high up in the air.

Having just watched India lose an exciting Test at Lord's, it would not quite be the done thing to slag off the place. That would only be inviting allegations of sour grapes, and it is in poor grace to accept hospitality and then point out all that is amiss. Nevertheless, there are a few incidents that bring to light the attitude that the MCC - and therefore Lord's - has to outsiders, making them less popular than they would like.

When Sachin Tendulkar is dismissed in Test cricket, even the hardest-boiled of bowlers usually has enough respect to avoid giving him too much lip. It is rare indeed that Tendulkar is rudely shown the way to the pavilion or on the receiving end of an untoward gesture. The celebrations are, of course, always the loudest, but they are rarely brazenly over the top.

At Lord's, however, a member of another MCC - the Melbourne Cricket Club - burst out into the middle from the esteemed members' pavilion, ran out next to the master batsman and addressed some words of encouragement to him. To Tendulkar's eternal credit, he did not react or lose his cool as many in the same situation would have done. He just proceeded to walk with dignity back to the changing rooms.

Oddly enough the army of stewards, usually high-handed and rarely ever polite, did absolutely nothing to stop the man or call him back even as he walked with Tendulkar. The man, identified later as Alistair Dobson, got his five minutes in the sun absolutely unhindered. A camera-person sitting next to Dobson later said that he had heard him talking about the consequences of stepping onto the field almost all day. Perhaps it was just one of those silly bets that people take.

Thank heavens it was just that.

As Ranga Reddy, manager of the Indian team, correctly pointed out, "The security of our players is of top concern, especially the likes of Tendulkar and Ganguly, who have received death threats back home. What if the person was a terrorist?" With that thought, it might be worth going back to that tragic day when a crazed fan stormed onto a tennis court and stabbed Monica Seles. How many years of her prime did that cost her? How many Grand Slams? We'll never know.

When England came to India in the winter recently, they had serious concerns about the security. One remembers clearly how the pair of English security personnel made sure that no one was even allowed near the English dressing-rooms. At the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, several of us were shooed away for being too close, even though we were merely walking out to the middle to have a look at the wicket before the start of the game. One also knows that the tour proceeded without incident, and the English players were even asking for more personal freedom as the tour progressed.

Nasser Hussain, speaking to pressmen after the Lord's Test, said, "When idiots like that walk on, someone should come on to the field and quietly escort them away. We waited for a long time, and the incident showed the stature of Tendulkar. The way he reacted was tremendous. At that point, there was one idiot and one legend walking out, side by side." That is a pointer to the kind of respect players have for Tendulkar, but is also a fairly strong indication of what the England skipper thinks about the way the MCC handled the incident.

Tendulkar himself clarified that "he was not rude" and added that Dobson said to him, "Don't worry. You are the greatest and my hero." Then came the confusion. It was reported that Tendulkar requested that Dobson not be punished for his indiscretion. This came as somewhat of a surprise, given that five others have been prosecuted for similar misdemeanours by magistrates in England this season, the worst offenders being fined as much as 2,000 pounds sterling.

Ranga Reddy later clarified the Indian team's stance. He said, "Tendulkar wished that no criminal charges be brought against the man, as that would result in a lot of problems for him. It would go down permanently on his record and that sort of thing. Sachin did not want that, but the maximum fine should be imposed."

The problem that the MCC and the ECB face, however, is that the police cannot actually prosecute Dobson for two reasons. Firstly, his overtly polite behaviour makes it difficult to establish "aggravated trespass"; secondly, the fact that the stewards did not even move a muscle means that charges of evading arrest are impossible to press.

Does this mean that Dobson will go free? Not quite. The president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Jagmohan Dalmiya, is not a man to take an incident of this kind lightly. It is understood that he has already sent a strongly worded letter of complaint to the ECB through the Indian team. With this letter, the case has been re-opened, giving the authorities a second chance to prosecute the man they let go free. But it is merely further bureaucratic bumbling along; all this could so easily have been avoided if one steward had stepped up and pulled Dobson aside.

That would have happened at any other cricket ground in the world. But Lord's, the home of cricket, is different; unfortunately, as any sensible man could tell you, it does not always pay to be different. Had this incident resulted in a serious injury to the man acknowledged as the greatest cricketer of the modern era, how would the International Cricket Council (ICC) have reacted?

In India, grounds that have experienced repeated instances of crowd trouble have lost the privilege of hosting international matches. But Lord's banned from hosting international cricket? You must be crazy, the suited and hatted men in the Long Room would say. Crazy or not, it was just the length of one switchblade away from happening, and if this is not the clarion call to shake the MCC from its romance with the past, perhaps nothing will do the trick.