June 6, 2003

Against the odds

England v Zimbabwe, 2nd Test, Riverside, Day 2
"We feel like we're playing 13 men out there." Comments to this effect have come from various Zimbabwean players at various times over the years, and no doubt are being made with more fury than ever after the umpires struck yet again during the second day's play against England at Riverside.

Mark Vermeulen was denied the benefit of the doubt by Darrell Hair to a ball that may have clipped the bails or cleared the stumps. Dion Ebrahim was fired out by Zimbabwe's old enemy David Orchard after edging the ball into his pads. These two unfortunate decisions started Zimbabwe's slide and effectively destroyed this Test match as a contest.

Stuart Carlisle fell to a more straightforward decision the ball after Vermeulen, and there were visions of history almost repeating itself. Nearly four years ago Nuwan Zoysa of Sri Lanka took a hat-trick against Zimbabwe in Harare with his first three deliveries of the match. But Grant Flower watched the hat-trick ball sail past his off stump.

Heath Streak was foolish to pad up to Richard Johnson outside his off stump later on in Zimbabwe's abbreviated first innings. He should have known that Hair isn't a great one for the benefit of the doubt, and is famous for firing out batsmen who don't play a stroke. A wise Zimbabwean policy would have been "Keep your pads away from the ball at all costs". If Hair was to blame for trusting in uninspired guesswork, Streak's shouldering of arms was bordered on insanity. The only surer way to get out would have been to kick his stumps over.

The psychological effect on a ridiculously inexperienced Zimbabwe team was shattering. They played badly, England played well; even if the umpires had got everything right, Zimbabwe would probably have struggled. But the lack of fight by many players after those early disasters was very disturbing, even given the inexperience of the team. The magnificently gritty Tatenda Taibu and Raymond Price can safely be excluded from this condemnation, while Douglas Hondo did his best.

Napoleon said that God is always on the side of the big battalions. He actually meant umpires. By the time the score was 11, Zimbabwe had only Grant Flower of their specialist batsmen left, the others all having departed to lbw decisions ... one good, one bad, one borderline. It is hard enough for Zimbabwe to compete in Test cricket today at the best of times - but at Riverside, two of the supposedly best umpires in the world made it impossible.

Over the years the TV replays do seems to confirm that Zimbabwe get more bad decisions against them than they get themselves. Why? Perhaps there is a subtle psychology in this. Against a team perceived as weak, perhaps an umpire is subconsciously more inclined to expect a batsman to be dismissed than against a stronger side. In the same way, it is often felt that a tailender is more likely to suffer a rough decision than a top batsman. I've done a bit of umpiring in my time, and can relate to this feeling to an extent - and if anyone doubts it, perhaps they can come up with a better explanation. For so often Zimbabwe do indeed seem to be playing 13 men when they take the field. Don't forget that the biggest blow in the Lord's Test was the reprieve of a plumb-lbw Mark Butcher 100 runs before his eventual dismissal. By David Orchard.

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