December 15, 1999

Let's put a lid on this debate

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As I write, it is a little over 48 hours since Sachin Tendulkar was given out leg before wicket to Glenn McGrath in India's second innings in the first Test against Australia at Adelaide. The incident, as it happened, was bound to create controversy but even granting the fact that it involved Tendulkar, I am a bit surprised at the plethora of articles, comments, news items, interviews and experts view that have appeared in the various media - newspapers, television, the internet - on the subject. Undoubtedly the last has not been heard on the `hot' topic. The issue has been dealt with in great detail and from various angles - the umpiring, neutral officials, the mode of dismissal, the batsman's and bowler's viewpoints - and it could even have larger repercussions in case the incident leads to a change in the laws or two neutral umpires standing in a Test in future.

Generally - and I want to emphasize that word - from what I have noticed, cricket fans have reacted passionately and on patriotic lines. Which brings me to the first point I want to make that one must be dispassionate about controversial issues. The love for one's country should not cloud the cricket fan's overall judgement. Truth is greater than love and one should take an objective view in such debatable issues.

There are two ways of looking at Tendulkar's dismissal. One view is that the ball was going over the stumps and so he was not out. The other view is that the ball would have hit the stumps and so he was out. It's as simple as that. A few years ago, S Venkatraghavan, shortly after he had become an international umpire, told me that as far as leg before decisions were concerned, he did take his time to give the decision ``for I have to be cent percent sure that the ball would have hit the stumps.'' Well, in Darryl Harper's opinion, if he was convinced that the ball would have hit the stumps, then that is the final word on the issue.

But then let's go to the genesis of the dismissal - Tendulkar's reaction to the ball that got him out. It is always risky - in more ways than one - to duck into a short ball that does not rise. One recalls a more macabre incident in 1962 when the then Indian captain Nari Contractor ducked into a short ball that did not rise, was hit on the side of the head and had to undergo more than one emergency operation to have has life saved. At least on that occasion in the colony game against Barbados, the bowler was Griffith - of `Chucker Charlie' fame - making it that much more difficult for even an experienced opening batsman like Contractor to pick the ball in the air and its trajectory off the ground.

Tendulkar can have no such defence against a bowler with a smooth action like McGrath's. Some have expressed the view that Harper's decision was shocking. My own view is that the manner in which Tendulkar decided to duck and take the ball on his body was shocking. Should this be the manner in which the world's best batsman, today's Bradman (as some call him, not me; for me there is only one Bradman, the Australian with a Test average of 99.94) faces the bowling? A batsman prodigiously gifted with an impeccable technique, sense of timing and keen eye should have offered some kind of stroke instead of offering his back. As K Srikkanth, almost as fearless as Tendulkar in taking on the fastest of bowlers, complete with short pitched deliveries, has said in his column this morning, while expressing surprise at the mode of Tendulkar's dismissal and his taking his eyes off the ball, ``In normal circumstances, Tendulkar would have pulled the ball.''

When a batsman makes a serious error of judgement - as Tendulkar undoubtedly did on Monday - he is plainly inviting trouble - in the form of the umpire's finger. His fate will then lie with the umpire and if it is the view of the official that the ball would have hit the stumps, then out goes the batsman. From what I have seen closely in over three decades of cricket reporting, umpires do not take kindly to batsman not offering a stroke. Ramesh, padding up to Warne shortly after Tendulkar's dismissal, found that out the hard way. The cliche is that the benefit of doubt goes to the batsmen but one supposes the convention does not apply when he pads up or does not offer a stroke. In a way, I feel this is right. This is a contest between bat and ball, not between pad and ball, or between body and ball. The last point is something that has to be digested even by the bowler!

Also, the sooner two neutral umpires are appointed for Test matches, the better it will be for the game. One supposes that when the ICC umpires panel was formed about a decade ago, the convention of having one home umpire and one umpire from a neutral country was going to constitute a transition period till two neutral umpires would be appointed. A decade should be enough for a transition period. I am aware that this will not rule out the charge of incompetence but at least allegations of bias will be totally ruled out. I am convinced that the two Tendulkar dismissals would have attracted somewhat less attention had they been given by a non Australian umpire.

Umpiring mistakes will continue to be made. And yes, two wrongs do not make one right. But in the long run, the mistakes do tend to even out and if nothing else, this is the philosophical way to accept them. Umpiring is not an easy job, particularly now with cameras and microphones all over the place. Their job is not made any easier by the kind of appealing that one comes across these days by the fielding side. Three decades ago, appeals used to be made only when the bowler and the fielders were certain that the batsman was out and even then the appeals were made by one or two from the fielding side, and were polite, almost apologetic. The kind of vociferous - almost rude and demanding - appeals that are needlessly made put the umpires under even greater pressure and sometimes they are apt to give the wrong decisions. The game of cricket is the ultimate loser when this happens and the fielding side would do well to remember this. After all, they too will have their turn at bat.