England v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Old Trafford May 22, 2008

Hair prepares to end his exile

One of the most significant moments of the Old Trafford Test will happen moments before the first ball is bowled. Darrell Hair will walk to one of the sets of stumps, either at the Stretford or Brian Statham End, and put the bails in place. Twenty-one mon

Darrell Hair: back in action at Old Trafford © Getty Images
One of the most significant moments of the Old Trafford Test will happen moments before the first ball is bowled. Darrell Hair will walk to one of the sets of stumps, either at the Stretford or Brian Statham End, and put the bails in place. Twenty-one months ago at The Oval it was the opposite action which thrust Hair into the spotlight and began one of major controversies the sport has seen.

It was the fourth day's play of the final Test between England and Pakistan when Hair awarded England five penalty runs after deeming that the visitors had tampered with the ball. Inzamam-ul-Haq was furious that his team had, in effect, been branded cheats on the whim of a single official, and after the tea interval, the Pakistanis refused to return to the field. The umpires, Hair and Billy Doctrove, waited in the centre with the two not-out batsmen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood. Hair spoke to Doctrove, then into his walkie-talkie. Moments later he lifted the bails and the match was over - Pakistan had forfeited the game, the first instance in Test history.

It took more than one man to end the Test, but as the senior official - and one not afraid of sticking to the letter of the Laws - Hair quickly became the central figure. He was already less than a favourite of the subcontinent nations, not least on account of his no-balling of Muttiah Muralitharan, and his position soon became untenable as the ICC revealed that he'd offered them $500,000 to resign. But it wasn't so untenable that he wouldn't be back.

Hair's actions proved to be his last in a Full Member international until this week in Manchester. For a long while it looked likely that he would never return as he was left on his own by the ICC. He took them to an employment tribunal claiming racial discrimination on the basis that Doctrove had slipped quietly away from the brouhaha, but he dropped the charges seven days into the London trial. There are not many businesses where a high-profile employee would take his employers to court, drop the charges but still remain in the job.

Hair was still under contract, but there was only so long the ICC could hide him away in Associate matches in far-flung destinations such as Sharjah, Toronto and Mombasa. He was sent on a rehabilitation course to work on his man-management, and in March he was deemed ready for a return to the top level. In player-speak he's done all the net sessions possible and now it's what happens in the middle that counts.

It will be fascinating to see what the 2008 version of Darrell Hair is like and if the past events have changed him. An England-New Zealand Test shouldn't throw up a major controversy, but as he admitted in an interview with Inside Australian Cricket it's about rebuilding confidence. "I think the decision-making ability is still there," he said. "The only thing that could change that is a lack of confidence because I haven't been out there.

"Provided I get the right processes and triggers into place in my technique on a ball-by-ball basis, I'm confident I'll be able to make the majority of correct decisions. If that turns out to be otherwise, then I'd probably need to look at if I am still capable of umpiring at an international level, but at the moment I feel confident in my abilities and the fact that I can do it."

However, it's never been Hair's decision-making which has been in question; if anything it could be said that he is a brave umpire. Two players who will be quite happy to see him standing are Monty Panesar and Daniel Vettori. Hair has little time for batsmen who pad up to spinners, so the two left-armers may get more appeals answered in their favour. The batsmen should prepare for Hair's return by getting their bats in front of their pads.

The signal which sparked the furore © Getty Images

"I think it's just the realisation that he was a very good umpire before the controversy. If I look back on the games I've been involved with him he's always been a good decision-maker and that's the first thing you look for in an umpire," said Vettori. "If they can do that job well they are considered a good umpire." Michael Vaughan added: "I have always felt he's one of the best umpires on the circuit so it's good to see him back."

In many ways, having an umpire of Hair's ability sat on the sidelines summed up the ludicrous situation in which the ICC found itself. Other less competent officials have struggled to make the grade in the 21 months since his banishment, and though he wouldn't have been eligible to stand in Barbados last year on the grounds of his nationality, it's hard to imagine Hair making quite such a meal of the closing stages of the ICC's World Cup final.

But, being an international umpire is about more than just giving lbws and caught-behinds. It's about dealing with people and situations which can often be complex, and few situations were loaded with more hidden agendas than that fateful afternoon at The Oval in September 2006. Hair will always stand by the fact that he acted perfectly within the Laws that day, but what he lacked was a comprehension of the bigger picture. A stronger match referee and legislation which didn't allow one official to act as judge, jury and executioner wouldn't have gone amiss, either.

With the spectre of last year's court case still hanging over the ICC, and the less-than-helpful comments of Ray Mali at the tribunal: "I don't see any reason why Mr Hair should not return to the Elite panel and umpire Test matches", if Hair shows his decision-making and man-management are up to scratch there seems little choice for the ICC but to offer him a new deal.

Major issues will persist, however, regardless of his performance over the next couple of weeks in Manchester and the third Test in Nottingham. Pakistan have made it clear they don't want him standing in their matches, but surely it isn't workable for the ICC to have an Elite official who can only be placed in certain matches. Yet given the twists and turns of this story, nothing can be taken for granted.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo