The forfeiture of The Oval Test August 21, 2006

What a horrible mess

Of all the Pakistan series to have taken place in England since the start of the 1980s, this had been by a country mile the most harmonious. All that has changed with Darrell Hair's one decision

The controversy unfolds, as Darrell Hair tells Inzamam-ul-Haq what he thinks was done to the ball. Curiously, none of the 26 cameras backed the claim © Getty Images

Of all the myriad moments that turned yesterday into one of the most depressing days in cricket's long and often fractious history, none matched the moment that the Pakistan team re-emerged from their dressing-room, and took the long walk down through the crowd in a bid to restart the game. The noise that accompanied them had to be heard to be believed - a chorus of deafening boos that was chilling to anyone who has the game's best interests at heart.

It was chilling because it was so unnecessary, and that is not to criticise the crowd but the circumstances. Of all the Pakistan series to have taken place in England since the start of the 1980s, this had been by a country mile the most harmonious. No controversies, no crowd trouble, no umpiring bust-ups, no clashes of monstrous egos. With the wonderfully laconic Inzamam-ul-Haq at the helm, and his English coach Bob Woolmer on hand to bridge any cultural gaps, Pakistan and England have been finding themselves more closely bonded than perhaps they ever imagined possible.

What an improbable and wonderful time for these two teams to be pulling off such a diplomatic coup. It cannot have escaped anyone's notice, least of all in the past couple of weeks, that these are no ordinary times in which we are living. The global stand-off between East and West has rarely been more pronounced, and yet here - in the heart of London, a city forever wary of paralysis by extremists - a team from the misunderstood world of Islam has been performing wonderfully well in front of sell-out crowds and appreciative TV audiences.

So to hear the boos at The Oval yesterday was a frightful jolt back to reality. It was a reminder of the ignorance that has tainted so much of the dialogue between East and West, because the crowds were being fed limited information, and their preconceived notions were doing the rest. They had been frustrated by a half-hour delay, in which time they had been privy to no stadium announcements whatsoever, and when they saw the Pakistanis appear on the pavilion balcony, the logical conclusion was to pin the blame for the hold-up squarely between their eyes. And frankly, who can blame them?

How grossly unfair, but how typical. As the day's events unfolded and the gravity of the stand-off became apparent, that initial hostility was tempered and replaced by something that might even have resembled sympathy. But for me, that booing still rings in my ears. It was the unnecessary tip of a whole iceberg of unnecessity. The Pakistanis had been accused of cheating, and not one of the 26 cameras that Sky has permanently trained on the action has yet produced any evidence to back up this lofty claim. How curious.

And how passé. The entire issue of ball tampering is a relic of the early-1990s, when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were so brilliant that the only feasible explanation was that they had mastered the dark arts. Since then ball-tampering has somehow retained a stigma that transcends the crime, which is ridiculous when you think of everything else that is accepted as part and parcel of the modern game.

Sledging? Bring it on, I say, so long as it is not prejudicial. Walking? Get with the times. Time-wasting? A slap on the wrists and 20% of your match fee please. All of these are deemed to be lesser moral crimes than ball-tampering, but only one of them requires even an iota of cricket-related skill for it to be effective. How on earth does that work?

There are many things that cricket professes to be that it is not. The notion of it being the gentleman's game has been a lie ever since WG Grace first replaced his bails upon being bowled. And in more recent times, the matchfixing scandal was an emphatic stake through the heart of anyone who's ever uttered "It's not cricket!" with any sincerity.

But I'll tell you what cricket really is. It's a bridge between cultures that might otherwise have drifted apart with scarcely a backwards glance. OK, so it's rooted in its colonial heritage, which is right at the crux of the issue that is eating the game this morning, but how grateful is the world right now for even the slightest insight into the psyche of the other? England's recent tour to Pakistan was a public relations triumph, with scores of Pakistanis cheering on the tourists in the Test series, and a gleeful packed house watching the one-off one-day game in the troubled city of Karachi.

So many misconceptions were exploded on that trip. In fact, there is a case for suggesting that the quietly devout Inzamam is the best ambassador that Islam could ever hope for. Gentle, polite, obliging - he's quite unlike the British media's stereotype. And yet this morning at least one of Inzamam's team stands accused of being a cheat.

Controversy has stalked Hair for years now, and this latest chapter could have serious repercussions © Getty Images

What a horrible mess. Darrell Hair must have known what he was getting into this afternoon. He must have. This is a man who has allowed controversy to stalk his every waking hour, from the no-ballings of Muttiah Muralitharan and Shoaib Akhtar to the run-out decision he gave against Inzamam at Faisalabad this winter.

And this evening, in the face of ever more furious attacks on his integrity, he refused to back down, and instead ensured that a match that was destined, almost certainly, for Pakistan has ended in farce.

Ignorance has got us into this unholy mess, and it's going to take one hell of a lot of explaining to get us out again. Already the Cricinfo servers are creaking under the weight of furious feedbackers, and none of the messages have been remotely complementary.

Here is one such depressing missive. "There is no doubt of the racism and hatred that the British have towards the Muslims and especially Pakistan ." It's just not true - look at the evidence of this series for starters. Actually, after today, it's best not to.

Click here to send in your feedback on the incident.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo