Farce at The Oval August 22, 2006

A case of over-reacting to an over-reaction

Tim de Lisle blames Hair for pulling the plug hastily, faults the Pakistanis for reacting churlishly before criticising Hair for over-reacting to their over-reaction

Hair's action was an over-reaction to an over-reaction © Getty Images

When is a win not a win? When it's a forfeit. The Oval Test was awarded to England because Pakistan were adjudged to have forfeited it by refusing to emerge promptly after tea on Sunday. So England go down as having won the series 3-0. Suddenly, the fact that they were behind in this match makes no difference. But cricket isn't tennis, where a winner is needed to go through to the next round and forfeits are part of the game. The England players know they didn't dominate this series to the tune of 3-0. Seldom can a Test victory have tasted so sour.

The result isn't the most important aspect of this bizarre episode, but it is a revealing one, because it confirms the suspicion that justice wasn't done. The officials - Darrell Hair, his immediate superior Mike Procter, and their ultimate boss Malcolm Speed - seem to have based their decisions on the laws, specifically Law 21.3. But that just shows that this law is an ass.

Sport increasingly recognises that it is part of the entertainment world, and the first rule of entertainment is that the show must go on. The International Cricket Council exists to stage cricket matches. Here, it ended up calling one off when nearly all parties were willing to get on with it. Something went seriously wrong. But what, exactly?

First, Darrell Hair got heavy-handed. Where many umpires would have used a quiet word, Hair reached straight for the biggest weapon available to him, the five-run penalty. The five runs are nothing - if a team is really ball-tampering, the penalty ought to be more like 50 - but the statement was a loud one. The ball looked pretty normal to the television audience. Did he really need to change it? Couldn't he have issued a warning, with the threat of a referral to the referee if it wasn't heeded?

For me, Hair over-reacted. His behaviour was inflammatory, and the fact that he has a history of it made it more so. And as the laws of physics almost state, to every over-reaction there is liable to be an equal and opposite over-reaction.

At first, Pakistan didn't over-react - they just got on with it, quite rightly, and were rewarded with the wicket they most wanted, Kevin Pietersen. But then, over tea, they did over-react. They were entitled to protest but, as many commentators have observed, not taking the field was the wrong way to go about it. It was forgetting what they are there for. It was taking it out on the fans. To read Inzamam's interview with Andrew Miller yesterday was to feel much sympathy for a likeable man, but it was noticeable that he barely mentioned the fans.

The officials went by the law but is the law an ass? © Getty Images

The Pakistanis' main line of defence was that Hair's accusation of ball-tampering was an insult. But they have often been accused of this. Waqar Younis was found guilty of it in 2000, and he is now their bowling coach. They have also been accused of worse - of match-fixing. Inzamam himself did not emerge spotless from the Qayyum inquiry. But he coped with the implied insult and carried on batting as serenely as before, showing the thick skin that an international sportsman needs. At The Oval, his skin mysteriously turned out to be the only part of him that was thin.

Hair, in turn, over-reacted to Pakistan's over-reaction. He was too quick to whip off the bails, inflaming matters when he should have been defusing them. Pakistan are not the first team to stage a sit-in, and they won't be the last. Officialdom should have the tact and flexibility to cope.

Several components of the game were found wanting at the Oval. The elite umpiring panel behaved like its amateurish forefathers at their worst. The match referee failed in his most central duty, to let the game take place. The ICC put the letter of the law before the interests of the fans. And the ECB, which began the saga as an innocent bystander, soon committed the cardinal modern sin of terrible public relations. It wasn't cricket's darkest day, as some have suggested. But it was a lot more than a bad Hair day.

Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden and now edits www.timdelisle.com