Ranjan Madugalle September 27, 2006

The unforgetful Lankan

Ranjan Madugalle's playing days accounted for 21 Tests, his second innings, in a suit and tie, rulebook at the ready, have already amounted to 92, a decent margin more than anyone else who has done the match referee's job since it came into existence
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Madugalle's debut Test against England where he top-scored in Sri Lanka's first innings with 65. England won the only Test by seven wickets © Getty Images

Just what does one make of Ranjan Senerath Madugalle? There are many caricatures that do the rounds. Some see him as the poster boy of Sri Lankan cricket, a talented, dashing batsman who played at a time when a fledgling nation was more in search of acceptance and respectability than victory.

Others see him as a clever, opportunistic sportsman who showed promise, but quickly moved on when he realised the game could not give him what he wanted. To some he is an International Cricket Council match referee who is so keen on his job that he will not do anything that displeases his bosses. To me, he is a man who never forgets a name, or a face, and that is his greatest strength, and his most obvious weakness.

To debate the merits and demerits of his batting, today in 2006, is a bit pointless, and he would be the first to tell you so. His playing days accounted for 21 Tests, his second innings, in a suit and tie, rulebook at the ready, have already amounted to 92, a decent margin more than anyone else who has done the match referee's job since it came into existence.

For many former cricketers, especially now, the match referee's job is a retirement option. Not everyone who mastered the cover drive can smoothly slip into the commentator's booth, like David Gower. Very few who dished out offbreaks can put on a white coat and stand in the sun umpiring matches like Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan did. In this day and age, it seems like the match referee's job is the cushy option. But Madugalle was never in this bracket. Even while he was playing - and doing so with some success - he was preparing for a life elsewhere, a management job in the world of multi-national corporates. He moved from one to the other well before anyone could call time on his cricket career. So, why then would he become the most experienced match referee of all time?

The ICC, more than it will have you believe, is an organisation of pragmatists. On the one hand they will harp on about how chucking is one of the greatest plagues on the game; on the other, they will change laws to define fewer people as chuckers. On the one hand they will allow South Africa to flee from Sri Lanka because of a threat perception; on the other they will warn countries of dire penalties if they refuse to tour Zimbabwe. They will stand by Darrell Hair, as one of their own, and hang him out to dry when he seeks compensation for a possible loss of wages if he offered to step down before his contract expired. In more ways than one, the ICC could be accused of taking the soft route, the easy way out, when a commitment to a long-term vision was needed, and a firm, if unpopular decision, was the order of the day. It is with this sort of mindset that they plump for Madugalle, and this is where they underestimate him.

Ranjan will smile at you, have a chat, ask where to go for the best shopping, and you'll think he's your friend, but before you know it he's docked you 50% of your match-fee

When Madugalle was made chief of match referees, Asian countries made the same mistake the ICC did. They assumed that because he was Asian, and understood the situation on the ground better than someone from Australia or England might, he would be sympathetic. The truth was the opposite. In his aim to not just be fair, but seen to be fair, Madugalle was harder on subcontinental players than others. In India he made many enemies during the tour of Australia in 1999-2000, when his decisions were harsh on the Indians, and relatively light on the Aussies. He has had so many post-play sit-downs with Inzamam-ul-Haq that you would think he's picked up enough Urdu through manager-cum-translator Haroon Rashid to obviate the need for such a person when the hearings begin in London today.

"Ranjan will smile at you, have a chat, ask where to go for the best shopping, and you'll think he's your friend, but before you know it he's docked you 50% of your match-fee," said one Indian cricketer. That's just how he is. Journalists prefer Madugalle to most match referees because he takes a commonsense approach to functioning. If you need to confirm something that is not confidential, call Ranjan, and he'll give you what you need, just to kill the speculation and kite-flying that might otherwise cloud a routine matter. If you want a scoop, a juicy morsel that might just rake up controversy, steer clear. Madugalle will happily share a few rums when he's in your neck of the woods, and if you're in "the Island" try and secure an invitation to his home, for there are few places stocked with as much premium scotch and warmth as his bar. After the third drink, what can you hope to get? Another drink, certainly. A story? Never. Now you know why the ICC loves him?

After the third drink, what can you hope to get? Another drink, certainly. A story? Never. Now you know why the ICC loves him?

Sri Lanka's not all that big. And Colombo is the kind of city where you can drive around the place in the time it takes Sanath Jayasuriya to bowl a couple of overs. Everyone knows everyone, and in cricket it's worse. In a world of interim cricket boards, witnesses being shot dead in court, ever shifting power centres, it's not a place to choose loyalties lightly. And when Madugalle is on tour, he knows that if a situation arose, he only needs to make one phone call to Arjuna Ranatunga, an old friend, and ally of the family, to reassure him that his wife and children are ok. It's not a coincidence that Madugalle does not share the same kind of closeness with others equally powerful - players and officials whose names have been tarnished with the match-fixing brush.

In some ways it's ironic that Madugalle was the only acceptable candidate to chair the most difficult proceedings in cricket in recent times, l'affair Hair. There are a few that don't understand why he couldn't make it to London when the events unfolded - because they don't know of one loved one in post-operative care, another on a ventilator in post-op, and two kids with chickenpox - and they will fault him, whichever way he rules in this matter.

What's disappointing is that he's the only acceptable candidate for this hearing, not because the players and the ICC believe he's the best man for the job, but because they distrust him equally. There's really no reason to distrust Madugalle, he's just a practical man who never forgets a name, or a face.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo