January 9, 2008

Questions from Sydney

The SCG saga has thrown up all sorts of thorny questions - to do with the removal of umpires and the way hearings are conducted, among other things - with no easy answers in sight

The idea of accepting a fielder's word over close catches must be buried forever © Getty Images

That the Sydney Test will forever be a blot on cricket history is a pity, for it could have been the best advertisement for Test cricket in recent times. Certainly, it showcased some of the great qualities of the five-day game. Fluctuating fortunes, magnificent individual performances from players of varying styles, and a cracking finish. A thrilling, last-minute draw, one of the unique beauties of Test cricket, would have been the most appropriate result. Yet the game ended up holding a mirror up to the ugly side of cricket. The pain of this dreadful week will endure.

It will be remembered as a match that brought out the worst: the umpiring was horrendous, the reputation of the Australian cricketers has taken a beating, the Indian team have brought on themselves the tag of sore losers, and in India we have seen an outpouring of ugly nationalism. Fears about this affair leading to a split in world cricket may be far-fetched, but the credibility of the game has taken a knock, and the rest of the series will only be about damage control.

The ICC has begun the process by removing Steve Bucknor, the umpire whose head the Indian board had demanded, from the Perth Test. But if this has helped achieve an immediate objective, the continuation of the series, it has raised uncomfortable questions that must be addressed, if not tomorrow then the day after.

There are two ways of looking at the removal. It can be seen as a capitulation by the ICC to some serious arm-twisting from its most powerful constituent. All the member countries may not have India's financial muscle and clout at the table, but that will not stop other teams similarly aggrieved by umpiring decisions to ask for change. Umpires are already a small community, and if every teams discovers its own bugbear, soon there might be nowhere to look.

However the ICC seeks to cloak its action - Malcolm Speed, the embattled chief executive, tried to present it as a decision taken in an extraordinary situation, in the best interests of the game - it will find it impossible to shake off the perception that it had been bullied into a corner by a board that controls the game's purse strings.

The other view is that this was the only way forward and that an incompetent official had to be moved out of the way for the game to continue: there was no way that the Test could be played under the supervision of an umpire in whom a team had no trust. Umpires, like everyone else, must held accountable for poor performance. To overlook the case against Bucknor, who has been a poor umpire for a while now, would have been a sign of blind inflexibility.

Human error is acceptable, and in fact Mark Benson, Bucknor's colleague, made more mistakes. But in Bucknor's case, the human errors were compounded by pig-headedness. His refusal to call for the third umpire's intervention in a stumping appeal marked the lowest point of all the umpiring gaffes in the match. It was the third reprieve for Andrew Symonds - though it mattered the least, for it came towards the end of his innings - and for most observers it sealed the case against Bucknor.

We can spend an eternity arguing over whether calling someone a monkey constitutes a racial taunt; about cultural differences; about monkeys being revered in India. Often words are not offensive by themselves; it is the manner, the circumstances, and the context in which they are used that make them so

That said, Bucknor's removal is perhaps the right decision, but one taken in the wrong circumstances. He has been a better umpire than most Indians would give him credit for, but his best years are behind him. He shouldn't have been standing in the series in the first place, and if the ICC has the best interests of game at heart, he should never stand in a Test again.

The ICC now have a problem with their elite panel, with Darrell Hair already out and Bucknor's future uncertain. Not only do they need to fill the vacancies, but given the increasingly bloated cricket calendar and the ever-increasing pressures of an umpire's job, they need to expand the panel. That will not be easy, because the base isn't growing. The BCCI might cry itself hoarse over the standard of the umpiring in the series, but they must confront the reality that the standard of umpiring at the national level in India is appalling. Umpiring has always been a lonely job and it has just got lonelier.

But, as Speed pointed out, the easy part has been dealt with. The more explosive, and far more complex aspect awaits resolution. India is aflame about one of their players being charged with racial abuse.

It is entirely possible that he was baited and fell into the trap. Australians have turned the practice of getting under the skin of opposing teams into a well-oiled craft, and they target their victims carefully. Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid are unlikely to ever be targeted. Harbhajan Singh, however, is obvious prey.

Having said that, Harbhajan deserves his punishment if it can be proved that he threw the "monkey" barb. We can spend an eternity arguing over whether calling someone a monkey constitutes a racial taunt; about cultural differences; about monkeys being revered in India. Often words are not offensive by themselves; it is the manner, the circumstances, and the context in which they are used that make them so. After all that went on during Australia's tour of India late last year, Harbhajan should have known better.

An image to keep: if anything must be taken from the Test, let it be the memories of the warmth of the Sydney crowd © Getty Images

But for justice to be done, it must be seen to be done. What a coincidence that Mike Procter should find himself in the middle of another inferno. At The Oval in 2006, he was accused of dubious inaction while a Test went down the gutter. Now it is up to his employers to ensure that he is not seen as one-eyed. For that, they must place the evidence he acted on to pronounce Harbhajan guilty in the public domain. It is not enough for Procter to claim that his judgment is fair and balanced and that he hasn't based it on one man's word over another's. From the information available, it seems that umpires didn't hear the abuse, and nor was it picked up by the microphones. A perception is gaining ground that Procter took the word of a few of the complainants over that of the accused. For cricket's sake, let's hope that's not the case. And if there is more damning evidence, the world has the right to see it. Otherwise, it will seem like kangaroo-court justice. Cricket deserves better.

One more lesson from Sydney is that the idea of taking the fielder's word for close catches must be buried forever. There was a reason why no other international captain accepted Ricky Ponting's proposal earlier. Selective honesty is unworkable. Cricketers can't be expected to stretch the bounds of gamesmanship in all areas save one. Following Michael Clarke's disputed catch to dismiss Sourav Ganguly, attention was not only drawn to Clarke's decision to linger at the wicket after thick-edging a ball to first slip earlier in the Test, but to his claiming a floored catch in the final match of the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy in Hobart last month. Television pictures of Ponting - who had owned up to not cleanly taking a catch against Rahul Dravid in the first innings - appealing after grassing the ball while taking a diving catch in the second innings didn't look flattering either. Even if Ponting were to be given the benefit of doubt - that he didn't realise the catch hadn't been completed when the ball hit the ground - it seals the case. The worst case in such instances is that this is a practice that can be manipulated; the best-case scenario is that even the fielder cannot be trusted to know.

The saddest thing about the past few days is that the most cherished aspects of the game have been pushed to the margin. Even though a pretence of civility may be maintained going forward, it is unlikely that the ill-feeling between the teams will disappear anytime soon. If the Indians wished to take something from the Sydney Test, it would be the genuine and spontaneous ovation granted to Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman by the crowd. The Test may have placed a question mark over the sense of fair play of the Australian team, but it shouldn't obscure the fact that barring a few rogues, Australian cricket lovers are among the most knowledgeable, fair-minded and sporting. To them the teams owe the courtesy of a fair contest in what remains of the series.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amin on January 11, 2008, 12:13 GMT

    It was utter sadness watching the proceedings of the match. From what promised to be great test, it went down to be one of the worst. Bucknor and Benson did India in. That's goes beyond a shadow of doubt. Ponting and his men need to learn self-preservance and to act with dignity instead of pulling off cheap tactics which don't behold champion men. Playing with sportsmanship above all is the need of the hour. India can only build on from here. There is no turning back. Whether Harbhajan plays or not, India need to keep their batting clicking under all circumstances if they are to salvage anything of the remainder of the series. Instead of being sore losers they need to up their tempo and deliver. The big five have been consistent so far. The others need to pick up as well.

    Whether umpires spoil the party at the Perth test or not, both the teams have the job of doing a lot of damage control now. If not for their own pride and reputation, then at least for the game itself.

  • manmeet on January 11, 2008, 6:44 GMT

    this is one of the finest and unbiased article to have come out after the recent turmoil in cricket one of the worst actually.but i m bit taken off by some comments posted by one of the guys saying india is acting childishly by threatening to pull out of the series .if standing in honour of your country is childish then india should be proud of on high horse as well.if match referee being the parent figure in cricket and players his children he should take care of them equally and not take one word over another .in that regards he is the real racist.

  • rodney on January 11, 2008, 5:44 GMT

    The Indian stance of pulling out of the tour unless their player is cleared smacks of an arrogance that is neither helping Indian cricket nor cricket in general. It would be interesting to see what ICC stands for. " Indian Cricket Council" ?

  • Tom on January 11, 2008, 4:00 GMT

    Given the fact that it now seems that Tendulkar's evidence amounts support of a teammate in a tough situation; commendable, even if mistaken (though if the details of the text message to the BCCI are accurate, some responsibility for inflaming the situation must be his), I would suggest that there is 0.5% percent chance that the Aussies invented the charge against Harbhajan (possible, but extremely unlikely). There is a similarly small chance that Harbhajan used the term, and then denied the charge with a full understanding of the furore that would be created. I reckon that there's also about 5% chance that this is a result of a genuine misunderstanding. That leaves 94% chance that Harbhajan made the comment, and then denied it to the umpires when he realized he might be in trouble, hoping the issue just disappear. The speed with which the situation escalated then prevented him from correcting this without extreme consequences, not only to himself, but to his teammates and country.

  • Ben on January 11, 2008, 2:07 GMT

    Firstly I would like to congratulate Sambit Bal for the most accurate impartial article I have read relating to this issue. I agree with every point you have raised, it is amazing that this is the first article (including those in Australia) that is written using fact not just hype. I'm an Australian supporter, and while I don't agree with everything that they do I am in awe on how dominant their team actually currently is. I for one thought that the Sydney test match was one of the best contests I have seen in a long time. India looked very impressive early on in the game and looked like they would take the game until the umpiring mistakes. However, from this point I think the Indian team should have shown better resolve and said to themselves yes decisions are going against us but we can still win if we continue to play like we are. But unfortunately they let the bad decisions affect them and I think threw the game away in the end (come on 3 wickets off a Michael Clarke over?)

  • Richard on January 11, 2008, 1:40 GMT

    Sambit's description of the controversial Ricky Ponting isn't in my opinion strictly accurate. It hinges on an ambiguous clause about "when a fielder obtains complete control both over the ball and over his own movement". Its clear to me that the ball stayed in his hand (he had complete control over the ball), but since he was flying through the air, he didn't have complete control over his own movement until he landed. I tend to think it was not a fair catch, just as catching a ball and running over a boundary line with the momentum is 6 runs. It does seem open to interpretation as to what constitutes having complete control over own movement, and Laws of Cricket dictates that its the umpires who do so, not players, cricket commentators, or Boards of Control. Its a different and more complicated question of fact being adjudicated here than whether a ball touched the ground.

  • Tom on January 11, 2008, 1:35 GMT

    On the Bucknor issue, he may have deserved removal, but India broke the ICC touring conditions by demanding this outcome. Similarly, in the Harbhajan debacle, the BCCI are threatening to break ICC rules if they don't get their way. Support of their player is expected and commendable, but they must allow the impartial process to find the truth. Their current behavior seems to suggest they don't want the truth, just a positive result for Harbhajan, perhaps indicative that they expect he is guilty? The shifting position of the Indians on some of the evidence may support this; initially the meeting between Symonds and Harbhajan last year was denied, now Symonds is accused of breaking a pact made at the meeting!?! The BCCI have already shown an disingenuous attitude to racism with denials and then excuses for the Monkey chants in the one day series. Their righteous affront at being accused by Aussies may have reasonable historical basis, but their response will only perpetuate the evil.

  • Muthuswamy on January 11, 2008, 1:34 GMT

    Umpire Bucknor's errors have cost India the 2nd test. Whether Symonds should have walked or not is up to the individual. By and large Australians have established their supremacy over India in batting, bowling and fielding. India failed to take advantage of its higher 1st innings score inasmuch as they were trying to contain Australian scoring rather than getting them out. Here lies the difference between the two captains.

    Inda's bowling strength has been below par and Anil Kumble's reluctance to introduce a change of bowler as a diversionary measure could be viewd as selfishness rather than a great tactic.

    All things said and done, India's openers should adopt a more aggressive attitude from the very start. But it is apparent that every batsman tries to stay at the crease as long as he coud without any thought of runs.

    The Australians have their faults but the Indians should attempt to lift their performance regardless, in order to acquit themselves creditably.

  • Joe on January 10, 2008, 23:36 GMT

    CAPTAIN'S RESPONSIBILITY. Article by SAMBIT BAL titled "Questions From Sydney" posted Jan 9th 2008 pretty much sums up the issues facing cricket, the ICC and International sport in general today. And add to that the old dilema "You can't make everyone happy" for a healthy dose of perspective too. Opposing team Captains have the "power" to manage alot of issues and mosty certainly ones on the playing field. They should do so. And act responsibly. Especially when involving countries where running into the streets burning things and attacking players property is common place and seemingly easily envoked. Captains must take responsibility for their team when on the playing field. Should incidents or any controversy occur they must make all efforts to FIX things BEFORE they escalate and leave the playing field. Commentators too should stick to commenting on the PLAY and the GAME, they are not talk back radio.

  • Ramesh on January 10, 2008, 13:15 GMT

    The article is one of the most balanced one I have ever read on a controversial match. Please be advised, I seldom write on cricket matters since I do not believe any game is worth the kind of emotions from all sides. There have been lot of partial comments even by past Cricketers of Australia on the Umpiring "errors" in the Sydney match. I have seen Vishwanath calling back Bob Taylor in a test match in Bombay in 1980 when he was given out wrongly by an Indian Umpire. Botham played a great Innings in a tight situation after an early collapse at 5/55 with Kapil and Ghavri playing havoc on a helpful Wankhede wicket. India lost the test due to Brilliance of Botham. Nobody complained of Vishwanath's generosity as an opposing Captain. He was remembered for the display of sportsmanship and it still remains in my memory. What are these people talking when they talk of Australia playing tough but fair. By taking advantage of umpiring errors, Aussies have ruined a well fought contest

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