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