June 19, 2013

Contempt and disrespect

They're the flavour of the season in cricket, but while players are pulled up for various deeds of misconduct, administrators get away

What a delicious treat the Champions Trophy has been for those who like their sport spicy.

David Warner throws a punch; Denesh Ramdin fakes a catch; Luke Ronchi eases Mitchell Johnson's first ball through the covers; Bob Willis accuses England of ball-tampering; Lasith Malinga and Sri Lanka are denied an exceedingly possible victory over New Zealand by the inconsistencies of a format that actively encourages an opener to bat throughout an innings while insisting on a maximum stint for bowlers. At least Tillakaratne Dilshan's staggering catch at The Oval, sealing Sri Lanka's qualification for the semi-finals at the Kiwis' expense, ensured justice was done in the best possible style.

Chuck in Fawad Ahmed's* breathlessly rapid ascent to Australian citizenship, Mohammad Ashraful's public apology for consorting with the bookmaking fraternity, and Mohammad Asif's latest failed appeal against his spot-fixing sentence, and you can readily imagine the relief at BCCI headquarters.

Such distractions, after all, have been nothing if not timely. With the IPL spot-fixing saga dogging their every move, Mr Srinivasan and his pals will scarcely be saddened by the eruption of outrage. India's swaggering march to the semi-finals hasn't exactly hurt the besieged board either. As Ian Chappell observed on Monday, it will shock nobody should broom and carpet come into play.

Indians, though, may not be easily deluded. In a CNN-IBN poll conducted on May 31 among residents aged 18 or over from six cities - Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai - 90% of respondents said their faith in Indian cricket had been "completely shaken" by the spot-fixing saga, while 56% had lost faith in the board. A smaller but even more damning 47% felt that the BCCI treated them "with contempt and disrespect". A whopping 80%, moreover, believed the board had been compelled to react to the controversy and the ensuing conflict-of-interest allegations solely because of the intense public and media pressure.

Admittedly the barometer of national was more than a tad limited in scope - only 230 views were sought. Enough to justify an undergraduate research project perhaps, but scarcely sufficient, one would have thought, to capture the mindset of 1.3 billion people. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests the responses are not atypical.

Nor should global disapproval be ignored. It remains to be seen whether those swelling rumbles about a sudden U-turn on the Decision Review System lead to the BCCI's first step on the road to a renewal of international respect and brotherliness. An olive branch or two are unquestionably long overdue.

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The last straw was seeing Steve Waugh successfully claim a catch off Brian Lara on the opening afternoon of the 1994-95 series, even though the ball bounced at least once before he had it under control, but can I make a watertight moral case for that being any more deplorable than edging and awaiting the finger?

As a measure of how difficult it is to run a major spectator sport, how apt that the governance of the game should have reached such a critical crossroads as we approach the 20th anniversary of the ICC as we know it. That fateful Lord's confab took place on July 6-7, 1993; that was when the governing body finally asserted its independence, free from the apron strings and whims of the MCC; when new order usurped old. "Foundation member" status abolished, England and Australia relinquished their 84-year-old veto. Even though it had long since become symbolic, much like the Queen's power to sack prime ministers, the chorus of approval in Asia and the Caribbean was loud and lusty. Hoisting the voting majority required to enact change from two-thirds to three-quarters was the final nail in that imperial coffin.

Here in Blighty, it was all shrugs and diffidence. Even Wisden, curiously, made precious little of this historic shift, though in fairness it was a busy summer: Ian Botham retired and Shane Warne entered; Graham Gooch resigned as captain after the Ashes were surrendered for the third series running; the County Championship completed its transition to a four-day game. Besides, neutral umpires and video replays were much the hottest potatoes.

In an editorial for Wisden Cricket Monthly headlined "New order, same muddle", David Frith stuck the boot in, ridiculing the "much-mocked and often-despised" ICC (plus ça change) for encouraging Ireland's application for Associate membership - on the ground of being an island - while rejecting Scotland, Nepal and Thailand, then lambasting the decision to rescind first-class status for matches during the "rebel" tours to South Africa, which he saw as "cynical political tampering".

On the loss of the veto, he contented himself with pointing out that for some years it had "understandably been resented", an understatement that may or may not have been intentional. "England might one day be finding itself fighting to retain a place at the Big Boys' table," he predicted, "should a cricketing President Clinton grasp power."

How timely, then, that Jagmohan Dalmiya should have plonked his bottom back on the BCCI throne. For one thing, after all, it was he who conceived the Champions Trophy, whose impending demise may be mourned rather longer and deeper than we suspected, so lean is its structure, so evenly matched the field. Sadly, quality cricket and global development rarely go hand in hand. The new leaner, fitter, more exclusive World Cup will divide opinion just as forcefully.

For another, by selling the broadcasting rights to the inaugural Champions Trophy in 1998, lest we forget, it was Jaggu who generated the ICC's first significant injection of funding, enabling it to function, at last, as an effective governing body (if only in theory). That the BCCI now does more than any board to frustrate harmony and hence efficiency is just one of life's little ironies.

Its contempt and disrespect for the process of collective decision-making, exemplified by the DRS, is undeniable. Could Dalmiya - assuredly no stranger to the rollercoaster - be the Clinton clone Frith foresaw? At least his contempt and disrespect for the Anglo-Australian old guard were partly justified. But better, by far, a new Mikhail Gorbachev. At least he was prepared to make sacrifices and lose face with his own people (without resorting to sex with interns).

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But let's stay with our theme: contempt and disrespect: two big, damning words, the first particularly so. They could, of course, apply with no less firmness to Ramdin.

Perhaps the most severe condemnation came from a brother-in-gloves, Paul Nixon, the sometime England wicketkeeper, sledger supreme and cheerleader-in-chief. Ramdin "must be embarrassed now looking back at what he's done", he asserted in last week's column for the Cricket Paper. "I hope he is. A few people have tried to tell me it's just the same as walking when you know you've nicked off but I don't buy that. Yes, we've all pushed the boundaries by not walking, but nine times out of ten the umpires know when you've hit it and are there to make the decisions." Ramdin's faux pas, Nixon concluded, was "just the same as dropping a golf ball out of your pocket when you are looking for the original in the rough".

But is Nixon correct on either count? Do umpires really detect thin nicks 90% of the time? Hot Spot suggests otherwise. In any event, why is one form of deception any worse than the other? Personally, in terms of trusting a professional cricketer, the last straw was seeing Steve Waugh successfully claim a catch off Brian Lara in Bridgetown on the opening afternoon of that pivotal 1994-95 Frank Worrell Trophy series, even though the ball bounced at least once before he had it under control, but can I make a watertight moral case for that being any more deplorable than edging and awaiting the finger, or reviewing a decision in the hope of reprieve by Hot Spot? Nope.

And if surreptitiously replacing one's ball is the most grievous sin in golfing circles (along with awarding yourself a birdie after bogeying), cricket's most dastardly corruption of ethical values is surely intentional underperformance, something for which no golfer, to my knowledge, has ever been justly accused. Cheating the opposition is one thing; cheating spectators while you're at it is quite another.

Where I heartily concur with Nixon, after a week of wavering, is his endorsement of Ramdin's seemingly excessive punishment - two-match suspension, entire match fee docked. Not because he warranted the equivalent of losing three days' pay any more than Waugh did - or any other such crass offender for that matter - but because a precedent has been set in front of a global audience. We now have something akin to a worthwhile deterrent. Any clear cases of skulduggery should henceforth meet the same fate.

In fact, here's a proposal for those in power to contemplate when the ICC convenes at Lord's this Sunday: why not go the whole hog? A new category of offence, as imperative for, and applicable to, administrators as players, should be added forthwith - "conduct displaying contempt or disrespect". So shalt the guilty be shamed as never before.

*Fawad Ahmed is in the news for fast-tracking of his Australian citizenship, and not Fawad Alam as was originally written

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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