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Umpires right to rap Wahab, Watson

Long after the trophies have been presented, the champagne has been consumed and the analysis completed, memories of one passage of play in this World Cup will linger. Wahab Riaz versus Shane Watson. Andrew Fidel Fernando's mesmerising description of that conflagration captures its magic. This was what cricket at its pomp can be - riveting and brutal.

So on the following morning when the ICC fined the combatants, Wahab 50% and Watson 15%, of their match fee the outrage was instantaneous. There go the suits again in Dubai. Distant from the game. Officious. Surely, these pen pushers don't know anything about the game they run. And the mockery began.

I was among those trigger-happy tweeters who shot off from their keyboards, within seconds of the ICC's formal communication landing in my inbox.

Almost instantly most of my "followers" agreed. Chest puffed, I thought, job well done here.

Except I was wrong. And I was stupid.

Watson was fined for "conduct contrary to the spirit of the game", while Wahab was punished for "using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting during an International Match".

But here's the important detail many of us overlooked: Wahab and Watson had been fined for an incident in the 33rd over. Much after the spell in question, which played out between overs 11 and 19, where Wahab persistently troubled Watson, glaring and gesticulating in an attempt to provoke his dismissal and inspire his teammates.

It is here that the ICC release demands further attention. "Watson ignored the umpires' instructions and verbally engaged with Wahab, who, at the end of the over, followed through towards the batsman and used aggressive and abusive language," it says.

Now let us attempt to replicate what we have here to an everyday situation. Two performers, lets say mimicry artists, show up in front of your apartment complex. A crowd collects and is soon enjoying the spectacle. The local law enforcement officer appears on the scene and takes stock. "Hmmm, no laws are being broken here but I better just have a quiet word with these guys," he thinks to himself. "Ok gentlemen, keep this going, but be careful, no profanities, no abuse, no taking off your clothes and making a scene. Understood?"

A few minutes later, when the policeman returns, he sees that friendly warning has been ignored. The mimics have descended into everything he asked them not to. What is the man meant to do? Throw the rulebook at them or let them continue as if nothing is amiss? If they are castigated, is it fair to argue that only a little while earlier these guys were giving so much joy to an audience. So what, as their act continued, they happened to violate some rules. Come on. Don't be such a party pooper.

The problem with that argument is it demands from the law enforcement officer, in this case the umpires, a dereliction of their duty. Sample this from the ESPNcricinfo commentary:

Over 32.6 Wahab Riaz to Watson, no run, rapid bumper to finish, Watson ducks the challenge and then gets mouthful of filth from Wahab, who came all the way down to congratulate Australia on their semi-final place pass on his thoughts. Watson chuckles like a baby with a rattle
So it does appear that Wahab did spew a "mouthful of filth." Another phrase to describe the same could well be "using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting during an International Match"? Watson didn't contest the charge that he "ignored the umpires' instructions and verbally engaged with Wahab." So in essence, both men wilfully ignored an ICC code of conduct. And were duly punished for it after being warned.

Match referee Ranjan Madugalle's comments in the same media release are instructive. "It was an enthralling contest between Shane and Wahab, but in the closing stages of the match both players crossed that fine line between intense competition and unacceptable behaviour, and this resulted in the sanctions," he said.

So what are they saying here? Between overs 11 and 19, when Wahab had Watson by the throat, the contest was "enthralling." It was only in the "closing stages of the match" that both players acted poorly.

It was the professional duty of the on-field umpires at that stage to judge if the fine line between "intense competition and unacceptable behaviour" had been crossed. They found it to have been so. Hence the sanctions.

Think mimicry artists here again. One-minute, its harmless ribbing and clever impersonations. Fun. Enthralling. And then, its crude bombasts, tearing their clothes off. Unacceptable behaviour? You bet.

In the aftermath of the Phil Hughes tragedy a lot of sane voices around the game hoped cricket would make itself gentler, softer, more caring. When the governing body of the same game moves in to give a rap on the knuckles to those who deviate from that objective, many of those same voices chortle in protest. How can that be fair?