Against the backdrop of more and more live cricket broadcasts from around the world, television footage has highlighted several controversial incidents. One was Sachin Tendulkar's ball-tampering against South Africa in 2001-02, then there was the public Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan argument in Antigua, and most recently the cameras homed in on Shoaib Akhtar's thumbnail working the ball's quarter-seam during the Bank Alfalah Cup.
All these have a common factor: they were seen by a cameraman and shown on the screen, while also being watched by a concerned match referee. This raises interesting questions on the role of television in alerting the match officials to these offences, rather than the officials spotting them themselves.
Following the McGrath and Sarwan feud, Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council (ICC), stated that the umpires were wrong in failing to lay disciplinary charges on them, adding that, "if the on-field umpires haven't seen an incident, there is nothing to stop the third umpire laying a charge." Thus the television camera sees the flashpoint, and so does the third umpire or referee.
After the Shoaib incident in Sri Lanka which led to a two-match ban and a hefty fine, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said it would not challenge the decision of the match referee, and that Rameez Raja, the chief executive of the PCB, had been instructed to brief Shoaib on the consequences of his action and what is expected of him.
This occurrence was also spotted by the camera, and close-ups were shown of his thumb on the ball. During the inquiry conducted by match referee, Gundappa Viswanath, Shoaib was reported to have claimed he was cleaning the ball, actually the job of the on-field umpires as they have the ball in-between overs.
The important matter arising from this is that it was the television cameras - and not the umpires - who spotted this incident, a factor which urged Rameez to speak out in a recent PCB meeting, expressing his dissatisfaction over the inequitable treatment of the ICC's code of conduct.
Interestingly, lucrative television-rights contracts are given to broadcasters who in turn make money by selling their pictures to others, and also pay fees for those rights to the boards. The issues raised recently may bring up a case for the boards and the ICC to specify checks on the minimum standards of ethics of equitability during TV coverage. Most of the rights-holders sub-contract coverage to professional teams, thus it is left to the sub-contractor or producer to show or not show on-field incidents.
Complaints are being voiced that boards do not insist on equal rights with fair coverage of all juicy incidents, rather than focusing on one. If a questionable bowling action is found by a cameraman, then equal minutes of close-ups should be shown for all bowlers. If tampering is suspected, then other bowlers' finger close-ups should be shown too and not selectively.
This now brings up the contentious issue, are the cameraman and producer now acting as the judge and jury? Another use of technology is the stump mike, where the broadcast team record all sounds and often flag a commentator if an interesting titbit is found, like an unnoticed snicked ball, which is sure to be shown with a snickometer. But the demand says now all close calls should be shown and not just one. This raises unnecessary doubts over the intent, which is possibly to show-up an umpire or batsman in poor light. It may add spice for viewer interest, but if fines or bans are imposed as a result then one must question fair play.
One has clearly noticed all this in recent cricket. In most cases a commentator is fed a titbit over internal headphones by the producer who then talks about an incident and lo and behold, a replay of the incident is immediately available for the world to see.
One only needs to recall the outcry that followed after Sachin Tendulkar's thumb was caught red-handed on television, and the several batsmen who don't walk or who are not given out - all cause plenty of embarrassment for the umpires. No-one would condone the offenders where on-field offences are concerned, but it is time for a serious look at the consequences of television coverage that results in more controversy in cricket. Rameez may well have highlighted a thorny issue that needs to be promptly dealt with by the ICC.
One feels Malcolm Speed and the ICC will need to do better than, "I only have the power to lay a charge within 24 hours" [of an incident happening]." He explained that the ICC board is looking at ways of giving him "greater latitude" in disciplinary matters. "Players make mistakes. Umpires make mistakes. We don't want the umpires to over-react," Speed insisted. Does this mean we have another referee, the television camera?