It is a sad day for cricket. From the infamous Bodyline era to the notorious matchfixing saga, cricket has suffered a great deal. In the latest episode between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) - United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) combine and the International Cricket Council (ICC), the ICC has made it bluntly clear that it will not suffer fools gladly.
Strong words maybe, but the only ones that befit the need of the hour.
Let us take a step back to the origin of the crisis. Sachin Tendulkar was accused of ball tampering after television footage suggested that he might have plucked the seam of the ball in an attempt to get more bounce and movement from the ball. Whether he did so or not is debatable; the match referee's decision on the matter is not. Mike Denness, on reviewing the evidence felt that Tendulkar was indeed guilty. He handed the Indian batting star a one-match suspended sentence.
To further complicate matters, five other Indian players were found guilty of excessive appealing and were handed either warnings, fines or, in the case of Virender Sehwag, suspensions. The ongoing series has been a closely fought affair, with tensions rising high in both teams. On the count of excessive appealing, there are many that believe that players in both teams have been guilty on this count. However, one must draw attention for the fact that the BCCI have not argued with the sentence.
If the BCCI had a case to argue, it was the one of discrimination. The BCCI could have suggested that South African players were not pulled up for the very same offences that Indian players were penalised for. They did not. They instead played the match referee card. Insisting that Mike Denness be replaced, the BCCI forced the hand of the ICC.
Following India's staunch protests, the UCBSA made it clear that it was of prime import to them that the third Test went on as scheduled. This meant that they asked Denness to step down as match referee. Well within his own right, Denness made it clear that he would not step down, as he was a properly appointed ICC match referee. Now, that would have to be not just Denness' position but the position of the ICC as well.
So the two cricket boards decided that the third Test would go on, preferably without Denness as match referee.
Unfortunately for the game of cricket, the ICC did not see eye-to-eye on this. If they did, and allowed the Denness to be replaced, it would be a veritable admission of guilt. In doing so, the ICC would set an extremely dangerous precedent. Could the game's ruling body afford to cave in to a couple of boards getting together?
Certainly not. And the ICC did the only thing they could. When the long arm of the law was forced, the ICC declared the forthcoming Test match an unofficial encounter. Has this brought the game into disrepute? One must, at this point, stop for a moment and take a look at the role of the match referee. While he is not allowed to call the standing umpires and correct him on an erroneous lbw decision, why should he be allowed to override an umpire's decision on player behaviour?
Unfortunately, the matter has now left the cricket field entirely. This is not about umpires or match referees. An umpire these days cannot call a bowler who he thinks is throwing because the ICC has already cleared him. The match referee cannot step in and offer advice on a matter unless consulted.
With the two concerned cricket boards in unison on the matter, things have gotten completely out of hand. Not long ago, the matter was discussed in Indian parliament. The Indian government backed the BCCI on the matter and further complicated things. Now, is there just the smallest possibility that the South African government was involved too? Would the UCBSA have made their decision independently? Tough questions indeed.
What throws a complete monkey-wrench in the works is the fact that Sunil Gavaskar, one of the television commentators in South Africa, is the head of the technical committee that appoints match referees. Very close to BCCI supremo Jagmohan Dalmiya, Gavaskar is considered the man that played the role of go-between. Sorting out an issue of this kind is never possible without compromise on both sides.
At the end of the day, the way events have unfolded seem to be more for public consumption than anything else. With national pride being in question, there was little that the ICC could do but let the cricket go on as planned. The most civilised option would have been to put Denness' decisions in abeyance and review them before the next Test India played. In failing to do so, the ICC have played right into the hands of the two boards concerned.
Just as a suspended sentence' means so little in world cricket today, the ruling that the forthcoming match would be an unofficial one means equally little. An umpire, albeit not appointed by the ICC, will call play,' and willow will crack down on leather. On this count, the UCBSA and the BCCI have scored over the ICC.
But hang on a minute. Could any of this have been possible without a compromise being made behind closed doors? As is always the case, cricket is the loser while various elements make their own quiet gains.