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BAD HAIR DAYS

Controversy has always been his middle name. Still, the fiasco at the Oval on August 21 can easily be regarded as Darrell Bruce Hair’s career-best in umpiring heavy-handedness. First, he ruled that Pakistani players had tampered with the ball. Then, when the sulking Pakistani team refused to take the field, he and fellow umpire Billy Doctrove whipped off the bails and declared that Pakistan had forfeited the match and that England had won by default.

So what was Hair doing — showing an unyielding commitment to the rules of the game or was he being downright pig-headed' Was Hair a strict disciplinarian' Was he fighting for fair play or was he really a big bad Aussie, a “mini Hitler” (as Imran Khan called him earlier this week) who’s prejudiced against teams from the sub-continent'

Such questions have dogged Darrell Hair throughout his career as an international umpire. That’s perhaps why no one is talking about the other umpire involved in the Oval incident. Indeed, the 53-year-old Australian from New South Wales, who used to be a handy medium fast bowler for North Sydney before a knee injury cut short his playing career, has always shown a penchant for getting into the crosshairs of a controversy.

Unfortunately for Hair, most of his hotly disputed decisions have gone against teams from the sub-continent, leading to accusations that his rulings stem more from racial bias than from a scrupulous adherence to the letter and spirit of the laws of cricket.

In his very first match as an international umpire in the Australia vs India Test match in Adelaide in 1992, Hair gave as many as eight lbw decisions against India, while all but two of the appeals from the India side were rejected.

But that was nothing compared to the storm he created when he called Sri Lankan spinner Muthiah Muralitharan seven times from the bowler’s end for “throwing” during the Australia vs Sri Lanka Test match at the MCG in 1995.

International cricketing journal Wisden had this to say about the incident: “...unusually, Hair made his judgment from the bowler’s end, and several minutes passed before the crowd realised that Muralitharan’s elbow, rather than his foot, was at fault.”

Not content with having become Sri Lanka’s pet hate, Hair took his battle with Muralitharan a step further when in 1998, he said in his autobiography, Decision Makeran umpire’s story, that the Sri Lankan spinner’s action was “diabolical”. His remark led the Sri Lankan cricket board to ask the ICC to suspend him as an umpire. And Hair then threatened to sue the president of the board for accusing him of bias.

Hair’s history with the Pakistan team has been no less fraught. Among other incidents, in January 2004, during the New Zealand vs Pakistan match in Wellington, New Zealand, Hair and fellow umpire Billy Bowden reported Pakistan fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed for suspected bowling action.

It is this long list of alleged injustices by him that prompts players like Sri Lanka’s former captain Arjuna Ranatunga to describe Hair so scathingly: “He has the habit of always picking on Asian players for some reason that I cannot fathom,” says Ranatunga. Former Bengal player and national selector Sambaran Banerjee seconds that. “Quite clearly, he seems prejudiced,” says Banerjee.

Even so, Hair has so far seemed to enjoy the confidence of his ICC colleagues. A member of the ICC’s elite panel of international umpires, Hair, who is married to an Englishwoman and lives in the UK, has officiated in 76 Test matches and 124 one-day internationals. Altogether, he has umpired in 131 first class matches since he made his debut as a first class umpire in 1988.

Teams that get the brunt of his controversial decisions and rulings may consider him a big bully, intent on throwing his weight around out there in the middle, but many of his colleagues actually describe him as a man of principle who will not brook any nonsense.

“Darrell has his own way of doing things,” Simon Taufel, a fellow umpire, has been quoted as saying. According to Taufel, Hair is the sort of individual who is prepared to stand his ground and enter areas where many would refuse to go. Kiwi umpire Billy Bowden, who counts himself among Hair’s friends, has told the media that he is a determined and resolute individual.

Even Indian all-rounder Ajit Agarkar says that Inzamam was wrong to walk off the field in response to Hair’s decision. “If he had to protest he should have approached the umpires when the ball was being changed or gone to the match referee,” he says.

Predictably, the Australian media cannot sing his praises enough. Phil Wilkins, a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, had this to say after the Oval incident: “Hair is a man of the strictest principle, an official absolutely true to the game, an umpire of the fairest, most unswerving practices.” Clearly, you will either love him or hate him.

But though he is being reviled in the Pakistan press, even so-called non-partisan commentators like Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Botham now feel that in the latest incident at least, Hair got too high-handed for comfort. Both have said that the ICC should have taken steps to manage the situation rather than let it escalate into this kind of unholy mess.

Perhaps that is Hair’s biggest failing — not being able to manage a tricky situation well. He may be on the side of right or he may not be (though that question is crucial to his continuing on the ICC’s umpiring panel), but what he is certainly terrible at is man-management and public relations.

Still, despite all the bad press he has received in recent days, his autobiography is selling like hot cakes. Who said a little thing like bad publicity would hurt a man like Darrell Hair'

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