The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Why cricket has to make its peace with real life

One useful way of defining contemporary Indianness is to attend to the way in which Pakistanis define themselves and then subtract the difference. Shahryar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, and once that country’s foreign secretary, was commenting on the confrontation between Darrell Hair and the Pakistani cricket team. He spoke of how sorry he was that the intransigence of the umpires had ruined an exemplary sporting contest in these otherwise troubled times between a Muslim nation, Pakistan, and a mainly Christian country, England.

I can’t imagine any Indian board official, leave alone one who had been his country’s chief diplomat, publicly describing the Indian team as representatives of a Hindu nation. Bob Woolmer, the Pakistani coach, spoke of how attached his teammates were to Inzamam and how close-knit this Pakistan team was because it prayed together. I tried to imagine Dravid and Harbhajan and Pathan all together in a puja huddle but the image wouldn’t come. Pakistan is our cautionary tale: there, but for the grace of our plural gods, go we. Pity Danish Kaneria: now that the batsman once called Yousuf Youhana is, in terms of Shahryar Khan’s definition of Pakistan, a fully paid-up member of the Pakistani nation, he can’t have much company during the prayer breaks.

The arguments for and against Darrell Hair seemed to require the invocation of god or Mammon or both. Shahryar Khan’s eccentric view of Test cricket as a form of inter-faith dialogue aside, even the opposite position taken by Hair’s defenders — a mixed bunch ranging from Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, to Steve Waugh — seemed to require a quasi-religious view of the umpire’s authority. Hattersley, a Yorkshireman and a cricket fan, spoke most succinctly for his side: so long as Darrell Hair had decided “in good faith” that the ball had been tampered with, his word was law. Inzamam had no choice but to obey because the umpire was right even when he was wrong.

It’s remarkable how an addiction to sport can make a liberal politician sound like a Vatican spokesman because Hattersley’s view is as close as you can get in the contemporary world to the now unfashionable doctrine of papal infallibility. Even the phrase, “in good faith”, in this context suggests religious conviction rather than its ordinary meaning, a view sincerely held.

The argument from Mammon was made by Sky Sports’ commentators, Ian Botham and David Gower, and other pundits like Geoffrey Boycott, on behalf of the paying public. Their critique of Darrell Hair went like this. Cricket was now not just a sport but a form of public entertainment fighting for market share. For a Test match to be suspended because of an umpire’s lack of tact meant that thousands of spectators would go home disappointed, perhaps never to buy a Test match ticket again. The English Cricket Board stood to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds. As the probability of forfeiture drew ever closer, one of these pundits was moved to recommend that the match referee replace the two umpires with two others so that the game could continue.

Hostile as I am to Hair’s hectoring manner, this last argument nearly made me switch sides. When men like Ian Botham, David Gower and Geoffrey Boycott, first-rate players and England captains all, start talking about Test cricket as if it were an ‘entertainment’ on a par with WWF wrestling, and about the importance of making sure that the show goes on because of the money riding on TV rights and sponsors and, er, the paying public, you know that they’ve spent too much time working for Rupert Murdoch. At least, Darrell Hair takes cricket seriously enough to make a fuss about how it’s played.

There is, however, a way of understanding the rights and wrongs of the Hair-Inzamam stand-off that doesn’t involve god or money. Hair’s career as an umpire and its controversies are a continuing illustration of the way in which cricket’s rigorously idealized self-image has been subverted by technology, a re-run, if you like, of the way in which the systematizing claims of science once circumscribed the authority of the church.

Hair’s first and most famous run-in with a subcontinental side was his no-balling of Muralitharan for chucking. Hair’s defenders are right when they point out that regardless of the optical illusion created by rotation of Muralitharan’s congenitally crooked arm, he does bend and straighten his arm, which, under the definition of a legitimate delivery at the time, constituted throwing. But they are wrong when they claim that the ICC changed the definition of a legal delivery to accommodate Murali. They changed the law to allow fifteen degrees of flexion because when they studied a large sample of bowling actions, they found that nearly every bowler in the world ‘chucked’ in terms of the original definition, including paragons like Glenn McGrath. The virtuous, perfectly straight-armed bowler was a figment of the MCC’s imagination: under the remorseless gaze of high-definition television cameras and slow-motion replays, cricket had to make its peace with real life.

What this meant was an erosion of the umpire’s right to call it as he saw it. Instinctively authoritarian, Hair is unwilling to acknowledge human fallibility and is resentful of technology that second-guesses every decision made by the umpire. In the Oval Test, he was within his rights to change the ball and penalize Pakistan without naming an individual, purely on his reading of the condition of the ball. The Laws authorize him to make the decisions he did. But the response to his decision was revealing: journalists and commentators pointed out in a kind of chorus that the 26 television cameras focused on the action had recorded no footage of any ball-tampering. Technology is now so integral to the conduct of the game at the highest level that it is hegemonic. The prerogative of the umpire to decide that a ball has been tampered with solely by examining it, is sanctioned by the laws of cricket, but the game’s commentators and viewing public will believe it when they see it on film. And if it isn’t on film, they won’t take the umpire’s word for it.

In response to this development, most umpires have become markedly more willing to explain their decisions. Even trivial decisions like an lbw appeal turned down are frequently explained by a dumb show: the umpire will gesture at the stumps indicating the ball was going past leg-stump. They recognize that they’re fallible and know that good relations with both teams will help smooth over their mistakes. Darrell Hair considers such behaviour a form of pandering. In the Oval controversy, he was almost ostentatious in his refusal to explain his actions to Inzamam. Historically, Hair’s attitude is good for Test cricket’s evolution. His willingness to act out the letter of the law and stand by his actions will force the guardians of cricket’s laws to change them to acknowledge the omniscience of the cameras.

Meanwhile, it seems remarkably as if the ICC shares Shahryar’s Khan’s faith-based view of the world. To adjudicate the dispute between a Muslim team and a Christian umpire, they’ve summoned Ranjan Madugalle, their Buddhist match referee.

Email This Page