Monday, 7 January 2008

The Farce and the Furious

It's cricket season once again, and in this era of Australian cricket minus the bowling legends that are McGrath and Warne, this summer promised something that hasn't happened for a long time... Australia to be challenged. Sri Lanka were a disappointment with the exception of the very final test match where they made a slight effort with the bat. Then New Zealand got their arses handed to them on a platter in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy. And after the capitulation that India gave in the Boxing Day test, few could have predicted the turmoil that was to follow in the new year.

First off, aside from all the poor umpiring decisions, the dubious sportsmanship and the bad blood that has boiled between certain players, the match itself was a cracker. It had everything; brilliant bowling, wonderful batting performances, beautiful catches, and the result went right down to the wire, Clarke's last over will stand out in the memories of fans for a long time. There are two stand-out issues that come to mind from the test, the first is The Spirit Of The Game and the ethics of whether a batsman should walk, the second is the role of the umpires in the modern era.

The Spirit Of The Game
Now there has been a huge amount made of Andrew Symonds not walking when he was given not out despite a huge nick on 30. People saying he doesn't deserve his ton or he should have walked. Though very few seem to be mentioning the same of Sachin Tendulkar who should have been given out LBW very early on before him getting his ton. Yes, both were bad decisions, but this is the reason why we have umpires. If Australia weren't 6/134 at the time, would the media have made such a big deal of it? I think not. One thing we have grown accustom to is Australia dominating, so when a challenge arrives, of course elements of luck like a deaf old umpire come into play. Anyway, here are the points of contention that have blown up:

* Not Walking - There seems to be two thoughts on this, if you knick the ball the only honest thing to do is walk, or let the umpire rule on the decision because there are plenty of bad calls that get given out too. Now I'm not going to say one way is better than the other. But to take it as cheating seems a far stretch. There are few players in world cricket who actually do walk, one of them being the number 7 batsman donning the baggy green. But to stretch it and say that it outside the spirit of the game is saying that about all teams. There is even some thought that walking is undermining the umpires authority, but I won't go that far.

* Standing your ground - The reverse situation, highlighted by a bad decision giving the batsman out. Now this is really against the spirit of the game, once you are given out it's final. A lot is made of Ponting standing his ground, and that is a fair cop. Though it wasn't only him in this test, both sides had players standing their ground when they should have been on their way.

* Excessive appealing - Dravid's dismissal in the second innings raised a few eyebrows about how the Aussies are appealing. Gilchrist throwing the ball in the air when it was clearly off the pad with the bat tucked away inside. Did he believe it was a knick? We won't ever really know. Again excessive appealing is something that quite a lot of sides are guilty of, especially those from the subcontinent. Even in this match there was appealing that was excessive and unnecessary from both teams. Again it's part and parcel of cricket these days, though it can get to the point you wish they would just shut up and get on with the game. But in the end, the umpires decision is final and no amount of appealing is going to make up for any bad decisions. Outside the spirit of the game? Maybe. Only one side guilty of it? No way.

* Celebrating - The big one really seems to be that instead of taking the victory graciously, the players came together and celebrated just has they had done when they won the world cup. Given that it was the penultimate over when the game looked destined for a draw, a part time spinner taking 3 wickets to snatch victory and equal the record of most consecutive test wins, the celebrations seem more than justified. It was a fantastic finish to the match and I for one was caught up in the emotion of it all watching it on television, I could only imagine how they were feeling out on the pitch. Maybe sport has lost it's elegance and showmanship, it's just not in cricket but across all sports. Ponting probably should have shook Kumble's hand as the game finished.

* Catching - There was a gentleman's agreement between both sides about taking the fielding teams word for it that it was caught. In the first innings Ponting said that he didn't catch one that could have been given out, then in the 2nd innings Ganguly refused to go when Clarke said he caught it. As replays are really inconclusive and the interpretation of the law is still being debated days after the incident, it was India here who broke the gentleman's agreement, not Australia. If Clarke believed he caught it, then that is supposed to be good enough.

* Sledging - This one can be attributed down to Australian teams over the years, but now it's commonplace amongst cricket. Maybe sledging has gone too far and should be curbed, I not entirely sure where I stand on the issue. One thing that is taboo for sure is racism. That's something that should be out of the game and out of society. Ponting was right to call Singh out for a racist remark, anyone condemning Ponting for doing so is themselves going outside the spirit of the game. Racism should not be tolerated ever. The ICC is very clear on any racist conduct and Ponting simply followed the procedures all captains are told to follow. And given that this same thing happened a few months ago in India, if Harhajan was ignorant of the historical racial vilification of the term then, he surely was brought up to speed in the aftermath. Unfortunately it looks like Brag Hogg is going to be the unfortunate victim in all this for using the term "bastard".

Both sides had their moments of poor sportsmanship and conduct contrary to the unwritten code of cricket. In saying that, the game itself was incredibly exciting for it, the competition between India and Australia seems to bring that out. Like the Twenty20 semi-final, the rivalry and emotional strain both sides put into the game helps add to the drama of it all. And the ante could only be upped by the addition of Sreesanth to the Indian line-up. Given the domination of the Aussies in recent time, a competitive spirit from the opponents couldn't go astray. But this game really wasn't marred by the players on-field conduct, the umpires really made a hash of things.

The Umpiring Issue
Yes, the umpires had a bad game, a shocking game, possibly the worst display of umpiring in the modern era. And yes, while there were bad decisions for both teams, Australia benefited a little more than the Indian. That's not the Australian players fault, it's certainly not a home ground bias any more, quite simply Bucknor and Benson both had shockers of a test. One mistake compounded into another and by the end of it they were so ruffled in their own ability that the 3rd umpire had to be called for a run-out chance where the batsman was in by more than a metre. A couple of things now to consider:

* Neutral Umpires - This was brought in as a way of combating perceived bias on the sub-continent. It's a good concept in theory, but now I wonder whether it's really necessary any more. Officials are appointed by the ICC, not test-playing nations. They are under more scrutiny than ever thanks to technology, and when an umpire can't officiate a game from where he was born, we aren't getting the best umpires to officiate the best teams. Simon Taufel is the worlds best umpire, makes the fewest mistakes, can't officiate an Australian game. Darrell Hair was number 2 before being sacked for following the rules of the game, he can't officiate anywhere. Given that local umpires know local conditions, surely there would be some call for bringing them back. Each decision is analysed over and over by commentators, media pundits, spectators, officials and the ICC itself, any bias is now negated by technology and procedure.

* Technology - Umpires don't get the privilege we do as fans, they don't get replays over and over again. This debate has been going ever since even the whiff of new technology came. Should the umpires use technology to assist them making decisions? Currently they can for run-outs, stumpings and catches. Cricket really is the perfect game for decisions like that being so stop-start. Though I like many other have reservations about it. First off, technology isn't 100% accurate, using it for catches more often than not returns an inconclusive verdict. For LBW, HawkEye is all well and good but it can't guarantee anything. Snicko doesn't always pick up a noise, and often camera angles themselves don't show deflections well in slow motion. So no matter how good the technology is, there will always be doubt.

One thing technology has done is made the umpires afraid to be wrong, and I believe that in part it played on the minds of Bucknor and Benson in this test. When the 3rd umpire came into play for run-outs, all referrals used to be a matter of centimetres, now it's getting close to metres. Snicks aren't being given because if it misses the edge and the batsman is given out, there is a problem. Benefit always goes to the batsman, and with good reason too; they only get one chance. In the end, even a universal adoption of technology won't stop player complaints, at least it's better when we have umpires rather than computer programmers accountable.

The Sub-Continent Power Struggle
One more thing that I wish to talk about is the reaction to this match by the BCCI and the ICC. For one India should have never threatened to pull out of the tour. If Singh was found to be using racist language, he should be punished. For another, it undermines the ICC's quest for neutrality. And as we have seen with the sub-continent power base, when it wants something, it gets it. Darrell Hair sacked for following the rules. The redefinition of what constitutes a legal ball. Another sub-continent cricket world cup before it comes back down under (though that one seems reasonable given there are 4 cricketing nations sharing it). The truth is that the ICC relies on Indian money to fund the game. 70% of all cricketing income comes from India, a nation of over 1 billion cricket mad people, with a level of fanaticism rarely seen even in religion. When the effigies of Greg Chappell burned for sacking an out of form Ganguly, it showed to the world just how seriously they take the game.

Now the ICC probably did the right thing by removing Bucknor but it did so for the wrong reasons. To sack him on form is fair enough, he had a dog of a game and if he were a cricketer he'd be told to go back to state level and sort his game out. But they initially kept him on, then only removed him to appease the Indian demands. And given that the elite umpiring panel has 10 umpires, 3 of which are Australians and others are involved in other test matches around the world, there were very few options in who to choose. Bowden should do a good job, but I fear his position like all umpires is now compromised by the pressure of being sacked if you don't do as the BCCI wants you to.

So the fallout from all this is that the three-ringed media circus sideshow has overshadowed a test match full of excellent performances, a fantastic finish, and some of the worst umpiring seen in history. Seems like every Pom with a microphone or newspaper column can call the Aussies bad sports and get away with it. And it's sad that any Aussie who speaks out is having his patriotism called into question. I hope soon the focus is back on the cricket and we can look forward to Shaun Tait and Brett Lee bowling 150km deliveries in tandem at the WACA. The politics behind the sport should never be the headline.