A World Cup ruling not 'in line'

RAJU BHARATAN

WAS it not the peerless Sir Donald Bradman who asserted in his all-time book, Farewell To Cricket, that a batsman should be ruled out, lbw, even if the ball pitched outside the leg-stump but would have, in the opinion of the umpire, hit the wickets? Bradman said he had the right-arm wrist spinner (of the Bill O'Reilly variety?) pre-eminently in mind when expressing such a viewpoint. In the face of being pronounced by Bradman to be the best bowler (of all types) he ever faced, Bill O'Reilly (peer rivalry?) never did like The Don too much.

A sense of antipathy shared by another Bradman contemporary - Australia's bodyline opener Jack Fingleton. Indeed, in his 1948 classic, Brightly Fades The Don, Jack Fingleton went so far as to state that it suited The Don - by the near turn of the half-century - to think of the injustice meted out to right-arm wrist spinners. Seeing how, having retired from the game by that 1948 point, Bradman had no longer to confront such master spinners! Whereupon Bradman came strongly back, observing that he had gone into print - long before he called it a Don day - about his feelings on wrist spinners of the Clarrie Grimmett vintage getting a raw lbw umpiring deal when pitching outside the leg stump.

Maybe Bradman and Fingleton never saw third eye to third eye, but is it not significant that the problem remains unresolved a full 55 years after The Don first raised it? Now comes the startling ICC ruling that, in the 2003 World Cup, ''the use of technology by umpires would be limited to only line decisions, such as run outs, stumpings, hit wicket and boundaries". How retrograde! For what is the wrist-spinning matter - over which Bradman and Fingleton joined issue - if not one involving a 'line' decision? A narrow line decision falling within the broader lbw ambit no doubt? A line decision none the less. The Sportstar reader would recall that it was in this magazine I first mooted that the 'three stumps area' should be demarcated (from end to end) by two straight lines so chalked out (on the pitch) as to turn this patch into a visible rectangle. A rectangle falling viewably within the field umpire's straight 'line of vision'. The suggestion was swiftly picked up by smart-alec TV. To the extent that the rectangle (now seen fully shaded) helped only the commentator, on the monitor, identify the ball as pitched inches outside the leg stump! This only further brought umpires directly into the line of TV commentary fire.

There may be little sympathy in India for Asoka de Silva vis-a-vis Sourav, yet the umpiring eye, only human, cannot unfailingly be expected to detect the ball as pitched outside the leg stump. This, in fact, is the line of decision-making that led to no end of commentated acrimony right through the ICC Mini World Cup in Sri Lanka, as through three Tests vs the West Indies in India. Time and again, during these two events, we saw the ball land peripherally outside the leg stump, yet found the umpire coming up with a naked-eye verdict going against the hapless batsman.

For the ICC now to insist that this line-ruling is but part and parcel of the lbw decision (to be only field umpire-made) is flying in the face of cricketing logic. When technology is incontrovertibly able to pick out the ball as pitched outside the line of the leg stump, what is the harm in officially harnessing such 'screen' documented knowledge to 2003 World Cup decision-making? The ICC, in fact, is being as rigid as only Maladministering Speed could be in reaching the post-Sri Lanka Champions Trophy conclusion: ''The use of technology by umpires at the World Cup 2003 will be limited to line decisions."

Extend this realistically to: ''Plus to those lbw verdicts arising from whether or not the ball pitched outside the leg stump." It has to be a human ICC approach to a human umpiring problem. Was it not Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now the scourge of Indian bowlers, who but recently drew pointed attention to the crease-occupational hazard batsmen faced here? After being ruled out, lbw, to one from Javagal Srinath viewed as landing outside the leg stump? During the April 2002 second Test at Port of Spain in which Chanderpaul had to so depart when just 1? Shiv dwelt upon how he could have lost his place in the West Indies side as a Darryl Harper result.

Nothing leads to so much heartburn as the batsman's being declared lbw to a ball he distinctly spots to be pitched outside the leg stump. Any line decision that TV technology is able, inarguably, to make for the umpire's instant benefit the ICC should straightway adopt - even at this eleventh World Cup hour. Without hair-splitting about the lbw law's being, consequentially, brought partially within TV orbit. Let the ICC stick to its stand that only line decisions shall be adjudged by technology in the 2003 World Cup. But not be so hidebound as to fail to extend the definition of 'line decisions' to any form of dismissal where technology is of help beyond a shadow of doubt.

The argument has been put forth that the elitist-panel umpires (with Asoka de Silva now in the spotlight) are viewed to make so many mistakes because they are overworked. The obverse of this submission is actually true. Technology is advancing at such a sharply focussing pace as for each single error by the umpire to be shown up for precisely what it is on the silver-salver screen. TV replays have become the bane of cricket, making armchair umpiring the pet obsession of those thronging the drawing room. Pray, how come this viewer-offending umpire is on the elitist panel? He is there, not because he has been observed to make no mistake at all, only because he has been identified by match referees as being among those erring the least.

Arni Velayudham Jayaprakash certainly falls into this least-erring category. If A. V. Jayaprakash ends up now as our onfield umpire in four of the seven ODIs, surely he is good enough to be in the elitist panel. But then even Jagmohan Dalmiya does not still command the ICC clout to get two Indian umpires into the recast elitist panel! So AVJ has to wait until Venkat makes voluntary way. Venkat remains one of the most player-esteemed umpires in the elitist panel. This at a time when India, AVJ aside, has a potentially international-class umpire in K. Hariharan.

Take the one stable factor here in the umpiring business - Asoka de Silva standing through three Tests and seven ODIs vs the West Indies. Primarily because he was to be there in each one of the 10 matches India was due to play against the West Indies did Sourav take three dicey de Silva decisions in his lbw stride. Who knows, by the first ODI stage, Sourav could have even considered batting from the end at which Asoka de Silva was functional only as the square-leg umpire! By trading only in fours and sixes from that non-de Silva end! Mordant wit aside, is it not ridiculous that Dalmiya's Cricket Board should have agreed to Asoka de Silva's being the ICC's immovable property in India through 10 matches running on TV, Live TV? India surely should have put down its front foot here. The same umpire (no matter from which part of the world) being viewed to react in the same predictable manner becomes something of a red rag to players and viewers alike.

What amazed me about Asoka de Silva was his suddenly swinging to the other extreme in lbw rulings. Time was when no team could hope, for a long long time, to get an lbw nod from this umpire. Sourav therefore had reason to expect to see Asoka de Silva turn his back, on those three lbw shouts, in a style calculated to counsel the appealing Caribbeans to 'Fly Emirates'! For my part, I have found the world's best umpires - ranging from the one rated by Don Bradman as the best ever, Frank Chester, to David Shepherd - to be quite open in discussion. Frank Chester, in fact, wanted to know from me if India was such a talented team as to be able to jettison, from the 1952 tour of England, such a world-class opener as Vijay Merchant. A Vijay Merchant banished for all time by our selectors after he struck 154 - 106 of them in a five-hour day - during the first Test at Kotla vs Nigel Howard's England, 51 years ago.

David Shepherd, the first time I met him, became a trifle wary when I went back to Frank Chester. But later opened up to express concern about Nine Network's being the channel chosen to cover the February 2000 first Test between Sachin's India and Hansie's South Africa. ''Channel 9 - that means 21 cameras!" lamented David Shepherd, giving away how pragmatic were the considerations that weighed with the world's finest umpires. David Shepherd's fellow umpire in that Mumbai Test was S. Venkataraghavan, whom I met up with at the end of the first day's play in the context of India's folding up for 225. ''We batted quite badly," noted Venkat. Minus his white coat, Venkat felt India should have finished the day at around 270 for four, the way Sachin (97) had got cracking.

It was interesting to discover Venkat weighing things from an Indian standpoint in a Test match in which he was the ICC umpire. 'Dynamic neutrality' and all that, but umpires Indian remain Indian at the end of the day. They have a ready opinion on their own India's batting, even if standing strictly impartially while the Test match is in progress. As far as such umpires go, I do not think I have encountered a more telling viewpoint than the one expressed by George Sharp (where is he?). Asked what was the greatest joy of being an international umpire, George Sharp came back with the masterful observation: ''The privilege of watching, from a distance of less than 25 yards, Sachin Tendulkar batting!"