Benefit of doubt is part of the game

WHEN players erupt in appeal during a game the umpire comes into play, for him each decision is a big problem. Cricket is a one ball game and before he signs the death warrant of batsmen - by raising the finger - he must be sure beyond reasonable doubt that their game is up.

Crafty batsmen, naturally, try to create doubts to confuse umpires. That is why they raise a bat to counter leg before wicket shouts and furiously rub elbows when close in fielders hold a catch. The umpire may or may not get swayed by such drama but, even otherwise, he is supposed to rule in favour of batsmen, the laws of the game say so. Therefore, if there is doubt about first slip taking the edge cleanly he will shake his head, and the aggrieved bowler can scream his head off as long as he wants. If the umpire thinks the ball landed outside leg (even when it did not) there will be more shaking off the head, and perhaps a lot more screaming by the bowler. Tough luck for bowlers but that is how the game is meant to be played.

While 'benefit of the doubt' is part of cricket, few people grant this concession to the Indian team. On the contrary, in the opinion of some bitter critics, the team just can't put a step right, it is forever wrong. Because of this cynical attitude, credit is given on rare occasions, that too grudgingly and genuine achievements are dismissed or diminished. Tendulkar is admired (for 60 international centuries and one million runs) because his stats are staggering and overwhelming. But there exists an unhappy group who will pick on some (perceived) failure to score in crunch games and dwell on an (imaginary) inability to finish games or some other defect.

Nobody knows Sachin's reaction but when this observation was recently put to a past great, his response was straightforward. Sachin, he said, is special. Instead of finding fault, just enjoy his cricket.

The Indian team is constantly at the receiving end, it routinely gets the danda. Obviously, some thrashing is justified (this is the no-smoke-without-fire theory) which is fine because anyone goofing up must get rapped hard on the knuckles. But the problem is people are ready to believe anything negative about the team, they will condemn players on the basis of allegations which are completely wild. Critics slam the team for a hundred faults - one usual, and oft repeated, crib is they are a bunch of unfocussed under-achievers who bat for personal landmarks and disregard team goals.

Players are rubbished for being lazy, not working hard and shirking exercise which shows up in low fitness and ordinary fielding. This stereotype has stuck despite most players working out in the gym and eating as carefully as skinny models. The prevailing opinion is players are spoilt and arrogant, their heads are larger than footballs and egos bigger than that of Shahrukh Khan or King Asoka. All these are popular but inaccurate generalisations because, essentially, the guys are decent, polite and well mannered, they are ordinary blokes with a special gift of putting bat to ball. They are minor Gods with major headaches, always under scrutiny, always under enormous strain.

Players are seen as rupee-hungry mercenaries who think being professional means counting (is minting the right word?) money. For them there are no responsibilities or duties, no give and take, only take and take. All the time. This criticism is valid in certain situations but to paint every cricketer within such unflattering colours is unfair, unjust and a huge exaggeration. Players value money as much as others, they have a right to make the most of a short stay at the crease, so to say, under the glare of fame and adulation. Who would say no to money?

On topics like this, Rahul Dravid rises to the defense of his colleagues in the team. "People love cricket", he says, "but they believe the worst about us. Also, they hold unfair expectations from us and when these are not fulfilled there is a backlash. The players realise their responsibilities, they are trying their best. We are accused of being unaffected by defeats, about not caring for the sentiments of Indians and things like that. But let me tell you I have seen people truly gutted after defeats. Players have cried in the dressing room."

Regrettably, such defence cuts little ice and in the blame game cricketers don't get the benefit of the doubt. One probable reason for this is we are willing to believe the worst, it is an Indian trait to elevate people, put them on a pedestal, and then yank them rudely to the ground. Indians are expert manufacturers of Gods and equally skilled destroyers - both Brahma and Shiva are part of our tradition.

Most of us resent the success of others, our behaviour is similar to that of Saritaji in the detergent advertisement who wonders why someone else's clothes were whiter than hers. Moreover, our mindset makes us search for angles when none exist, suspect sinister khel in issues that are upfront, see conspiracies when none exist, detect foreign hands in local disasters.

When the team wins (as it did recently) critics utter few words in praise, but soon as it loses (which also happened not long back) the knives come out. If a batsman scores slowly there is intense speculation, when Dasgupta is picked or Kumble dropped people take off. In the Supreme Court of cricket the verdict is out: selectors blunder, officials are not on the ball, each player is on his own trip.

Perhaps such criticism is also part of the game, this is the price celebrities/stars/sporting icons have to pay. They have to endure loads of rubbish, they will be judged unfairly, examined daily and awarded less than 'A' plus by unsympathetic examiners.

People give the benefit of doubt only if there is doubt, otherwise the collective fingers of all cricket fans goes up to declare the cricketers out. But all this changes quickly - when the team wins all sins are forgotten. Nothing succeeds like success.