Fallen on hard times

Dubious umpiring and a racism row took the sheen off an otherwise exciting Test match between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Sadly, the relationship between the two sides has deteriorated and the days ahead will be challenging, writes S. Dinakar.

It’s ironic that a Test which witnessed outstanding cricket will be remembered for the wrong reasons. Questionable umpiring, the spat between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds, and the subsequent three-Test ban slapped on the Indian off-spinner have tainted a match that was otherwise a celebration of skills.

The Indian team is hurt at the verdict handed out to Harbhajan. Anil Kumble’s men are also disappointed at the decisions that went against them during key moments of a dramatic Test in Sydney.

Found guilty of a level 3.3 offence under the ICC Code of Conduct by Match Referee Mike Procter, Harbhajan is alleged to have racially abused Symonds while batting on day three of the Sydney Test. The Indians say there is no audio or video evidence of the alleged incident. They have also laid charges of offensive behaviour against Brad Hogg.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has lodged a protest against the two on-field umpires for the Test, Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson. The elite panel of umpires are being stretched given the volume of cricket these days.

The BCCI has also decided to appeal against Harbhajan’s three-Test ban. The Indian Board secretary Niranjan Shah said, “Before the ICC reaches a verdict on the appeal, Harbhajan can continue playing for the country.”

In the eventful match in Sydney, Ricky Ponting’s men equalled the 16 consecutive Test victories achieved by Steve Waugh’s team. There were scenes of celebration at the end with the host retaining the Gavaskar-Border Trophy. But the mood was grim in the Indian camp.

The umpiring errors had spilled over to the decisive final day. Rahul Dravid, fighting hard, was at the wrong end of a caught behind decision by umpire Steve Bucknor. Then, Sourav Ganguly, batting with timing and grace, was taken in the slip cordon by Michael Clarke and there were doubts over the legality of the catch. Umpire Benson took the word of the Aussie captain, Ricky Ponting, instead of consulting the square-leg umpire Bucknor or referring the decision to the third umpire.

One wrong decision and a debatable one on day five should not, however, detract attention from the famed Indian batting’s failure to last just over two sessions. When the conditions favoured bowling, the Indian team was also found wanting in a similar situation in the second Test in Durban (2006). On both occasions, India lost Tests it should have saved.

The Indian camp would argue that had Symonds been ruled out when he clearly edged paceman Ishant Sharma to wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni on 30 on day one, it could have sealed the match much before the tense last session on day five. The Aussies would point out that Sachin Tendulkar was just into his 30s in the first innings, when he was caught plumb in front. Laxman too was extremely fortunate to survive a leg-before shout early on. Both batsmen went on to make hundreds. The argument would continue.

This said, the umpiring mistakes inflicted greater damage on the Indians.

The Test has re-opened the debate: should technology be used more when it comes to borderline dismissals?

Former Indian batting great Mohinder Amarnath said: “There can be better communication between the on-field umpires and the third umpire. For instance, if the third umpire spots an error in the judgment, he can quickly get back to the on-field umpire even if the decision is not referred to him. In any case, the bowler takes a couple of minutes before he sends down the next delivery.”

The ICC plans to provide sleeker gadgets to the third umpire, but does it want to empower him more?

Should the third umpire be involved in more than just the line decisions and assessing whether a catch had been taken legally?

There are several accomplished cricketers including Sunil Gavaskar who believe the present technology is not foolproof. However, greater use of the modern gadgets could result in getting more decisions right.

Now to the Harbhajan-Symonds spat in Sydney. Harbhajan was reviving the Indian innings with Sachin Tendulkar when, according to the Aussies, he abused Symonds verbally.

Symonds was quoted in the ‘Herald Sun’ as saying, “Brett Lee had just sent down a delivery and Harbhajan took off down the wicket. When he was returning to the crease, he decided to hit Brett on the back-side. I have no idea why he did it. I was standing nearby and when I saw what happened, I thought, ‘Hold on, that’s not on.’ I’m a firm believer in sticking up for your team-mate, so I stepped in and had a bit of a crack on Harbhajan, telling him exactly what I thought of his antics. He then had a shot back, which brings us to the situation we are facing.”

Former India captain Ajit Wadekar pointed out, “Harbhajan must have been instigated. Indian teams retaliate but they do not start it. Everyone knows that the Aussies sledge. They do not like it when they get it back. I think the three-Test ban on Harbhajan is extremely harsh. The Indian players have been subjected to severe punishments. Players from other countries get away scot-free for similar behaviour.”

For all that has happened in Sydney, reminding most people of the infamous incident in Port Elizabeth, South Africa (2001) where the Match Referee Mike Denness was in the eye of a storm, Mohinder calls for calm.

“The Aussies are no angels on the field. I agree that several decisions went against the Indians. There have also been times when decisions have gone in our favour. I agree these are difficult times for the Indians but they need to focus on the rest of the tour,” he observed.

Sadly, the relationship between the two sides has deteriorated. The normally mild-mannered Anil Kumble said there was only one team playing the game in the right spirit on the final day. The Indians did not take kindly to some Australian appeals.

The days ahead will be challenging. Importantly, cricket should return to the fore.