To play or not to play

INZAMAM-UL-HAQ... upset over the ball-tampering accusations.-AP

John Reid, former Kiwi captain, ex-ICC match referee and President of New Zealand Cricket has lent his support to the umpires' cause.

The past month of unsatisfactory international cricket had been marred by games which either did not eventuate or did not reach a conclusion. Firstly the South African touring side to Sri Lanka withdrew from its triangular series against India and the host nation as a result of its knee-jerk reaction to two car bombs in Colombo and threatening e-mails from Tamil Tiger organisations; then the three-game rubber between India and Sri Lanka — intended to replace the original competition — saw only 22 deliveries bowled before being washed away by torrential rain. Subsequently the news arrived that India would not host the preliminary tri-series between the West Indies and Sri Lanka before the World Cup. The final disappointment came with the fiasco of Pakistan forfeiting the Oval Test against England by refusing to play.

The first Test match walk-off in 129 years was like Caesar's Gaul: divided into a few parts. Firstly came the alleged causative factor of the crisis — the accusation by the umpires that the match ball had been tampered with, supposedly to gain unfair advantage for the Pakistan bowlers. Roughening the right side of the ball causes air turbulence on that side, making it duck into the batsman late in its flight — the phenomenon of reverse swing which had caused the England batsmen a few problems in previous outings. Law 42 (paragraph 3) governing fair and unfair play specifically forbids changing the condition of the ball, and instructs the umpires to replace the ball should damage occur to it.

After only 56 overs of England's second innings in the Oval Test the umpires consulted and came to the hasty — and apparently unsubstantiated — judgment that the condition of the ball had been deliberately changed by some human agency — presumably to gain the advantage of reverse swing. This forensic conclusion was understandable since the natural wear and tear to a ball should only be minimal after a mere 56 overs. Their opinion was bolstered by unconfirmed reports in the weekend Australian Newspaper of August 26/27th that the damage causing reverse swing and anxiety to the umpires was the lifting of one edge of the quarter seam, presumably with a finger nail or some hard edge.

With only two umpires, two England batsmen and 11 Pakistani players on the field when the drama of ball tampering unfolded, it was logical that skipper Inzamam should think the accusatory finger pointed at him or one of his players. He was justifiably incensed and felt his and his country's honour or izzat impugned by being dubbed a cheat by inference — more so since there was no evidence to prove him and his men guilty of the charge. The Sky Sports Television cricket executive producer, Barney Francis, stated that there were 26 television cameras stationed around the Oval with millions of viewers studying every ball — and the supposed damage inflicted on it — yet not one picked up a Pakistan player tampering with the ball! It seems that the umpires' actions were hasty and pre-emptive, violating the "innocent until proven guilty" principle of English justice.

That issue could be resolved soon when Pakistan cricket officials are expected to push for the dismissal of all the charges of ball tampering and bringing the game into disrepute against Inzamam and his players when the ICC hold a special meeting later this month.

But they will find it hard to dismiss the charge of bringing the game into disrepute and Pakistan's refusal to continue the match lightly; for, in awarding the match to England, Umpire Hair followed the letter of Law 20 (3) to the last crossing of the "t's" and dotting of the " i's".

Meanwhile peripheral hearsay issues are thick in the air. John Reid, former Kiwi captain, ex-ICC match referee and President of New Zealand Cricket has lent his support to the umpires' cause. Umpire Darrell Hair has confused the issues by expressing his willingness to withdraw from the case in consideration of a "Golden Handshake" of half a million dollars. Chief Executive of the ICC, Malcolm Speed, has stirred the pot by his policy of total transparency and the revelation of personal e-mails between himself, chief umpire Doug Cowie and Hair.

From Leicestershire comes the second-hand tale of Mohammad Asif, the 23-year-old bright hope of the Pakistan pace attack and one of the county's overseas players early in the season, demonstrating to his fellow Grace-Road pacemen all the subtleties of reverse swing. And lest one should think that the Pakistani bowlers are being singled out for attention, it must be added that England bowlers such as Simon Jones and Anderson are not above employing such tactics. The usual "racism card" has been played and previous examples of umpire Darrell Hair's alleged antipathy towards the Pakistani side has been quoted. Hair himself has been targeted for personal denigration: a strange solo condemnation since in almost every sentence of Laws 42 and 20 umpires are instructed to make their judgments "in consultation with the other umpire." As a result, cricket is in danger of losing sight of the trees because of the wood. For my money, the important timber must prop up and support the umpire. If players undermine the status of arbiters like Hair: if they think that they can change a decision by protracted and loud protestations, ignoring the legal channels of appeal, the game is heading for chaos.

Unfortunately the Laws of Cricket, as they are formulated, tend to be rigid and impersonal. They make little allowance for temperament and emotions such as that expressed in izzat. Perhaps they need an injection of humanity. They certainly do not need a shot of anarchy.