2nd December 2001

The Sunday Times on the Web















Hashan Tilakaratne L) survives a run-out on his way to a career best unbeaten 143 as West Indies wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs breaks the stumps during the third day of the third cricket test in Colombo yesterday. REUTERS/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

Will colourful cricket revert to black and white?

By Sanjiva Wijesinha and Barney Reid
There is an apocryphal story told about the legendary English cricketer Dr. W.G. Grace, who captained England from 1888 to 1899.

Playing in a charity match in a little English village, Grace had the misfortune to mis-time the first ball he faced - which struck him on his pad plumb in front of the wicket. 

The umpire (one of the local dignitaries) promptly and legitimately gave him 'Out' - whereupon Grace walked up to that worthy, laughingly said in a loud voice, "My good man, do you think the crowd came all the way here to see my batting - or your umpiring?" He then majestically returned to his crease, resumed batting as if nothing had happened, and went on to score a respectable century to the delight of the gazing rustics gathered round the green.

Unfortunately the days when players like Grace could get away with treating umpires in such a manner are long gone. In international cricket matches these days not only are there two umpires (at least one of whom is from a neutral country) but there is also a match referee appointed by the International Cricket Council (ICC) who has the power to fine and even suspend errant players.

As to how far a match referee should go in disciplining players is still a moot point - and what happened in the recent Test match in South Africa reveals just how much an unwise action by a match referee can damage the game.

The man appointed by the ICC to referee the current Test series between South Africa and India was 61-year-old Mike Denness, a dour Scotsman who captained the English team in 1974-75 and now serves on the ICC's international panel of referees. A man known for his integrity and decency, the unimaginative Denness is also known for a tendency to apply regulations rigidly and not see beyond the letter of the law. Last year, when officiating during the English county championship, he outraged Derbyshire by deciding to penalise them eight championship points - for maintaining a substandard pitch.

What sparked the current crisis in international cricket was Denness' decisions to penalise six Indian players for a variety of offences during their current Test series in South Africa. The common offence with which all the players were charged was "bringing the game into disrepute".

Sachin Tendulkar, one of the world's best batsmen who enjoys demi-god status in India, was deemed by Denness to have been tampering with the seam of the ball - for which he was given a one match suspension and fined 75% of his match fee.

Hardly a crime worthy of such a serious punishment, one might think - unless one is aware of the physical principles that govern the flight of a cricket ball.

The sad thing about the Tendulkar episode was that it was not the umpires (who can inspect the ball from time to time while it is in play) who reported Tendulkar for wrongdoing. Observed the Chief Executive of the South African Cricket Board, Gerald Majola, "I found the decision against Tendulkar funny - considering that neither of the two umpires had made any complaint." Denness waited until the end of the day's play and judged Tendulkar to have tampered with the ball on the strength of a television replay which showed Tendulkar running his fingernail over the ball's seam.

If Denness had penalised anyone other than Tendulkar, the matter may have ended there - but Tendulkar's demi-god status in his homeland, plus the fact that five of his team-mates including captain Sourav Ganguly were also punished - for "excessive appealing" - blew the whole issue out of proportion.

Perhaps the television evidence against Tendulkar was sufficient for Denness to make up his mind that the player was guilty. Perhaps Denness was taking to heart ICC Chief Executive Malcolm Speed's recent urging that half measures were no longer adequate to curb cricketers' misdemeanours.

From the Indian point of view, Denness' high handed action was the latest example of a long suspected racial bias. England's wicket keeper Jamie Foster, for example, was blatantly rude to Zimbabwe skipper Andy Flower during last month's Test series but was let off. In the last Australia-India Test series Australians Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath certainly behaved on the field "in a mannar that brought the game into disrepute" - but they too got off scot free.

And in that much publicised event in 1987 when English captain Mike Gatting pointed his finger and argued with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana, the British press lauded him for standing up for his players against a wily oriental umpire.

But when Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga did a similar thing to Australian umpire Emerson in 1999 he was wildly castigated in the Australian and British press for daring to question the umpire. The fact that Emerson was himself not above board (he was in fact on medical leave from his usual job for a psychiatric condition at the time he umpired in that game) was conveniently not mentioned.

Small wonder then that President of the Indian Cricket Board Jagmohan Dalmiya called for Denness' removal. And when the ICC refused, both the Indian and South African Boards elected to play the next Test match without Denness - calling on South African Dennis Lindsay, a member of the ICC referees' panel, to step in as referee.

The ICC President Malcolm Gray and Chief Executive Malcolm Speed (both Australians) responded by withdrawing official Test status for the game. Dalmiya (himself a former President of the ICC) has said he will take the matter to the next executive board meeting in March

"What is the ICC?" thundered Dalmiya. "It consists of all the Board members - and in a democratic process, the majority view should prevail. Individuals cannot decide such issues."

"As far as we are concerned, this is an official Test. We don't want a confrontation with the ICC - but if it came to that we will not be found wanting".

If it comes to a vote, observers feel that Dalmiya will win hands down. While England, Australia and perhaps New Zealand are expected to support Gray, the other six members (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, West Indies and Zimbabwe) are tipped to side with India.

Says Pakistan Cricket Board President Tauquir Zia, "I think Jagmohan is within his rights to protest against the inconsistencies of the ICC".

Adds Majola, "The ICC thought they were being strong but they have lost ground by being unflexible".

In the case of W.G. Grace and that hapless 19th century village umpire, the umpire gave way in the greater interest of the game and the famous batsman had his way. Of course, in that case, both the batsman and the umpire were white.

Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha is a senior lecturer at Monash University. Barney Reid is a cricket coach and umpire in Melbourne.

More Sports
Return to Sports Contents
Sports Archives


Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to
The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.