Oblivious to Response

It’s the best part of a week since the Fourth Test at the Oval exploded from a cricketing contest into a full-on international incident. With every day that passes we see or hear another revelation, another exclusive or another accusation that muddies the waters and stokes the bonfires. A five-run penalty has become a smear on national pride, a catalyst for retirement and the biggest umpiring flashpoint since Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana got their fingers out in 1987. Why did it come to this? Whose fault was it? What should have been done differently?

In the 56th over of England’s second innings, Darrell Hair made the fateful decision to change the ball and penalise Pakistan, under law 42.3 – “changing the condition of the ball”. By the letter of the law, and the playing conditions bilaterally agreed at the beginning of the series, he acted entirely correctly when he offered Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood the choice of a replacement.

However, the preamble to the 2000 Code of the Laws of Cricket states that “captains and umpires together set the tone for the conduct of a cricket match.” There’s a lot more to umpiring than automatonically making a series of decisions, however strictly correct they are. Without wishing to distract from the issue at hand, the “Human Element” is oft-mentioned in discussions about technology. Hawk-eye extrapolates to the letter of scientific law – either Newton’s or Boyle’s, I forget which – but it doesn’t always get it right. There are situations that can’t be modelled with equations and variables, situations that need yellow and black “handle with care” signs plastered across them.

I do remember enough secondary school physics, however, to know that every action has a reaction – and it’s not just those silver balls on strings, rocking from side to side, that this rule applies to. Didn’t it ever cross Darrell’s mind on that London afternoon that there might have been the slightest fallout from a decision that, by its very nature, was awash with loaded history and muddled perceptions – and not least virtually impossible to prove.

Last week I umpired an Under 13 County Cup semi final match. Now, I’m not for a second trying to equate Braunton Burrows on a Friday with twenty mums and dads in attendance to a packed-out Test venue, but I could have quite easily created a scene by calling one off-spinner with an action that would have made Johan Botha blush. If you’re fielding close and the batsman is struck and falls outside of his crease, the laws state that if you whip the bails off, he’s run out – but you don’t. Doing right by the laws isn’t doing right by the game.

Nevertheless, the decision was made. Umpire Hair patted his left shoulder and England were onto 235 rather than 230, and the game simmered along towards the tea break, before finally boiling over – and if Darrell Hair’s actions were small-minded before, then the Pakistani team, players and officials entered the domain of nano-technology. Staying in your room once – okay, it’s childish toy-throwing but it’s not without precedent. But twice, and over a half-hour period, and it’s far less of a ten year old lobbing his bat across the outfield and far more of a three year old emptying his entire toybox and repeatedly, systematically hurling each of its contents into the living room furniture.

Anyone with a passing interest in the history of cricket knows of the incident at Sydney in 1971, where John Snow – after striking Terry Jenner with a short ball – was manhandled by spectators on the boundary, prompting Ray Illingworth to lead his England side from the field. Umpires Tom Brooks and Lou Rowan made it abundantly clear that the tourists were liable to forfeit the match, and play resumed. If, thirty-five years ago, the threat of concession was strong enough to sharpen the mind of the stubbornest of Yorkshireman, I can’t imagine that Woolmer and company were oblivous to both the precedents and the after-effects. As for the gesture of returning to the field half an hour after? There’s no good in putting two of the lego bricks back together.

By now, the Test match had reached the point where it couldn’t be continued without a major slap in the face for either the umpires, the laws of the game or the status of Test Cricket – and, mercifully, the ICC got the decision to award England the match exactly right. Anyone arguing otherwise needs to refamiliarise themselves with Newton’s Third Law – an alternative decision, such as cancelling the Test match, would be nothing other than carte blanche for teams to effectively hold officials to ransom over decisions. One up with one to play, but struggling to hang on for a draw? No problem – just sulk in the changing rooms, and you’ve won the series.

Notwithstanding the fact that it took five hours from Pakistan’s refusal to play until the announcement of the result, the ICC did get that right. There’s very little in the actions of either party after that point that could be perceived as right, however. In fact, as I think back over the last week, I can’t think of a single appropriate reaction on anybody’s part. Threatening to back out on the one-day series suggested that precisely no lessons had been learned from Sunday afternoon’s tantrums. Calling people racist – whilst conveniently forgetting that Darrell Hair’s “list” includes Grant Flower and Gary Kirsten – and evoking imagery of white conspiracies is nothing more than selective memory and victim mentality that does nothing whatsoever for your case in the eyes of neutrals. Burning effigies of Darrell Hair do nothing for the struggle against global warming, either.

Either way, Pakistan eventually realised that tightening their own noose wasn’t the smartest of career moves, and passed the hangman’s ropes across to Malcolm Speed and Darrell Hair, who added their own politicking to the public domain. The negotiation of a golden handshake itself is nothing new in the world of high finance, but releasing the talks to the baying media smacks somewhat of dangling a bloody carcass over a pit of starving lions. It’s neither pretty, nor professional, but the Council have at least done one job – deflating the umpire’s standing and making his position almost untenable. You can’t officiate without control, and you can’t control without respect.

Whether, in three weeks time, the final statement applies to the ICC as well as simply to Darrell Hair will depend on not only their handling of the disciplinary process against Inzamam-ul-Haq in the name of the Pakistan team, but their communication and the perception of their activities. If this week hasn’t taught anyone the importance of the laws of reaction, it’s going to take an incredibly big apple to fall onto their heads to do so.

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