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Hair-raising stuff

Last updated on: November 07, 2006 17:05 IST

The banning of umpire Darrell Hair from international cricket has triggered off a firestorm of amusing proportions - if, like me, you laugh that you may not weep. Consider some of the stuff appearing under signed columns in the international media, as exemplar:

Chilling Rule of Asian Overlords, is the title of a piece by Robert Craddock in the Courier Mail. I thought, for a moment, that the writer had taken a break from cricket and decided to focus on history, specifically the period of Chenghis Khan. But no, this is about the evil Asian cricket warlords, hell bent on razing the time-honored cricket structure to the ground.

Firstly it shows how dangerous it is when a sport is governed by its own participants.

It should never have been up to the Asian nations to decide Hair's fate. That decision should have been made by International Cricket Council officials such as cricket operations boss Dave Richardson in consultation with umpires boss Doug Cowie.

On the post hoc, ergo procter hoc principle, Craddock then postulates this outcome: Hair's axing sets a chilling precedent for other umpires.

They will now be running scared of offending any or all of the four subcontintent nations - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - who might, at times, loathe each other, but invariably vote as a block on important issues.

Having seen how brutally Hair was abandoned after his tough call, only a brave or foolish umpire would be courageous enough to throw himself into the lion's den.

Wow.

The headline of Trevor Marshallsea's piece, in The Age, is more restrained, but the point is the same: No umpire will take a tough stand again.

And what the board meeting in Mumbai also showed, if anyone needed reminding, was just how firmly world cricket is now controlled by the India-led sub-continental bloc. The sub-continent's enormous financial and political power was clearly shown by the decision to stand Hair down from all international games for the duration of his contract with the ICC, which expires in March 2008.

When it comes to the 'Asian rule' theme, no roundup is complete without hearing from Scyld Berry, who in the Telegraph has regurgitated this theme time out of mind - and who dusts it off again here.

A most unfortunate precedent, however, has now been established. Any umpire who in future makes a decision which angers one of the Asian Test-playing countries - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - can expect the wrath of the Asian bloc to descend upon his head. Such is the financial clout of India that they can usually carry South Africa, Zimbabwe and West Indies with them to achieve a 7-3 majority.

So there you have it - the prevalent thesis, that Hair was axed not because of his own bungling, but because India, leading the Asian bloc, willed it so.

Really? So Hair is the martyr, and India the Roman with the spear, poking at his ribs while he hangs on this cross?

Rewind to the 1992 Test between India and Australia at Adelaide. A year later, Wisden (which, last I checked, was not 'ruled by Asian overlords') said of the game: It was "marred . by controversy over lbw decisions - eight times Indians were given out, while all but two of their own appeals were rejected".

The reason for bringing this game up? It was Hair's debut.

Adelaide again, 1994, the game between South Africa and Australia - and Peter Kirsten went head to head with umpire Hair, after a series of LBW decisions against Proteas batsmen. The upshot? Kirsten himself was given out LBW in the second innings in a decision reports at the time said were dodgy at best. South Africa lost.

1995, Melbourne - and the famous Sri Lanka-Australia game, in which Hair repeatedly no-balled Muthaiah Muralitharan for chucking - from the bowler's end.

Wisden was moved to comment that the ruling was unusual (if only because the umpire at that end cannot watch the bowler's foot, and his arm, at the same time during delivery - and it is the foot he is supposed to be looking at. Ergo, the fact that he was no-balling Murali indicated that he was predetermined to do so, even if that meant ignoring his real duty).

Though the ICC - which at the time was not run by the Asian bloc - cleared Murali, Hair described the bowler's action as 'diabolical' in his autobiography. For this, he was deemed - again by the ICC, again not run (even Berry didn't say so at the time) by the Asian bloc - to have brought the game into disrepute.

Interesting, that ruling - if a player is deemed guilty of that offense, the ICC jumps on him like a ton of bricks (Inzamam, remember, was banned for four games for bringing the game into disrepute, following the Oval fiasco?). Hair was deemed guilty - but no punishment of any sort was handed out to him.

And that brings us naturally to the Oval incident that sparked Hair's exit. What actually happened?

Hair and his fellow umpire Billy Doctrove deemed that Pakistan had tampered with the ball. Had they? In the subsequent inquiry, the ICC deemed there was no "cogent evidence" to indicate that anything of the kind had happened.

Geoffrey Boycott - not a fifth columnist, surely, for the Asian bloc - testified at the hearing, and said there was nothing wrong with the ball. TV analyst Simon Hughes said the ball was in good shape, and suggested that Hair was merely 'guessing'.

Shouldn't the debate end there? Rather than set up the umpire as a martyr, shouldn't we be asking this: Does an official who, with no concrete evidence, accuse a team of cheating and, in the manner of our traffic cops, dole out instant punishment, have the right to continue officiating? Especially when this act comes not as an isolated instance, but as part of a pattern of idiosyncratic officiating?

The thing is, umpires have in the past come up with asinine decisions, including some that could potentially hurt the reputation of players. And invariably, these umpires have gotten away scot free -- because the ICC has never believed in holding its officials to account. So maybe this famous Asian clout everyone is so upset about (in a way no one was, when England and Australia ruled cricket -- without even generating the funds to underwrite the game) is that the Asian bloc has learnt to use its voice to right some of the game's inequities. And that bugs you why?

On another note, the writers of the pieces above seem to assume that India used its financial muscle to browbeat even South Africa and the West Indies, besides Zimbabwe, into voting with the Asian nations. Could there be another reason? Could this be it?

Mitchley, who umpired in 26 Tests and 61 limited overs internationals, said the majority of umpires he had spoken to said the Australian, who was at the centre of the ball-tampering furore that led to forfeiture of the fourth Test between England and Pakistan, was wrong in his handling of the affair.

Mitchley said he did not believe the International Cricket Council decision to sack Hair from the elite Test and one-day panel of umpires would impugn the integrity of umpires.

"He has always been a controversial figure. Most umpires I spoke to felt the whole thing could have been handled much better by Hair," said Mitchley.

Oh, and in passing: How about some comment on the warlords of Australian cricket, vide this item?

Prem Panicker