Cricket Imbroglio Offers Diversion in Britain
By ALAN COWELL | August 21, 2006
LONDON, Aug. 21 — For anyone who considers the laws of English cricket to be incomprehensible, or, indeed, for anyone who thought the mildly outraged term “it’s just not cricket” might imply a certain decorum, think again.
On Sunday, an umpire presiding at a high-profile game between England and Pakistan, ruled that, in his belief, Pakistani players had been tampering with the ball and he told Pakistani players of his suspicion, awarding England five bonus runs, or points.
By way of protest, the Pakistanis refused to leave their dressing room after a scheduled break for tea. The Australian umpire, Darrell Hair, a person known for contentious rulings against some Asian teams, then removed the “bails” — those little wooden bits that fit horizontally across the top of the larger wooden stakes called stumps — denoting that Pakistan had forfeited the game.
The Pakistan team, nonetheless, walked back onto the field of play. But by this time the umpires had walked off, having ruled that Pakistan’s no-show constituted a terminal offense. Game to England — the first time in 129 years of so-called Test matches between national teams that a game had been forfeited in this way.
After days of worry here about the role of Pakistan and Britons of Pakistani descent in Britain’s latest terrorism alert, the cricketing imbroglio offered something of a diversion. It covered the front pages of newspapers in England and Pakistan — where cricket took root during the colonial era of the Raj — banishing such competitors for attention as the Lebanon crisis or the airliner bomb plot.
“In the long and colorful history of cricket, Test matches have been abandoned for any number of reasons, but this is the first instance of a game being decided in this manner,” Angus Fraser, a former English player, wrote in The Independent newspaper. “It is also the latest installment in a summer of shame that included diving and cheating at the football World Cup, drug allegations at the Tour de France and seemingly endless doping scandals in athletics.”
An outsider (someone, say, from the moon, or the United States) might imagine that this was merely silly season folly in a game followed only by erudite aficionados of leg-byes and googlies and silly-mid-ons — to use but a few of cricket’s more esoteric terms. But that’s not how this conflict turned out to be.
Today, the umpire’s action became a question of a nation’s pride, evoked by both the Pakistan cricket captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, who was reported to have called the captain in England to commiserate.
“The pride of the nation has been hurt,” Mr. Inzamam told a Pakistani television interviewer. “We have been unfairly labeled as cheats. It’s not a question of myself and my team. It’s a question of my country. So we decided to protest, and no player was ready to play. They were distraught.”
But when the Pakistani players did not return, the two umpires — Mr. Hair and Billy Doctrove — fell back on Law 21.3 of cricket, which says that a match shall be lost by a side which “in the opinion of the umpires refuses to play and the umpires shall award the match to the other side.”
Despite Pakistan’s denials that it cheated, the International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body, ruled in favor of the umpires, saying in a statement today that “in accordance with the laws of cricket, it was noted that the umpires had correctly deemed that Pakistan had forfeited the match and awarded the Test to England.”
The authorities also brought formal charges today against Mr. Inzamam, both for ball tampering and for bringing the game into disrepute.
The laws of cricket forbid any action by the bowlers that “alters the condition of the ball,” such as rubbing it in the dirt or scratching at the seam around its circumference. The reason is that a tampered-with ball can give bowlers an unfair advantage, like pitchers who scuff or spit on a baseball.
The game on Sunday, at the Oval stadium in south London, was the fourth and final one in a series of Tests, each of which can last up to five days. The incident happened on the fourth day of play, when England was batting. It had already won two games and drawn one other, and was thus destined to win the series.
The umpires refused to say how they thought the ball had been tampered with, but at least one former official thought they might have overreacted.
“They went by the letter of the law, yes,” said Dickie Bird, a former Test umpire. “But with a cricket ball it is very, very difficult in this day and age because there are so many advertising boards around the ground and a ball can easily get scuffed when it hits one of the boards or hits any concrete.”
But Sunday’s game had a personal edge. Mr. Hair is regarded by many Asian players as a difficult man to deal with. As Imran Khan, a former Pakistan captain, wrote in Pakistan today: “Hair is one of those characters when he wears the white umpire’s coat, he metamorphoses into a mini-Hitler.” The Pakistan team said today it would no longer play matches with Mr. Hair as umpire.
For some, there was a more metaphysical element, a musing on the nature of cricket as a standard-bearer of a decency so lacking in a cruel 21st century, as an exemplar of the rule of law and the stiff upper lip in their finest form.
“Whatever turbulence rocked the world, one thing could be relied on. A Test match was a Test match and a Test match was cricket,” The Independent said in an editorial today. “It was played in whites; it paused for lunch and tea; and a player walked back to the pavilion without demur, however preposterous the umpire’s ruling.”