Monday, August 28, 2006

A La Recherche du Temps Urdu (In Remembrance of Things Urdu)

Cricket is a mystical game. It has its own traditions, culture, and history, which cannot be explained to the layperson. As for the rules of play, they are as ancient and as numinous as the cricket Gods themselves.

How possibly could a North American begin to comprehend the hallowed willow: that unforgiving mini-beast that requires loving application of linseed, and gently knocked in, so that it will last for just twenty-two matches, of which half will be rained out? How to enlighten the non-cricketer on the importance of the knocking-mallet: that if the willow hasn’t been treated before it strikes leather, the bat will shatter; that if knocked too heavily, the instrument will lose its spring and be forever dull and useless?

I have played a lot of cricket. At any one time, I would have three bats, each knocked to different degrees, which I would use depending on the playing conditions and my attitude to the game at hand. Each bat would last three seasons. They only lasted because I rotated them, and treated them and prepared them immaculately pre-season. For a non-cricketer to pick them up, they may have seemed heavy. For me, they were a finely-balanced extension of my left arm, prepared by me. I knew exactly what style of play was necessary for each bat. Nobody else was permitted to even pick them up. For a player to even suggest that was the equivalent of a novice violinist asking Nigel Kennedy to lend him his Stradivarius for practice.

There is one exception to my batting toolkit. It is a Duncan Fearnley Magnum, oversize, which is not a finely-tuned instrument. It is not an extension of my left arm. It is the batting equivalent of a clown shoe. If my Slazenger V800 was a high precision rifle with a laser-guided scope, then my Magnum is a daisy-cutter. If any other batsman can pick it up, let alone apply the back-lift when a cricket ball is bearing down at ninety miles an hour, they are welcome to do so. I would only ever use it near the end of the innings when I have out-concentrated the bowlers, and started spraying deliveries onto the pitch. As long as I put the bat within a few light years of the ball, the latter would find itself somewhere on the pavilion roof.

Thus cricket is a fanatical game that attracts fanatical people.

Cricket journalism is also a unique art. Because cricket writers have so many hours during a test match to compose their thoughts on a game in which nothing often happens, the quality of their output reaches poetic levels unseen in the mainstream media. Consider this from Amit Varma, two years ago, on a Test match between Australia and India. Varma achieves something that few mainstream journalists manage to convey: to place you inside the thrills and spills of a game that you regret not having watched. Jeremy Clarkson could have been a cricket commentator. Lord Denning, if he hadn’t opted for that oh-so-fleeting of judicial careers, could have done likewise. What Varma shows, in what may seem especially moronic to the non-cricketer, is that the game is even more sublime because there was no result.

After my third game in post-school cricket, I was called to give evidence to a Wellington cricket disciplinary hearing brought against my fellow opener. He had scored a few runs, and played and missed a ball outside his off stump. The ball brushed his pad on the way through to the keeper, and the keeper and the slip cordon appealed for a caught behind. The batsman, as was his habit, ignored the appeal and trudged off to square leg in his psychological preparation for the next delivery. He didn’t see the bowling umpire raise his finger, and was shocked when he heard the fielding team cheer that they had taken his wicket.

It was a bad umpiring decision. The umpire later stated that he didn’t think the batsman had hit the ball, but thought he was walking, so granted the appeal. But what happened in the next few moments was crucial: in the milliseconds of release of frustration at a bad decision, the batsman gave what the umpire called an “evil” look. The player shook his head as he walked past the square-leg umpire, chanting quietly: “No, no, no, NO!” I could just make out what he said.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether he was saying this to himself, for his own lapse in concentration in snicking the ball, or genuine frustration with the umpire. The player was stood down for six weeks for voicing dissent.

Because cricket is an intensely mental contest played over very long periods of time, cricket journalists are less well-disposed to cover rapidly-changing events over short interludes. The treatment of Darrell Hair in his decision, on the fourth day of the Fourth Test between England and Pakistan, to call off the match, has spread headlines well beyond the cricketing world, but in the process has lacked the critical analysis that makes cricket such an exquisite game.

Law 42 of the Laws of Cricket specifically covers the issue of ball-tampering. A player is allowed to clean the ball and polish it, but not change the condition of the ball. The umpire is the sole judge of whether ball-tampering has occurred, and has various sanctions he can apply. One of those sanctions is awarding five runs to the batting team and changing the ball.

Darrell Hair judged, rightly or wrongly, that the Pakistani team had deliberately changed the condition of the ball, well beyond merely polishing or cleaning it. England was awarded five penalty runs. In the scope of an individual match, that sanction is far less severe than a bad decision on a dismissal.

What happened next strikes at the very heart of the game of cricket, and the bystander struggles to comprehend it without considering the unique personalities of Pakistani captain Inzamam Ul-Huq, and umpire Darrell Hair.

In nearly a hundred and thirty years of international test cricket, only ten players in history have scored more test runs than Inzy. Only nine players in history have scored more test hundreds. As important statistics are in the culture of cricket, that still gives only a poor perspective on Inzy’s greatness.

Much has been written on Inzy’s laziness at the stumps, his lack of fitness, his curious blend of brutality, and paradoxically, his subtlety and lightness of touch as a batsman. A far more telling statistic is one that cannot be measured by immense accumulations of runs and test averages. That is that of even the greatest players in the modern game, Inzy is practically unrivalled in his capacity to turn good deliveries into average ones, and average deliveries into poor ones.

Inzy, like Sachin and Adam Gilcrist, are virtually impossible to bowl to. Their creative genius is such that even the finest masters of consistent rhythm and swing will find balls on a good line, and a good length, dispatched to the boundary. They do so not through sheer fluke, but all the time. This trio has a capacity to regularly manufacture shots that should not even exist within human capability.

Some will say that they simply see the ball much earlier than their peers. Others will suggest that they have much faster reaction times. But they will all be wrong. The reason that Inzy is so great as a batsman is the same reason Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are so phenomenal. They quite simply defy the laws of physics.

Secondly, Pakistan and the subcontinent in general, do not share the same values around the Spirit of The Game. This is a culture clash of seismic proportions in world cricket. It is why the Board of Control for Cricket in India sets the world tour programme. It is why Shoaib Akhtar is allowed to bowl with a “hyper-extensive arm”, rather than simply “chucking”. It is why Sachin Tendulkar carries demi-God status. Cricket is a religion in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. It is because of their faith that they are prepared to cheat at all costs to win.

So when Inzy instructed the Pakistani cricket team to remain in the dressing room in protest at Darrell Hair’s ball-tampering decision, rather than resuming play, Inzy was issuing a direct challenge to the Spirit of Cricket that governs the responsibility of cricket captains, the requirement for fair play, and general player conduct. As unparalleled as Inzy is as a player, he assumed the power to undermine the most important cricket law of all: the supremacy of the umpire.

That is no small challenge on Inzy’s part. It is effectively the worst possible act that can be committed by a cricket captain. If the disgraceful underarm bowling incident 1981 sparked a re-emphasis on fair play, then Inzy’s action should not go unpunished. He was not merely pushing the boundaries of interpretation of cricket rules. He was drawing a big red line through the rule book.

There is no sanction available for Inzy’s decision not to take the field. The reason there is no sanction is because the idea is so incomprehensible to the spirit of cricket that nobody thought of creating a sanction for it.

Until, that is, Darrell Hair was faced with the prospect of inventing a new sanction that does not exist in the rules. Given the extent of Inzy’s offence, ending play and awarding the match to England was proportionate. In addition, Inzy should have been hung, drawn and quartered by the ICC.

The subsequent actions by sub-continental commentators and cricketers, to make the issue about evidence of ball-tampering, rather than Inzy’s behaviour, deliberately miss the point. In fact, they attempt to divert attention from Inzy's assault on the rules of cricket.

Darrell Hair’s decision to award five runs to England was allowed for in the rules. Even if wrong, that was his decision. It was a legitimate decision for him to make.

Yet instead of cooling down and accepting punishment for his refusal to take the field, Inzy came out all-guns blazing after the Fourth test. Pakistan threatened to boycott further one-dayers in England if Inzy was found guilty of ball-tampering. Again, the issue wasn’t whether he changed the condition of the ball: it was his refusal to accept Hair’s instruction to take the field. The following day, India sided with Pakistan, announcing they would join other sub-continent nations in refusing to play in a game that Hair officiated in.

Realistically, that slashed Hair’s potential umpiring commitments in half. He could not umpire in games involving Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or his own country of Australia. That confined Hair's umpiring commitments to test matches between New Zealand, South Africa, England and the West Indies. It was an untenable position for Hair. He had faced an impossible, unprecedented scenario in the Fourth Test, and made use of the only sanction he thought available to him, and half of world cricket was ganging up on him. There was no way he could reasonably continue as a member of cricket’s elite umpiring panel.

That confluence of events led to Hair suggesting his resignation, on condition of a private settlement with ICC taking into account Hair’s potential earnings as a professional umpire over the next few years. It was an invitation for the ICC to make him redundant, given that the sub-continent had pre-empted his redundancy. That request was no different to a senior executive resigning from a board due to circumstances that make their jobs untenable.

So what did Malcolm Speed, ICC Chief Executive do in return? He leaked Hair’s offer, putting him out to dry. In one of the most disgraceful acts in the history of cricket administration, Speed shifted focus away from Inzy’s misconduct, as an easy way of getting rid of burying the issue of sub-continental rewriting of the spirit of cricket.

Thank you, Malcolm Speed. You have answered the key question facing world cricket today. You have given us certainty. In the process, you have knifed your own country-man. Ball-tampering, chucking, threats to withdraw tours when a player doesn’t get his way, and disrespecting umpires on the field, have all been legitimized by your conduct towards Hair.

Thanks to Inzamam Ul-Haq, and Speed’s effective endorsement of his behaviour by assassinating Hair, the Spirit of Cricket no longer exists.

11 comments:

Beau Peep said...

Cricket Australia has a grand conspiracy in place. This is the reason.

Now tell me if you can disagree.

Cactus Kate said...

Insolent

A piece of work that I would have been proud to produce. There is a tear drop running down my face. More so that possibly only 1% of your audience will actually understand what you are talking about because that is the essence of Cricket that makes it oh so great - so few understand its intricacies and traditions.

I would though have mentioned the mighty Henry Blofeld in commentary.

But then we can't always be perfect.

iiq374 said...

Very nice piece - although to be fair with one inaccuracy. Even the awarding of the game was within the rule book (although I forget with paragraph and subsection) - where the actions or inactions of player or captain in the opinion of the umpire make further play impossible.

The ICC really needs some balls on this otherwise the game really will descend from here.

Insolent Prick said...

Kate,

I was going to mention Blofeld and his soliloquys on seagulls--the kind of commentary that can only exist in test cricket. Alas, blogger was already fucking up with my 2000+ words, and I had no room in this post.

richard said...

Nice work. Thoughts -
- For commentators, you can't go past Coney when he's on the radio. I really miss John Parker, does anyone have an MP3 of his story about his only test wicket? It was told during a slow afternoon's play, with people in the crowd listening cracking up. The players were wondering what the fark was going on!
- Heh, knocking a bat in and poring over stats appealled to my obsessive / compulsive side too, I spent countless hours on my Grey Nichols David Hookes model.
- Darrell Hair has a history of this kind of grandstanding / shitty decision making /messiah complex.

From the Guardian:
"A meeting between Shaharyar Khan and David Morgan, the board chairmen of Pakistan and England respectively, together with both captains and the match referee Mike Procter, brought hope that the game could be restarted. All parties, crucially including Procter, were in agreement. Hair refused to withdraw the decision to abandon the game."

Surely it would have been in the 'spirit' of the game to keep going? Hair was the first one to no-ball Murali (in Australia, surprise, surprise). Where is the ball tampering evidence in this case? I don't trust him, we're better off without him.

Insolent Prick said...

Richard,

I'm not defending Hair's qualities as an umpire, but the role of the umpire as the sole arbiter of the game.

I don't think the issue of Darrell Hair's fitness as an umpire is really at all relevant. The point is that he was sanctioned by the ICC, as a member of the elite umpiring panel, to govern play on the field during the Fourth Test.

It doesn't matter whether he makes shitty decisions. It doesn't matter whether he turns into an oversized Napoleon when he walks onto the ground. The ICC endorsed him as an umpire. By doing so, they have to stand behind his right to make any decision he chooses on the field. For the ICC to do anything else undermines the Spirit of Cricket.

Malcolm Speed's leaking of Darrell Hair's correspondence doesn't become justified just because Hair may have a history of heavy-handed decision-making. If there were problems with Hair's conduct in the past, that should have been addressed in the past. It wasn't.

The Laws of Cricket are very clear on who the decision-makers are in a game. That is the umpires. The match referee has responsibilities around player conduct after a game, but nothing to do with the game during play.

I emphasise this: the sole arbiters of both the ball tampering, and the decision to call off play, were umpires Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove. We haven't heard from Doctrove whether he agreed with Hair's decision on both counts--and that's a critical point--but the fact that he walked off the Field with Hair suggests that he was in agreement.

As the Laws stand, Hair forms an opinion; if it is contentious, he consults with the other umpire, and they make a decision. For the cricket establishment to intervene in that process strikes at the very heart of the rules of the game--that the umpires, and the umpires alone, rule conduct on the field.

The sensible solution would have been to ban Inzy for life, not on the ball-tampering, but for his failure to take the field--a much greater offence. Then Hair should have been encouraged to consider retirement options.

As it stands, the ICC, and Speed in particular, have endorsed Inzy's ability to completely ignore any instruction from an umpire. That is a disgrace.

Insolent Prick said...

iiq:

Quite right. Law 21.3 states:

3. Umpires awarding a match
(a) A match shall be lost by a side which either
(i) concedes defeat or
(ii) in the opinion of the umpires refuses to play and the umpires shall award the match to the other side.

(b) If an umpire considers that an action by any player or players might constitute a refusal by either side to play then the umpires together shall ascertain the cause of the action. If they then decide together that this action does constitute a refusal to play by one side, they shall so inform the captain of that side. If the captain persists in the action the umpires shall award the match in accordance with (a)(ii) above.

I don't think there's any doubt, whatsoever, that Inzy refused to play. By doing so he was acting against the spirit of the game, and the rules specifically require the umpire to award the game to the other team.

Inzy knew the rules. Hair was upholding them.

liberty through profit said...

which province did you play age grade for?

Sean said...

Agree completely with your take on this IP. Just wish I was suprised it's Pakistan bringing the game into disrepute though...

Jimmy Jangles said...

Hair, Hair! great post.

peterquixote said...

is i blind or did kate print that she had a tear run down the face,
is this because of you reference to Proust, in remebrance of times past, yous got to let me know, like how to make kate cry