From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.29 :: NO.04 :: Jan. 28, 2006

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CRICKET

WHEN PLAYERS' TONGUES OUTRAN THEIR BRAINS

This year, we have experienced a thankfully brief fracas of sledging, "mental disintegration" and alleged racial and verbal abuse in the short, sour Test series, an umpire's nightmare, between Graeme Smith's South Africa and Ricky Ponting's Australia, writes FRANK TYSON.

AP

SHANE WARNE can't believe it as umpire Aleem Dar signals a wide during the recent Australia-South Africa Sydney Test. Warne was aiming for the rough caused by bowlers' footmarks when he met this fate.

Of all the athletic competitions in the universal sporting calendar, cricket can most justifiably lay claim to the crown of being "The Goodwill Game". By and large it is usually contested in an atmosphere of friendliness. At the highest level, Test matches are normally played against the amicable but competitive background, which used to exist in Commonwealth countries and, before that body existed, the British Empire.

It is significant that few major sporting countries outside the common historical bond of that erstwhile Empire play the game. What I find intriguing is that, even when certain former Commonwealth states such as Pakistan and the Republic of South Africa chose to sever their political ties with Mother England, they still thought it important to maintain their cricket connections with her.

The apogee of beneficence in any sport was, in my opinion, attained with the personal friendships and mutual respect established between Richie Benaud's and Frankie Worrell's Australian and West Indian teams in the Test series of 1960-61: the heart-beat excitement of which saw the Brisbane Test tied and Australia victorious in the rubber by the narrowest of 2-1 margins. The Caribbean cricketers were rewarded for their entertaining enterprise with a ticker-tape motorcade through the streets of Melbourne; how often does one witness a defeated side so honoured?

Rarely does the jarring note of discord disturb the calm of Test cricket. But when it does, the noise would raise the dead! Take the annis horribilis of 1932-33 for instance — when Jardine, Larwood, Woodfull and "Bodyline" combined to almost cause Australia to secede from the Empire. Now, this year, we have experienced a thankfully brief fracas of sledging, "mental disintegration" and alleged racial and verbal abuse in the short, sour Test series between Graeme Smith's Proteas and Ricky Ponting's Aussies.

The consequent frayed relationships between two of the leading cricket nations may result in future unpleasant incidents when the two sides meet in the second half of the rubber on the high veldt; but personally, I was of the opinion that most of the animosity occurred in the media, provoked some players' tongues into outrunning their brains and testing Cricket Australia's tolerance.

The players' current pro-active attitude towards on-field "sledging" has already landed them in hot water, with Aussie fast bowlers, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath being charged with dissent and offensive language in the aftermath of the Sydney Test. With senior Test men unaware of just how much verbal and written abuse constitutes more than enough in the eyes of the International Cricket Council, it is inevitable that individual garrulity will cause them to overstep the mark, and lead to their being charged with offensive behaviour by the match referee.

The war of words between the South African skipper, Graeme Smith and Aussie leg-spinner, Shane Warne, in their respective newspaper columns, masqueraded as psychological "banter", until it descended into personal name-calling, at which stage Cricket Australia had to intervene.

What I find particularly obnoxious is the harassment and questioning of umpires in the execution of their unappreciated duties: an occurrence, which was not uncommon in the rubber just concluded in Australia. In my playing days, it was a brave man who demurred at an umpire's decision.

Of course, umpiring in the modern age has become far more complex than it was in the 1950s. The phenomenal spinning skills and unique tactics of one man, Shane Warne, for instance, have made a nonsense of law 12, the regulation outlining the protected area of the pitch: a rectangular "no-go" area, 1.52 metres in front of the batting crease and 48 centimetres either side of the middle stump, forbidden to bowler's follow-through.

This regulation would seem to suggest that batsmen have only to fear Warne's exceptional turn when he pitches in bowlers' roughed-up footmarks, illegally in the protected area. In reality, I have seen Warne turn the ball out of receptive rough a metre wide of the batsman's stumps! Indeed when he bowls his leg-spin from around the wicket and close to the return crease, his bowling arm and point of release are often outside that crease and enable him to angle and spin deliveries out of bowler's footmarks so wide that the deliveries were called "wide".

Now what price the protected area of the pitch? Very little I would say when Warne — as he often does — can bowl a batsman behind his back! It was precisely to prevent this occurrence that Law 9 (4) was framed limiting the return crease to 1.32 metres either side of the middle stump.

In the recent South Africa v Australia series the umpires' task assumed a more complex aspect and became fiercely controversial when Warne decided to bowl around the wicket to Prince and Rudolph: left-handers who spent much of their defensive time at the wicket on padding away balls which pitched in wide patches of rough outside their off-stumps. In the case of right-handed batsmen this stratagem raised few problems since Warne pitched many of his leg-spinners outside the line of leg-stump and could not gain an lbw decision. But with left-handed batsmen thrown into the mix, the leg-spinner's preferred line of attack was directed at the rough outside the striker's off-stump and the unpredictable spin and uneven bounce it could provide.

Now, however, with the batsman being left-handed, using the pads as his first line of defence was no longer a safe option; for Law 36 allows the umpire to give a batsman out lbw even if the point at which the ball strikes the batsman or his equipment is on or outside the line of off-stump, provided the ball pitches in line with or outside the off-stump and would, in the opinion of the umpire, have gone on to hit the batsman's stumps, with the batsman making no genuine attempt to play the ball.

During the Sydney Test both Prince and Rudolph repeatedly used their front pad to kick away balls of unpredictable spin and bounce. They sometimes advanced the leading leg as much as a metre down the pitch before kneeing the ball away when it bounced in the rough which was sometimes as much as 70 centimetres wide of the off-stump.

Naturally, this occasioned repeated and impassioned appeals from the Aussie side and stimulated an obviously frustrated and angry Warne into asking the umpire why the South African was still at the crease. He and his fellow appealers were certain that, but for the intervention of the batsman and his pads, — "sans stroke" — the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps; a conclusion supported by the magic and technical evidence of "Hawk-Eye" and broadcast on TV screens at Test grounds and in lounge rooms all around the world.

My sympathies on these occasions were entirely with the umpires — for they were being press ganged into breaking one of the sacred tenets of cricket: that of giving the benefit of any doubt to the batsman. Moreover, they were being asked to make lbw decisions based on guesswork and uncertain variables. Then Messrs. Azad Rauf, Steve Bucknor, Aleem Dar and Billy Bowden had to "guesstimate" whether the delivery would have struck the stumps without the bowler straightening it by spinning it back from leg.

Another area of dubiety also entered the lbw equation with the umpire having to guess about the behaviour of the ball after it bounced in the "rough" of bowler's footmarks. Would it have kicked above stump height? Would it have squatted? How much would it have turned? Importantly, would it have hit or missed the stumps? I am assured by the scientific "Boffins" that "Hawk Eye", with its algorithm of hundreds of thousands of 3-dimensional light measurements would have answered the final query accurately — right up to the moment that the ball struck the batsman or his equipment — after which it became impossible to predict a delivery's future behaviour based on the information provided by its previous flight path. So it became a case of back to square one with all trust reposing in the umpiring skills of Azad Rauf, Steve Bucknor, Aleem Dar and Billy Bowden. I can live with that. For I think that the umpires who stood in the 2005-06 Australia v South Africa Tests, did a pretty good job!





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