Cricket: Cricket's hierarchy plays the wrong line: Scyld Berry on Zimbabwe's untimely promotion and some other potentially costly errors of judgement

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The Independent Online
IT WAS one of cricket's most unsatisfactory weeks. In almost every instance, officialdom took the incorrect decision, from the Aqib affair to Zimbabwe.

Timing is everything in cricket, and in the case of Zimbabwe, the International Cricket Council has got it wrong. If Test status was to be granted, it should have been shortly after independence in 1980. Then there were enough players - Brian Davison, Kevin Curran, David Houghton, John Traicos, Duncan Fletcher, and a young Graeme Hick - to have established a Test team.

Instead, in time-honoured ICC fashion, the issue was shelved. Now that Test status has been granted, Zimbabwe are much weaker, making two wrongs. Those good, white cricketers have emigrated or aged to the point of retirement; the black population has still to take to the game in significant numbers, if they ever will.

Zimbabwe need to return to the place they have traditionally held within South African cricket, since the republic was un-banned. In cricket terms, the country is an organic part of South Africa - Southern Rhodesians used to represent South Africa - not a separate entity. Zimbabwe do not have the players, the internal structure of a first-class competition, or the financial resources to support professionalism: 10 years ago they might have succeeded, and in a generation's time they might, but in the meantime it is impossible to see how Zimbabwe, with the best will in the world, can justify their promotion.

The ICC's decision on the South African rebels was almost as ill-judged. The sight of people having their cake and eating it is offensive, whether they are cricketers or the chairmen of privatised industries. Every instinct and common sense suggested next April as the time to commute their five-year sentences.

In this regard, it has to be asked whether the chairman of the ICC is suitably qualified. Sir Colin Cowdrey appeared on the Conservative Party platform during the election campaign (as a remarkable coincidence he was awarded a knighthood a few months before).

It is unacceptable that the chairman of the ICC - an organisation inextricably involved in politics - should have so overt and so distinct a bias. Future holders of this position must be more apolitical.

But what matters immediately is that the Test and County Cricket Board should listen to the canvassed opinions of the majority of county cricketers, and impose a ban of its own on the rebels until next April, irrespective - but not in violation - of the ICC decision.

On tour, when team morale is precious and fragile, there is no room for players who calculatingly preferred foreign currency to their country, not until memories have begun to fade, as they might have done by the winter of 1992/93.

Otherwise, there will be the tiniest suspicion that expediency has dictated the English approach to the rebels. After Hick's innings in the Third Test, his pawkiest and most statuesque since he last faced Curtly Ambrose, it is clear that he is not going to be a No 3 destroyer of less than the best Test bowling, not for the time being at any rate. Surely it could not have entered official heads that since Hick cannot do the job, Mike Gatting has to be brought back straight away, and therefore this consideration triumphed over principle?

Another ICC mistake was a background cause of the Aqib Javed affair. The august body has decreed that a panel of independent umpires is the solution in Test cricket; yet it has done nothing to implement it, pleading poverty. It has thus admitted officially the unsatisfactory state of the present system of home umpires, but it expects the players not to have the same feeling and to carry on blithely.

The ICC is looking for a sponsor to pay for 'neutral' umpires, yet is it not wonderful that there is money enough in the meantime to fly match referees around and accommodate them in comfort? And is it not wonderful how these match referees are so often the ICC delegates who introduced the scheme, or else Board officials close to them?

What should have happened - and this is not in hindsight - is that every touring team should be given the right to opt for neutral umpires, but would have to pay for them out of its own tour guarantee. Thus, Pakistan might have agreed in advance to David Shepherd standing in all five Tests this summer; but, being unhappy about other English candidates, paid for Steve Bucknor to come from the West Indies to partner him. It was not simply an individual umpire at the centre of the Old Trafford dispute, but the whole question of neutrality.

Another element in the trouble was the perennnial misunderstanding between England and Pakistan, which starts by being a linguistic problem. And in this case, the language barrier seems to have been particularly important, although we will never know the exact words exchanged by the protagonists. Roy Palmer appears to have been invoking Law 42.8 on intimidation; the Pakistanis were talking about the three-year experimental law on one bouncer per batsman per over.

Aqib had already demonstrated his immaturity by shouting at Salim Malik for dropping a slip catch off his bowling. If he then misunderstood Palmer's ruling on intimidation, it would explain the outrage which Aqib clearly felt, with all the ardour that youth feels in the face of injustice. He thought he was being denied his ration of one bouncer an over at Devon Malcolm (that is, one ball above the shoulder of the batsman standing upright). Genuinely incensed and excitable but not malicious, completely on the wrong track but believing he was in the right, Aqib in high dudgeon perceived a slight when Palmer handed him his sweater, while none was intended.

Subsequently, it has been disingenuous of Javed Miandad to argue that he was only trying to sort the matter out diplomatically: his gestures were too aggressive for that, and he deserved a long private reprimand from Conrad Hunte. On the other hand, Javed has matured enormously and deserves credit for doing so, if we are to judge people on where they are heading, and how fast, not where they have come from.

Sadder, because more startling, was Intikhab Alam's outburst against Palmer. The only point to be made in his favour, in return for all the good he has done for the game, is 'different countries, different customs'. According to the current Wisden, during the last domestic season in Pakistan: 'Bahawalpur were awarded the match after Sargodha had refused to continue on the first day following an umpiring dispute.' (Aamir Sohail was playing for Sargodha). Such entries are not uncommon.

The unsatisfactory officialdom has extended into England's organisation in this series. It may be remembered that England began it in a position of parity with Pakistan, if not of psychological advantage. Since then the upper hand has been seized so emphatically by Pakistan that there was only one team in the Old Trafford Test.

Again, it is not being said with hindsight that Robin Smith should have batted at No 3 at Old Trafford, or that Allan Lamb should have played, not least for his fielding at first slip. Hick was worth one more chance, down the order, to see if he could reproduce the fluidity and confidence of his one- day innings at The Oval this season, of his innings for Worcestershire against Waqar Younis last season, and of his 172 against the West Indians in 1988.

But he is not going to do it now; and therefore the mistake made at the end of last summer becomes all the more culpable. Hick should have played in the Sri Lanka Test at Lord's, under little pressure. Look what Alec Stewart has achieved, after making his maiden Test century in the same game.

The final dissatisfaction is attributable to officialdom, too. We are all expected, by the marketing arm of the TCCB, to become conditioned to the sight of sponsors' logos on the outfield of Test grounds, and on the stumps. But this observer for one will persist in regarding them as a violation of the game, for introducing reality - commercial reality - into an activity where the whole object is to escape from it. Lord's is the only Test ground to have held out so far this summer. The grounds staging the other two Tests so far have richly deserved their rain-ruined and boring draws.