Cricket: Cronje to fight ban on radio link

South Africa's hi-tech revolution has been unplugged by the ICC.
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The Independent Online
UNSETTLED INITIALLY by the Indians at Hove yesterday, South Africa ended the day unplugged by the authorities as well. They came through their opening group match with a thoroughly professional display, but victory was soured by a controversy over the use of an on-field communications system pioneered by Bob Woolmer, the coach of South Africa, and swiftly rejected by the International Cricket Council, who do not like their tournament being used as an experimental lab.

The South Africans have always been at the forefront of technological innovation in the game, under Woolmer's influence. But when Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald took the field with pounds 800 receivers the size of hearing aids taped to their ears and Woolmer on the other end of a pounds 5,000 transmitter, the match referee, Talat Ali, consulted his masters at the ICC and asked the South Africans to remove their earpieces. The South Africans accepted the decision then, but intend to argue their case to ICC officials next week.

The issue is bound to create further debate. There are no specific rules relating to on-field coaching and the South Africans were at pains to point out that they had done nothing underhand."There is nothing in the rules to stop us from using it and it's very disappointing it's been stopped," Cronje said. "The coach sits at a different angle from me and he can give me different options when we're batting or bowling. It's always nice to hear another voice."

Communication between dressing room and field has generally been carried out over a change of gloves or a glass of water. "Are we going to stop the gloves going out?" Cronje asked. Woolmer has never been a great lover of convention and experiments with earpieces began more than a year ago in benefit games, which rather begs the question why its official debut was made without the knowledge of the ICC in a match of such significance. "Bob came to me about 15 months ago to ask about it and I told him at the time that it could be controversial," Ali Bacher, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, explained. "But Bob has a hyper-active cricket brain and sometimes he gets ahead of himself."

Woolmer, whose imaginative coaching methods have put him in line to succeed David Lloyd as the England coach next summer, was perplexed by the ICC decision to ban the system. "We used it in the warm-up games without any problems," he said. "I'm not trying to disturb the batsman or the captain, I'm just wanting to offer some advice. They use it in American football and I believe the French used it in their World Cup campaign, so I felt it was a really good idea. Hopefully, it will make life easier for the cricketer."

Both Cronje and Donald were keen to benefit from their coach's wisdom, Cronje for tactical advice, Donald for technical reasons. "I have known Allan for nine years, since our time at Warwickshire," Woolmer added. "If he has a technical problem, we can sort it out straight away." And the beauty of the system from the coach's point of view is that communication is just one way. The players cannot answer back. "We're working on that," laughed Cronje.

A statement from the ICC suggested that the South Africans had offended protocol more than principle. "As soon as it was discovered that Hansie Cronje was wearing an earpiece he was asked by the referee to remove it," it said. "He had not sought permission to use it from the ICC. The World Cup is not the event to experiment with new devices without first seeking permission from the ICC."

The ICC are right to be wary, though the South Africans have made no secret of their experiment and should not be criticised for trying to find an extra edge when so much is at stake. Bacher himself is well aware of the pitfalls. "It should be used not to be dictatorial but just to offer the captain different options." Quite how that would be monitored is one of the many points that the ICC will have to consider. Cricket is not a game of set-plays choreographed by a committee of coaches like American football, nor should cricketers be turned into automatons programmed by teams of specialists. Not for the first time, the South Africans will feel they have been penalised unfairly for forward-thinking. By the time the ICC have pronounced on the system's future, the technology will be open to every team. "It's going to happen," Mohammad Azharuddin, the defeated Indian captain, said. "It does in other sports."

The issue of security was Azharuddin's more immediate concern after he and Rahul Dravid were grabbed by an Indian spectator as they came off the field at the end of the match. "That sort of thing is starting to happen more and more," said the Indian captain. "We need to look very seriously at increasing security for the players." But, even without their one-to-ones, the South Africans had the last word.

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