He denounced the involvement of lawyers in imposing the discipline of the game and reserved his most telling comments for Ranatunga himself. As the humility of Van der Merwe's tone and the weariness in his announcement made clear, the game is the poorer for what has happened this week. Swift remedial action is demanded but this has rarely been the International Cricket Council's forte. They may not know where to start.
After a hearing of some four hours at the Waca ground in Perth, most of it taken up by lawyers, Van der Merwe sombrely announced the verdict and the relatively light sentence on Ranatunga for his unworthy behaviour in his side's Carlton & United Series match against England last Saturday after the off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, was sensationally no balled for throwing.
Ranatunga was fined 75 per cent of his match fee, the maximum possible, and banned for six matches, also the maximum, but the suspension has been suspended for 12 months. The amount of cash is not known since Sri Lanka have a scale of sliding match fees.
If he is found guilty of any other breach of the ICC's code of conduct in that time, he will have the ban imposed as well as any other sanction for the new offence. Or not, naturally, if he hires a decent legal team. Considering the nature of Ranatunga's crimes - wagging his finger at the umpire, jabbing him in the chest, delaying the match for 15 minutes, telling the umpire where he should stand - it was tantamount to saying that players can do what they like.
Ranatunga, charged with five breaches of the ICC code, was found guilty of the first (nothing was said about the others) in that he did not at all times maintain the spirit of the game besides the laws of the game.
"It has appeared in the Press recently that the code of conduct has been or was drawn up by cricketers for cricketers to be administered by cricketers," Van der Merwe said. "That statement is a very true one. However, in this instance, it was a great disappointment and a very complicated matter to find that legal people were largely prominent in this hearing."
There were five lawyers present, three in the Sri Lankan corner, two in the ICC's. Alec Stewart, the England captain, and Graeme Hick were there to give evidence for England, Sanath Jayasuriya and Muralitharan were speaking from the Sri Lankan side and both umpires, Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan, appeared. Van der Merwe arrived seven minutes late carrying a copy of Cricket Umpiring and Scoring but, more importantly, he was accompanied by one of his legal team.
"I have no doubt that the ICC will take note of this hearing and the way it has been conducted and that this green covered book [Code of Conduct] will find a lot of amendments in the next edition," Van der Merwe said.
Offences do not come much more bang to rights than Ranatunga's. They were all captured on film in a match which descended into downright ugliness after Muralitharan was called by Emerson. Ranatunga was involved in the aftermath but, as the match grew closer later, tensions erupted. Players pushed and shoved each other and both sides were culpable.
Perhaps Van der Merwe made it difficult for himself by charging only Ranatunga when he could have collared three or four others including Stewart, who walked into Upul Chandana with his shoulder. That outraged the Sri Lankans, who were already feeling wronged. They called in the lawyers. When they heard that Emerson had been absent from his job with a stress-related condition and was withdrawn by the Australian Cricket Board from standing in further matches in the Triangular one-day series, they probably hired another one.
Van der Merwe, at first perplexed by this, postponed the hearing for 24 hours and then had to adjourn it the following day after "certain legal representations". This was the third go at administering justice. He said: "Mr Ranatunga expressed regret at the embarrassment he had caused his opponents, the public and the officials and he has been warned that his every action will be very, very closely monitored over the next 12 months."
Van der Merwe reserved his most incisive comments for the Sri Lankan and, if the captain cares about the game as much as he appears to, they will weigh on him heavily. "I would like to say that the unfortunate happening has cost Mr Ranatunga a great deal in the popularity stakes and respect is something, I told him, that both he and I will lose by this decision." At last, dignity.
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