Cricket: Woolmer in radio controversy

Hi-tech South Africans have suffered a communication breakdown.
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The Independent Online
UNSETTLED BY the Indians at Hove yesterday, South Africa ended the day unplugged by the authorities as well. Overall, it was not an especially good day for the pre-tournament favourites, whose bowling attack bent under the assault by the Indian batsmen and whose hi-tech tendency was quickly curtailed by the International Cricket Council.

Under Bob Woolmer, their coach, the South Africans have been at the forefront of cricketing innovation, but their experiment with an on-field communication system, through which Woolmer could be linked to his captain Hansie Cronje and leading fast bowler Allan Donald, was ruled out by the ICC after a complaint by the Indian management.

At the first drinks interval in yesterday's group match, Cronje and Donald were asked by match referee, Talat Ali, after consultation with the ICC, to remove the pounds 800 earpieces, and the pounds 5,000 transmitter through which Woolmer was issuing his instructions fell silent.

The issue is bound to create further debate, however. There are no specific rules in cricket relating to on-field coaching, and the South Africans themselves were at pains to point out that they had done nothing underhand.

"The world of cricket should take a step back and have a look at it before banning it," Ali Bacher, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa said. "It might take the wrong ingredients out of the game. Games are won by astute captains and we would not want a whole committee of experts to be dictating to the captain, the batsman or the bowler what he should be doing on the field. But we should stimulate some debate about the subject."

Communication between dressing-room and field has generally been carried out over a change of batting gloves or a glass of water. But 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 their 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," Bacher added. "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.

The reason for the ban had more to do with protocol than logic. According to the ICC, who issued a statement in mid-afternoon: "As soon as it was discovered that Hansie Cronje was wearing an earpiece he was asked by the referee to remove it," the statement read. "He had not sought permission to use it from the ICC. The World Cup is not the event in which 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," he said. Quite how that would be monitored is one of many points that the ICC has 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.

The South Africans were more distracted by the self-confidence of the Indians than the controversy over their one-to-ones back to the dressing- room. By the end of the Indian innings, it was probably just as well all radio waves had been silenced. The only communication needed at that point was an SOS.

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