Cricket at mercy of a rich mistress

Third Ashes Test: Game in danger of being submerged in ridicule as all-seeing eye of television exposes flawed dismissals of England batsmen
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The Independent Online

Losing one potential match-winner without legal reason can be an unavoidable accident, losing two, as this briefly beautifully poised Third Test did yesterday when Marcus Trescothick fell to a no-ball delivered by Shane Warne, is undoubtedly careless.

But the bigger problem is that such mishaps, which tend to be received with an official shrug even when they are as potentially calamitous to one of the sides as Thursday's second-ball dismissal of the England captain Michael Atherton, are accumulating so quickly now that the entire game is in danger of being submerged in ridicule.

Such a possibility was only intensified last night when Atherton, batting with magnificent defiance, was eventually ruled by umpire Srinivas Venkataraghavan to have snicked a ball from Warne into the gloves of wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. The omnipotent television snickometer said Venkat had got it wrong. It was not as though the spinmaster was in need of any help, as he proved with the ravaging impact of claiming four English wickets for 11 runs in 36 balls.

Cricket's plight is that of a man of modest means consumed by the wiles of a rich and demanding mistress. Television funds the game but is not exactly sparing in its demands. Before both Atherton, twice, and Trescothick had returned to the pavilion the truth, revealed in relentless technological detail, was out for the most casual television viewer. Both men should have been going nowhere but further into the heart of the battle.

Sixteen years ago, when the Ashes-swaying dismissal of the Australian batsman Wayne Phillips created a firestorm of controversy which still has embers today, the issue was relatively straightforward. Did the ball touch the ground on its way from Phillips' bat to David Gower's hands via the body of Allan Lamb? David Constant, who was, ironically enough, the third umpire yesterday required to rule on Trescothick's fate, decided that it did not. Nor did it yesterday, Constant could see clearly, when the batsman's shot bounced up of the shin of square leg Matthew Hayden and was gathered up by the alert Gilchrist.

In cricket's old world there would not have been a ghost of a problem beyond the ill luck of Trescothick, who had again taken the fight to the Australians in an opening stand of 53 with his captain and fellow victim Atherton. The trouble was that television, at first tentatively, then conclusively, showed that the ball which dismissed Trescothick was a no-ball. Constant, though, would have had no power to intervene had the television evidence been as blindingly emphatic as it was on several occasions when Pakistan swept England to a confidence-eroding defeat in the second Test at Old Trafford earlier this summer.

What it means is that cricket is locked into a problem that will never be solved piecemeal. It cannot divorce itself from the demands of television and its Hawk-Eye technology, its insatiable desire for fresh gimmickry, so the drive must be for compatibility, for some logical resolution of the lunacy of providing the world and its dog with an instant explanation of the game's most intricate and vital moments while the umpires in the middle ­ and in the stands ­ are obliged to operate with at least half a blindfold.

Against the drama that continued to unfold here between the showers yesterday the debate may seem arid, but it is vital to the irrigation of any game, and the stakes are of course multiplied dramatically here as England fight to win back their pride against their oldest and most formidable enemy. Atherton is, as so often down the years, the cornerstone of England's batting and for him to go second ball when he was, as the first glance of the re-run told us, plainly not out, was a shocking scar on the balance of the game. His fate last night only compounded the injury he expressed with mute insolence on another forlorn return to the pavilion.

Would England have made of a fight on that first day, done better than the paltry 185, if Atherton had had the chance to dig in? Before the age of television's all-seeing eye, the issue would not have come into such clear and disruptive focus. Now, it is a recrimination waiting to happen.

In the taut gloaming last night Atherton faced one of the great challenges of his career after Mark Butcher quickly followed Trescothick to the pavilion. For television it was just about perfection as Atherton's nemesis Glenn McGrath, England's destroyer on the first day, wheeled in, technically flawless and sending off, inevitably, waves of menace, and at the other end Mark Ramprakash, so desperate to re-invent himself as an authentic Test batsman, squared up to a Brett Lee made cocky by the superb dismissal of Butcher.

Here was sporting conflict of a very high level indeed, and wonderful for the camera. Once McGrath came close to cutting Ramprakash in two, and the lingering close-ups of the batsman seemed almost an intrusion into a private ordeal.

Fine for television, and fine for cricket, up to a point which needs to be resolved. If you take the best of a game you are surely obliged to help tidy up the rest, and at the moment the game and its mistress surely need to sit down and discuss the rest of their lives.The burden is on the game, and that it is a heavy one was proved all over again when Lee was called for a no-ball the moment he appeared to have lured Ramprakash into a snick into the gloves of Gilchrist. Almost instantly, TV showed that umpire John Hampshire had been right. Soon enough, however, Ramprakash had destroyed himself with a rash charge down the wicket at Warne, a disaster compounded within minutes by a similar rush of blood to Alec Stewart's head.

Back in the pavilion, though, Ramprakash and Stewart had one comfort which Atherton and Trescothick might have envied. They had at least died legally, and by their own hands.

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