How's that for cricket's unappealing side?

Far be it from me to query a rule that has existed for centuries but in no other gamedo the on-field officials have to be requestedto do their job

Amid the shock and outrage that have greeted the scenes of deplorabledecisions, hair-trigger tempers and shoddy sportsmanship in Sri Lanka there has been a reaction that many of us have shamefully suppressed - I refer to a deep feeling of guilt at having enjoyed it so much, even before yesterday's happy ending.

Amid the shock and outrage that have greeted the scenes of deplorabledecisions, hair-trigger tempers and shoddy sportsmanship in Sri Lanka there has been a reaction that many of us have shamefully suppressed - I refer to a deep feeling of guilt at having enjoyed it so much, even before yesterday's happy ending.

Enjoy would not be the correct word in a general sense but it is in sport because rage, indignation and frustration mingled with excitement and drama are the very essence of sporting enjoyment. The lads may not have pleased the gods of cricket but they have put on a show fit to brighten the dreariest morning back home. There's obviously nothing like a bit of needle to get them fired up. But serious questions remain; not least the use of the third umpire to adjudicate on all matters that might confuse the naked eye.

For those of us whose affection for the game is not accompanied by a vast knowledge of its finer points or the origins of its many rules and procedures, there is a further, more innocent, question that could be asked. It is: Are umpires incapable of coming to a decision without their senses being assaulted by the transformation of cricketers into shrieking acrobats? The appeal appears to be as old as the game itself and is enshrined in its laws which say "the umpires shall not give a batsman out unless appealed to by the other side".

Why this should be is not easily answered even by students of cricket. One theory is that it dates back to when there were just two stumps and the ball could pass between them. Far be it for me to query a rule that has existed for centuries but in no other game do the on-field officials have to be requested to do their job and if the Test series in Sri Lanka suggested nothing else it was that appealing may now have reached its saturation point.

Umpires have long been subjected to such a variation of appeals that they may have learnt to differentiate between the speculative and the sincere request but their repetitive nature and the inevitable scorn that greets a refusal must have an influence, however subliminally.

We haven't yet reached the time when a bowler is chosen partly for the strength and originality of his appeal routine but anyone with a weak larynx and an inability to contort his body into a mid-air beseechment is likely to be at a disadvantage.

The cry of "How's that?" is a part of the game that traditionalists would sorely miss but the spirit that has accompanied it through the ages has all but disappeared. Itnow needs to be replaced with asort of don't-ring-us-we'll-ring-youarrangement.

Perhaps the fielding side could pre-book a bulk appeal before the innings starts. Perhaps the onus could be shifted to the batsman and every time the ball hits his pad he could look at the umpire to ask: "How am I?" But the electronic age has reached the stage when the game must take advantage of the technology that makes every armchair viewer a better judge than the man in the middle.

We may even reach the stage when the umpire is linked direct to the video umpire during play and whenever there's a borderlineleg before or caught-behind decision he could whisper into hismicrophone: "How's that?"

---

The English rugby union were arrogant enough when they didn't have a good international team. Now that they have one, they're impossible.

They managed last week to infuriate nearly everyone in sight, most notably their clubs. But that's nothing new, because the RFU's attitude has stationed the club owners permanently on the edge of revolt.

What was exceptional last week was that they managed to goad them into the usual mouth-foaming while simultaneously getting right up the noses of their colleagues in the Six Nations. England's protests about the rearranged dates for matches postponed by the foot-and-mouth outbreak was understandable because everyone is bewild- ered by that problem. What was unnecessary and untimely was the trumpeting of their ambitions to rule the universe by the time the 2007 World Cup comes around, pausing only to collect four Grand Slams on the way.

Their blueprint for world domination over the next eight years ignores two factors - first, that previous delusions of superiority in recent years have been followed swiftly by the collection of enough egg on their face to make an omelette as big as Twickenham and, secondly, that the ownership, in the contractual sense, of the players charged with this task is still under some dispute.

Besides, it is neither sensible nor fair to reward a blossoming team by sticking a millstone of such high expectation around their necks, if not somewhere else less convenient.

Even that, however, was not the limit of their haughty view of matters. They are also advocating the introduction of promotion and relegation to the Six Nations, a move that would involve setting up a second division of teams such as Spain, Romania, Georgia, Portugal and the Netherlands.

The RFU's management board chairman, Brian Baister, invited us to imagine what sort of competition it would be if attention was focused on the battles at the bottom as well as the top. That's easy; the Six Nations would become a bloody disaster.

The difficulties that the newcomers Italy are facing in adjusting to the tournament would hardly be helped by placing a trap-door beneath their feet. And the exposure to 100-point beatings would not do much for the promoted emerging nation, either.

And what if it was one of the established countries that found themselves relegated? Can you imagine what devastation a season out of the Six Nations would cause in Wales, Scotland or Ireland? They would lose untold millions in revenue and be unable to subsidise domestic competition to a satisfactory standard.

Over the course of 10 or 15 years all three, perhaps even France too, could spend at least one year in the wilderness and the eventual effect on the championship could be catastrophic. Good luck to England in their quest to build a rugbyteam fit to rule the world. Domination by extermination, however, is a different matter altogether.

---

Imagine the panic at the headquarters of Virgin Trains when the venues for the FA Cup semi-finals were announced last week: "Oh, my God - 60,000 potential customers want to travel from London to Manchester on a Sunday morning, what can we do?" Well, they could do what they normally do. Take them somewhere else; or drop them off half-way; or even get them there after the kick-off.

What they did do is to have the nerve to complain to the Football Association for daring to inflict so many paying passengers on them. They've only one train for that route on that morning and it is fully booked.

It wasn't many years ago that trains were the main form of transport for football fans. Soccer Specials used to whizz all over the place. Some were trashed en route but there must have been a good profit in those packed rattlers.

Arsenal and Spurs, the clubs concerned, are making sterling efforts to ease the passage of their fans to Old Trafford for the 1.30pm kick-off on 8 April, but they need Virgin to make a much bigger effort to justify their existence as a public service.

Rail privatisation has done nothing for the sports traveller. The Paddington-Cardiff service has been a disgrace for rugby fans, as it was for Liverpool and Birmingham supporters going to theMillennium Stadium for the Worthington Cup final last month. It is time for the Minister of Transport, John Prescott, to take an interest - or doesn't the movement of loyal subjects around the country come under his jurisdiction?

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