James Lawton: Arrogant tourists' refusal to embrace technology was nothing short of sabotage
Saturday 23 July 2011
If India had been an omelette rather than the world's No 1 cricket nation – at least for a few more weeks – they would surely have been sent straight back to the kitchen in the first desultory, rain-smeared action of the 2,000th Test match at Lord's.
Critically undercooked in the field and at the bowling crease, they were so much less than what they might have been. However, their greatest disservice to the game they have so often adorned so brilliantly came before their captain M S Dhoni won the toss and promptly backed away from the challenge of pitting such batting titans as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman against the swing potential of Jimmy Anderson and Co.
Right or wrong, Dhoni made a strategic decision. What India did, at the insistent advocacy of their captain, when arguing successfully against lbw verdicts under the Decision Review System, was nothing less than sabotage.
It would have been bad enough if Dhoni's team had not so recently hastened the retirement of experienced Australian umpire Daryl Harper with a distasteful, though unfortunately not unprecedented, attack on official credibility following some debatable decisions in a Test match against the West Indians.
That was a bullying performance which, ironically enough, perfectly illustrated the most important benefit of cricket's wider willingness to embrace technology.
The Indians say that the predictive capacity of Hawk-Eye is less than infallible and, scientifically and practically, they may have a point. But then when you consider the weight of probabilities – and the certainty that without DRS cricket will inevitably see the return of the vice that so routinely dragged it into the sports gutter – the overwhelming reaction must be anger.
Anger that a team which in the past has inflicted some of the most outrageous pressure on match officials – notably when Jamaica's Steve Bucknor was forced out of the 2008 series in Australia following the controversy of Harbhajan Singh's alleged racist remark to Andrew Symonds – has derailed a system which, while less than completely perfect, wiped away at the flick of a button some of cricket's worst ills.
It was certainly one small blessing that, when Zaheer Khan was given the lbw against Alastair Cook on the first day at Lord's, it was a finely calculated but correct decision.
Otherwise cue pressure on match officials, charges of bias and lament that if Hawk-Eye has a small margin of error in it, it is infinitely less than that of even the most accomplished and nerveless umpires. Before technology, there was a contagion of cheap and relentlessly cynical appealing.
It was the open sore of cricket, the permanent assault on its old claim to be a game of manners and ultimate sportsmanship. That may always have been a myth, and certainly the great W G Grace did his best to dismantle it, but there has been no questions about the uplifting consequences of DRS.
The new, swift arbitration succeeded in all but a dismissal of the claim that inevitably it undermined the authority of match officials. But what kind of authority is it that can be routinely exposed by the television camera? Bucknor and Harper, even they might agree, were capable of mistakes – huge, match-changing ones – and would they and their supporters really argue that some notional dignity is more important than the need to get the big decisions right as often as possible?
Beyond this basic argument is the disturbing impression of the power of Indian cricket to inflict its will on every issue, every situation.
If Dhoni had been speaking of an errant hotel porter in the West Indies instead of an umpire he might have been criticised for overweening arrogance. Dhoni said: "If the correct decisions had been made the game would have finished much earlier and I would have been in the hotel by now."
Maybe he would have had someone running his bath, which at least would have given him a little more undisturbed time to consider the truth that he had just happened to overlook. The all-conquering Indians had been delayed by what they believed to be human error – the problem which DRS has so largely, so brilliantly, overcome.
The Indian board claims that it has always "expressed a willingness to embrace technology for the good of the game". Yet no one is in doubt that from its rupee-pile of influence it set the ground rules for the current series.
In all the debate over the future of Test cricket, whether it has the ability to retain the interest, even the love, of a majority of cricket fans, there should be one fundamental position. It is that every decision should be about shaping the future of a living, endlessly engaging force, rather than preserving some of the worst of its past. In the latter category there is doubt about the malevolent role of those who, without a shred of conscience, have sought to apply maximum pressure to the men in the white coats. For a little while such perversion of working justice was not merely checked but put into reverse.
You could see it in the dwindling of a bowler's belief that he had the right to pursue every faint possibility that an umpire might be proved wrong. You could see it in the pensive expressions of captains anxious to hang on to their ability to challenge those decisions which were plainly outrageous.
Whatever the Indians achieve in the next few days, nothing could exceed the value of a touch of humility – and competitive decency – in this matter so crucial to the game which in so many ways they have superbly enhanced.
Williams should realise his place in sport and in Tiger's universe
Whatever you think of the behaviour that brought Tiger Woods down from one of the highest pedestals professional sport has ever known, it is surely not so easy to reach for the tear bucket on behalf of his sacked caddie Steve Williams.
The task might have been somewhat easier if Williams had not for so long rejoiced in his extraordinary status as one of the best-paid, if not the best, "sportsmen" of high-achieving New Zealand.
No one would dispute the value of a top-class caddie. The best of them work on a lot more than mere yardage and club selection. They monitor the spirits, sometimes even the souls, of their bosses. Williams has the bank balance and the accumulated prestige of being associated with 13 major title wins to prove it. Yet when he says, "Through time I hope he [Tiger] can gain my respect back," you wonder quite how accurately he has identified his own place in the universe.
Woods has an immense amount of work to do – and most demandingly, perhaps, in the matter of rebuilding belief in himself and whatever values have survived the maelstrom of his public disgrace.
Williams protests that his name should have been cleared from the scandal and that he has wasted two years of his life. In the league table of human suffering, some may feel that the former king of the caddie-shack has not quite made the cut.
Rooney's natural gifts are more sublime than ridiculous
You could almost hear the hoots of derision even as Wayne Rooney said it.
"I hope I can get to Messi's level," he declared. At 25, he plainly has much to do but the feeling here is that across-the-board ridicule is almost entirely inappropriate.
Rooney has allowed himself grievous distraction. He was a monumental disappointment at last year's World Cup and took a desperately long time to make a significant impact on Manchester United's latest title win.
None of that should deflect us from the reality that he remains, by some distance, England's most gifted player. When he was a 17-year-old, judges of talent as acute as Arsène Wenger and John Giles rushed on to the record with the view that he was one of the most talented and naturally intuitive players they had ever seen.
This should be remembered before any rush to sneer that Rooney is building Spanish castles in the sky. Better to hope that he is indeed capable of reminding us more regularly of why he caused such a fuss in the first place.
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