James Lawton: Sad capitulation to mistrust and greed
Wednesday 09 January 2008
If the International Cricket Council had placed Steve Bucknor's head on a silver platter, put an apple in his mouth, and made a formal presentation to the chief mogul of rupee-laden Indian cricket, Sharad Pawar, they would have only been underlining a dispiriting point.
It is that however strenuously principle still attempts to walk in cricket, it is money that talks, relentlessly and without shame.
Some might say that the ICC has simply reacted to the reality of Bucknor's nightmare performance in the second Test at Sydney, that to keep him for the next match in Perth would have been to court another disaster in which the collapse of respect between the Australians and the Indians would tumble to a new low.
The problem is that this says more about the lack of trust in the captains and players of two wonderfully gifted Test teams than the dwindling competence of an official who has recently been shedding much of the distinction accumulated in 120 Tests. It says that what promised to be a superb exploration of some of the game's most exhilarating talent is now confirmed as an ordeal of resentment, even hate.
When Pawar first cast doubt about the Indian board's willingness to continue with the tour after the decision to ban Harbhajan Singh for three Tests for calling Andrew Symonds a monkey, the ICC faced a simple test of its powers of leadership. It had to say that, despite Bucknor's poor performance, he was an elite umpire who, while subject to error, could not be swept aside on the protests of one injured party. Where would that leave cricket, where would it place any umpire operating in the pressure of an age when technology provides an eye that, while virtually all-seeing, is of only marginal assistance at critical moments? It would leave both the game and the official at the mercy of the good faith of those who play the game and exert power over it.
When Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, yesterday announced that Bucknor would be stood down, we knew the quality of that mercy... and the judgement which sends the Indians to Perth knowing that pressure works, that money doesn't so much talk but bellow.
Of course it is complicated. Of course the Indians could point to the shameless confession of Symonds that he was utterly aware that he was out in the early stages of his match-winning century in Sydney, but these things worked themselves out and did anyone really want him to recall all the occasions decisions had gone against him?
This was in the light of a pre-match captains' agreement that an honour system would operate, one which even the Australian media not always a beacon of objectivity are suggesting that the home team violated most overtly. Astonishingly, there is apparently a public backlash against the hard- nosed attitudes of an all-conquering team, even suggestions that the ultimately competitive captain, Ricky Ponting, may have cause to review his position.
Perhaps there is some hope if a public which has gorged itself on success for so long is making the point that sometimes victory can come at too high a price; but then, if there are stirrings of conscience, how effectively can they be expressed when one aggrieved team threatens to walk away and immediately gets its way?
Pawar and his Indian colleagues were certainly doing little to conceal their delight. Said the president: "Definitely, I'm happy. We had appealed to the ICC to review the performances of the umpires in the last two matches and take appropriate action. I'm grateful the ICC has taken the decision to remove him. The Indian board is quite happy about that." It will be even happier if Harbhajan, who will be allowed to play in Perth pending an appeal, is cleared of a charge which was made to the satisfaction of the knowing old pro, match referee Mike Procter.
In the meantime, the ICC is calling in its chief referee, Ranjan Madugalle of Sri Lanka, to mediate between the teams. Speed explained: "Ranjan is a very respected figure within the game and we are bringing him in as a facilitator in an effort to prevent any ill feeling that may have been present at the Sydney Test rolling over to Perth."
Cricket doesn't need a facilitator. It needs a leader. It needs someone to look beyond the ledgers and the profits and see that there is something more important than turning a dollar or a pound in Zimbabwe or maintaining the profits of India's current tour Down Under. It needs an understanding that somewhere down the road there could be a point of revulsion which goes beyond any yearnings to see a winning team.
What can we expect of Perth? A transforming miracle worked by the facilitator? A sudden flowering of old values? Hardly, because there has been no attempt to attack the problem, no appeals to conscience, no official condemnation of behaviour which makes a fossilised joke of cricket's old claims on fair play. There has been only the now familiar routine of one compromise placed upon another; only the gratification of those incapable of seeing beyond their own and immediate interest.
The rulers of cricket had still another chance to stand their ground and say it was time for players of good heart to step forward... and for others to face up to their responsibilities. Predictably, we didn't get that. We got another greasing of the wheels.
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