The Ball-Tampering Crisis: Abject farce in urgent need of happy ending

Tawdry week of posturing, secret emails and blatant brinkmanship leaves sour taste - now Speed tries to eliminate lasting damage
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By the end of a week that was by turns stupendous and stupid, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Darrell Hair and Inzamam-ul-Haq thoroughly deserved each other. Between them, with a combination of insensitivity, crassness, demands that could not be met by any rational person, and an overwhelmingly misguided belief about their place in the scheme of things they helped further to undermine, if not entirely destroy the remaining virtues of a great game.

Put simply, both men refused to budge, viewing compromise as weakness rather than strength. Hair bookended the week by effectively accusing Pakistan of cheating and then being revealed to have asked his employers, the International Cricket Council, for a sum of $500,000 to go quietly. Between times, Inzamam did a passable impression of a temperamental diva, playing the innocent and then threatening behind the scenes that Pakistan would pull out of the one-day series against England.

All this, lest it is forgotten, was provoked by a disagreement over the condition of a cricket ball. Unless Hair's risible yet reasonable request is deemed to prejudice irrevocably his status as chief prosecution witness and the hearing of two charges against Inzamam is abandoned, it will end in some 35 witnesses being called to give evidence over at an ICC hearing over a period unlikely to be fewer than three days. But remember, as Hair said in one of his abbreviated chats with reporters, nobody died.

"We've had a bad week, make no mistake about that," said Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive yesterday with the slow, studied understatement that is his forte. "It's a spat about a cricket ball and there are processes in place by which it could have been dealt with simply. There has been a series of avoidable over-reactions. We want it resolved and fairly so that everybody is left happy."

This seemed mildly optimistic to put it at its most charitable, as did Speed's almost plaintive suggestion that he hoped a way could be found for Hair to continue as an umpire. But he repeated it several times since, as he insisted, Hair is one of the world's best umpires. "We need to let some time pass before we make a decision," he said. Something like 20 years, the cynic would suggest.

He might have been more realistic in assessing the likely enduring damage to the game. Its fabric will probably not be affected. As Speed said: "Other sports have issues like this. We've had our issues. A few years ago you were asking the same questions about corruption and there were all sorts of stories about cricket being on its knees. I hope there is no long-term damage."

But Speed seemed to provide at least an element of support for the contentious decision that Hair took to penalise Pakistan five runs on the fourth day of the Fourth Test last Sunday because he deemed they had illegally altered the condition of the ball. (It does not help particularly that the umpiring signal for awarding penalty runs involves putting the right hand on the left shoulder, making the signaller seem a like a member of a secret cult which would have half a million of anybody's money.)

"Ball tampering is a more serious issue for cricket than some people have painted it to be," Speed said. "It will go back to the ICC's cricket committee."

This does not alter the perception that the affair was mishandled from the moment Hair acted so brazenly. It does not need hindsight to know that he was following only the letter of law 42.3 and not its spirit. Whatever Speed said in his phone call to Hair later that night when frantic endeavours were being pursued to have the match resumed on Monday it should have included the phrase: "Darrell, you might be a good umpire but sometimes you're a bloody fool."

Speed was prepared to release Hair's career-terminating emails - on lawyers' advice of course - but not the exact contents of that phone conversation from Dubai. He did not ask Hair to overturn his decision that Pakistan had forfeited the match by twice refusing to come out after tea, since umpires had been in charge for 300 years and nobody wanted that to change. But he had asked if there was any way that the match might be restarted.

Listening to Speed intone this well-meaning piffle it was essential to wonder that if umpires' status has been sacrosanct for 300 years, and therefore that they are right when they are wrong, it is perhaps time for a revision of more than the ball tampering regulations. Umpires, even when they are as good as Hair is reckoned to be (and recent evidence does not offer conclusive backing for that supposition) can be forgiven the occasional cock-up over a leg-before shout.

It is when they stray into territory that is altogether more combustible they should observe due care. The chosen method on Sunday was hair-raising.

Then came Inzamam and his cohorts. For a few days they were holding to ransom the game in general and England in particular every bit as much as Hair did with his demands for a one-off payment to resign. Pakistan's captain, at best, took advantage of his position. At one point he was adamant that the ICC hearing into his conduct, which charged him both with ball tampering and bringing the game into disrepute by refusing to play, should be heard before the one-day series. He changed his mind and his mood.

Had England not managed to line up an alternative opponent he might have continued with this dubious brinkmanship. Inzamam and his team ought to know that the sympathy when Hair dropped his bombshell dissipated after they refused to take the field for the second time. It has never been recovered.

The chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Shaharyar Khan, is an accomplished man but he was disingenuous in his defence of the side. How long is a protest supposed to be and why? And if they were prepared to play at the moment Billy Doctrove became the first to remove the bails, why was their wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal reading the paper without pads?

All this will be discussed at what will be a long hearing if it gets that far. On the one hand there are serious issues, on the other Pakistan might have a case to have the charges dropped on the grounds that Hair has prejudiced himself. There is also the point that the washing machine has not been built that could cope with the dirty linen likely to be aired by 35 witnesses.

England, it would be pleasant to report, have been the innocent bystanders. They played the role to the hilt. They forcibly denied that Duncan Fletcher had been to see the match referee Mike Procter to raise the issue of the ball. But they did not deny that he was concerned. Fletcher has a reputation for speaking to umpires and referees. Some of them are getting fed up.

Pakistan finally agreed to play after Hair's stunning emails were divulged. Speed said he had no choice but to make them public and he was right. They show, for starters, that the ICC umpires' Doug Cowie initially replied that the idea had some merit. Hair wrote back to say that his offer was being revised before Speed became involved and turned him down flat. Long-term damage? Are we not, tomorrow, on with the motley?