Vicious Sydney: cricket reduced to ashes again in heat of battle

The unacceptable state of the Test series Down Under means a system of player referrals has become essential. By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

Maybe it needed this. The unappetising events of Sydney in 2008 might prove to be a turning point in the affairs of cricketing men.

The Second Test between Australia and India culminated in a cataclysm that was waiting to happen, but at least it stopped at the hurling of a few epithets. It could have been worse, much worse. With sense and application, neither exactly assured, the sight of somebody clattering an opponent over the head with a bat might now be averted.

There remain some prickly issues outstanding – the charges against Harbhajan Singh and Brad Hogg for alleged offences under the Code of Conduct, the removal of the umpire Steve Bucknor from the Third Test – but it is possible to predict that out of the unseemly shambles will emerge a new spirit. What is it with spinners, incidentally?

This new way will be enshrined – it will have to be, because there is no earthly good in relying on human behaviour alone – in the use of a player referral system in all international matches. The International Cricket Council have already promoted the idea once; their board rejected the advice of their cricket committee.

After the shambles of Sydney it is the only course. It willneed goodwill and sensible application by all, but the alternative appears to be anarchy and an ungovernable game.

"The television scrutiny of umpires has made it as close to an impossible job as any," said David Richardson, cricket general manager of the world governing body. "I don't buy the idea that standards have dropped."

"We will look at a player challenge system again in May. Personally I believe it is the only way we can use technology. It is a case of saying to the players that if they think a mistake has been made they can either ask the umpire to check with the TV umpire and then reverse his decision or it could simply be referred. I like the idea of consultation."

MCC are also backing player referrals. While the club might no longer rule all that they survey, their voice now is more invaluable. They have established a representative World Cricket Committee and are a truly independent voice that the ICC would be daft to ignore. "It would be to the benefit of everybody in the game and would probably lead to an increase in players walking," said the MCC chief executive, Keith Bradshaw.

The ICC may also like tore-examine the rhyme and reason of match referees. Any time a ref makes a contentious judgement, teams resort to m'learned friends at a formal, costly hearing, as in Harbhajan's appeal, in which the New Zealand High Court judge John Hansen will adjudicate, possibly next week. Common sense at last prevailed yesterday when India made clear that whichever way Harbhajan's appeal goes, they will continue with the tour. Rejoice for that.

Of course it is sad that it has come to this, but anybody who saw the match at the SCG would understand. It was played in a perpetually aggressive manner, largely if not solely engendered by an Australian side determined to notch up a record-equalling 16th successive victory. It is hardly surprising that both Bucknor and his English colleague, Mark Benson, were somewhat rattled in such a febrile atmosphere.

The ICC can be blamed for many things, though they are only as powerful as their member nations allow. Which, most of the time, amounts to not very. But the ICC were not swearing willy-nilly and going through a repertoire of macho posturing. If Harbhajan referred to Andrew Symonds as a monkey then he was wrong, but hardly more wrong than Hogg purportedly describing Anil Kumble and Mahendra Singh Dhoni as bastards.

Richardson said: "We need to ensure that the reaction to mistakes, even if they are costly and affect the result of the game, is not hysterical, as sometimes it's turning out to be. Both South Africa and to some extent Australia have cleaned up their act lately. I do think, however, there is a slight problem in that there is a cultural divide as far as the attitude to sledging and to language is concerned. That is probably at its widest when Australia play West Indies or India. I hate to say it, but swear words in Australia are a common part of the language and may not be regarded as insulting, but that is not the case elsewhere. I think we need to do some work in addressing the cultural difference."

Some work indeed may be required. If the assessment of Cricket Australia's chief executive, James Sutherland, is any yardstick, Australia seem not to get it. After the SCG, he said Australia had always played the game in tough, uncompromising ways. "Test cricket is what is being played here," he said. "It's not tiddlywinks." Well, thanks. But cricket is still only a game.

The reputation of Ricky Ponting (left), Australia's magnificent captain, has been tarnished forever and that of goody-two-shoes wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist is hardly untouched. They are hoist by their own petard.

Ponting has been on a crusade since he took over the captaincy, adamant that his team would play it hard but fair. But he wants to play it hard but fair on his terms. He takes the position seriously all right, and a measure of this is the fact that his wife is often referred to as the First Lady.

But it was Ponting who, under the terms that the series was to be played, indicated to umpire Benson that Sourav Ganguly was out, caught at slip by Michael Clarke, in India's excruciating second innings. Replays quickly showed that the ball touched the ground. It may be hard to take Ponting's word in future. He was desperate to win, and with all the resources at his disposal he still did not consider them enough.

Gilchrist pontificates about the need for decency and honesty and has frequently shown it. But when Rahul Dravid, after two-and-a-half hours' resistance, was given out caught behind, the one man on the field who could be sure that Dravid didn't touch it was Gilchrist. In future he should keep his mouth firmly shut on matters of propriety.

There has been robust reaction on both sides. Ponting's head has been demanded for leading a pack of wild dogs and India have acted as if a whole nation has been traduced. They are delicate waters where the insult allegedly levelled at Symonds is concerned, but as Sutherland said, emotions can bubble over and "some of the words are not acceptable in genteel company".

The status of umpiring has diminished. Bucknor's removal from the Perth match was hard to support, since it followed India's objection to him – he might have preferred to have his decisions overturned. Under the Test regulations that all nations subscribe to, this is not permissible but the ICC permitted it.

Yet Richardson put a worthy human gloss on it. "I think the unprecedented furore created put [Bucknor] in an impossible position. The first decision he gave in Perth that was remotely against the Indians would have been a red rag to a bull. It wasn't in his best interests."

Umpires on the elite list are not as overworked as might be supposed. The busiest last year was Rudi Koertzen, who stood in eight Tests and 24 one-day internationals. These days they earn $125-175,000 (£64-89,500) a year, overdue monetary recognition for what they have to put up with. After Sydney 2008 they may not have to put up with much of it for much longer.

Australia and India will lock swords again on Wednesday at 2.30am on Sky Sports 1