Dominic Lawson: One set of rules, two men of honour and a clash of civilisations on the cricket pitch

It would not be the first time that diplomatic relations have been strained by the game of cricket
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"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy and disregard of all rules. In other words, it is war minus the shooting." Once again, George Orwell supplies the words which appear so prescient as a description of events now unfolding - in this case the decision of General Musharraf to invoke his country's honour in defending the actions of the Pakistan cricket team, who refused to take the field after being accused of "ball-tampering" by the Australian umpire Darrell Hair.

It would not be the first time that diplomatic relations had been strained by the game of cricket. The "Bodyline" crisis of 1932 - in which the England side developed a new method of attack designed to intimidate the Australian team - almost led to a diplomatic breakdown between the two nations, resolved only when the Australian cricket board withdrew its charge that the England side had been "unsportsmanlike". At a time when this country still set great store by the notion of honour, it was inconceivable to let such a statement stand.

Unlike us, the Pakistanis still put the notion of honour above all else - the word they have for it is izzat. The Pakistan cricket captain, Inzamam ul Haq, is visibly a man of huge dignity - it can partly be seen in the fantastic slowness with which he removes his considerable bulk from the field of play after being given out. But his izzat is also tied in with his intense religiosity - and don't forget that the literal meaning of "ul Haq" is "The Truth". It was Inzamam who as captain insisted that the whole team prayed together five times a day, and that any player interviewed on television after the day's play should give thanks to Allah, before answering the first question.

So when Darrell Hair accused Inzamam of cheating - which is what ball-tampering is - it was inevitable that the Pakistan captain would react in a dramatic manner. Indeed, when one recalls that Inzamam once jumped into a stand to deliver a thump to a spectator who shouted out that he was "a big fat potato", worse could have happened at The Oval, especially after some uncouth spectators started to boo him.

The team's coach yesterday said that he had required every member of the side to swear on oath that they had not tampered with the ball, and the fact that they had been able to do so demonstrated Umpire Hair's actions to be both unfair and unjust. The Pakistan coach knows more about cricket than I shall ever do, but even if the Pakistan side had not been ball tampering it is clear to me that Hair's actions were at no stage in breach of the Laws of Cricket. Note that: they are not called rules, but Laws - and during the course of the game the Umpire is the sole arbiter of those Laws; in effect, both Judge and jury.

Law 42. 3B, which Hair invoked, does not require the umpire to warn the players, still less to consult them, if he thinks they have been tampering with the ball to gain some advantage. If the Umpire believes that such actions took place, he is entitled, indeed required, to act immediately. Similarly, while it would have saved the England and Wales Cricket Board a great deal of money if Hair had agreed a compromise to let the game restart after the Pakistan side had refused to come on the field, the Laws of cricket are absolutely clear: "A match shall be lost by a side which, in the opinion of the umpires, refuses to play." It is not just that the Umpire's decision is final: so is his opinion.

The ex- professional cricketers who dominate commentary on the game in the newspapers and on television are, for once, united. To a man they have argued that Darrell Hair has behaved like an over-officious traffic policeman, that he lacks a subtle understanding of the way the game is played at the highest level.

One former captain of the England cricket team told me that Hair, unlike many umpires, is not himself a former professional cricketer, and if he had been, he would have known just to have had a quiet word with Inzamam during the tea interval, along the lines of "Be careful, mate, or I might have to do you lot for ball-tampering".

That might well have been the wisest course of action. But it misses the point that, just as Inzamam ul-Haq is driven by a profound sense of personal integrity, so is Darrell Hair. Only for Hair, the measure of his integrity is the strictest observation and invigilation of the Laws of Cricket. He doesn't care whether the result is a diplomatic incident, or the ECB losing hundreds of thousands of pounds, or Sky Sports wondering what the hell they are going to do with the gaping hours of television time if the game is called off. Hair, in short, sticks by the motto which you can see prominently engraved at the Old Bailey: Fiat Justicia, Ruat Caelum.

There is an alternative view of Darrell Hair. The Asian section of the BBC Test Match Special Cricket Notice Board displays numerous of expressions of it - and doubtless many more which have been censored with the stock phrase "this posting has been hidden during moderation because it broke the house rules in some way".

Their charge - and I'm trying to repeat it in a way which will not attract the blue pencil of The Independent's lawyers - is that umpire Hair has for many years shown hostility to teams whose faces are not the same colour as their flannels. They cite the fact that Hair "called" the world's greatest bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, for "chucking". They add that he wrongly gave Inzamam out in controversial circumstances during the last Test series Pakistan played against England.

Some of them even point out, most damningly of all, that Darrell Hair is Australian. That last seems a fair accusation to make, to which he has no satisfactory defence. Nevertheless, I shall attempt one: in the days when Umpires were allowed to officiate in matches involving their own country there was an agonisingly close Test in which Hair gave an Australian batsman out, allowing the West Indies to win by a single run - even though television replays suggested that the Aussie might have been hard done by. More recently, in 2003, Hair reported the captain of South Africa - who was one of 10 white players in the side - for dissent at his decisions. South Africa's opponents in that match were Pakistan.

Nevertheless I suspect that the International Cricket Council, which is a very political organisation, will find a way of speedily manoeuvring Darrel Hair into retirement. Two and half years ago, Hair left Australia to settle permanently in England. According to the Melbourne Age, Hair - who is well aware of his controversial reputation - declared at the time: "I intend to be actively involved in umpiring for the next few years, whether it be with the blessing of the ICC, or village mates in Steeple Bumpstead." Steeple Bumpstead it is, then.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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