Mark Steel: The buffoons are losing their grip

Next time England are in Pakistan they will be told the umpire is Abu Hamza
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The Independent Online

There's the difference between cricket and football. When there's a row in cricket it's because someone's accused of adjusting a ball in a way that exploits the finer points of the laws of physics. In football it's when a player stamps on an opponent's nuts.

And cricket follows this up with a wonderful debate about what you can legitimately apply to the ball; sweat but not sun cream, saliva but not sugary saliva and so on. The next argument will come when a player is deliberately sick on the ball, to help it turn out of the rough.

Then an official will announce: "According to law 325.8, a bowler 'May vomit on one or more sections of the surface of the ball, providing at least 60 per cent of the regurgitation includes recently consumed polyunsaturates. If the spew is deemed by the umpires to be greater in fat content than that figure, a no-ball shall be called and the offending bowler duly warned.'"

As this argument threatens to involve governments, people who don't follow cricket must wonder how bad this cheating was. They must imagine someone bowled a surface-to-air missile. Or a woodpecker, that instinctively flew to the stumps, pecked them, knocking the bails off, meaning the batsman was technically bowled out.

But the key to understanding this is to realise it's not mainly about cricket. For many years English cricket was ruled by figures who were almost caricatures of the Empire, such as the chairman of selectors, who was a founding member of the far-right Freedom Association. Or the unfeasibly bumptious bulbous Lieutenant-Colonel Stephenson, who became secretary of the leading body, the MCC, and ended up in court for refusing to allow women to become members. Or the countless leading figures who worked tirelessly to try and overturn the boycott of apartheid South Africa.

Many Pakistanis felt this lot treated them as inferior subjects of the Empire, but then they won the World Cup and beat England in a Test series, partly because their fast bowlers developed the "reverse swing". The press and cricket establishment declared them "cheats," as this style of bowling was only possible, apparently, because they'd been illegally damaging the ball.

Typical was David Frith, editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, who wrote that Pakistani cricketers were "volatile" because "nature irresistibly asserts itself". More directly, members of the crowd at Headingley threw a pig's head at the Pakistani supporters.

In recent years these buffoons have lost their grip, which partly accounts for England's re-emergence in cricket, of which the high point was beating Australia last year. Another reason for England's victory was that the bowlers, especially Simon Jones, mastered the art of the reverse swing. Strangely, no one declared this to be cheating, but perhaps this was because instead of gouging away with grubby Pakistani tools, Jones damaged the ball with suitably English objects, such as a crustless egg and cress sandwich, or a light summer breeze.

But then on Sunday, the Pakistanis bowled reverse swing, so it was cheating again - despite the fact that 26 cameras were pointing at the play and none of them picked up any evidence of scratching the ball.

Maybe they've trained teams of moles with sharp claws to nip out from under the ground and give the seam a quick tug. Perhaps a close look at the footage will reveal evidence of Pakistani fielders shouting at the moles where to pop up, occasionally becoming frustrated and yelling: "I said square leg; that's mid-wicket, you idiot!"

The Pakistanis tried to pre-empt this problem by suggesting that anyone other than Darrell Hair should be chosen as an umpire, as they'd found him to be abrasive before. So, almost as if it was a deliberate wind-up, the Cricket Council appointed Hair. Maybe there's a directive to appoint the most unsuitable person anyone can think of, and next time England are in Pakistan they'll be told the umpire is Abu Hamza. After one ball Steve Harmison will be told he is the living fuel of the burning wrath that spews forth from the infidels, which means Pakistan will be awarded five penalty runs.

All four ex-England captains who make up the commentary team were sympathetic to Inzamam, and Mike Atherton said Hair behaved "like a traffic warden". Hair awarded the penalty, which declared Pakistan to be cheats, with the air of a lowly official, as if he was snarling: "It doesn't matter that there's no evidence or footage or witnesses, Mr Haq, maybe the tampering was not part of the physical world but existed in a spiritual plain the cameras can't detect."

So, the reaction of Inzamam and of the Pakistani population was driven not just by cricket but by history. The old establishment is on the defensive. And at the Headingley Test, the England supporters in the Western Stand, notorious for behaviour such as the pig's head incident, cheered the Sikh Monty Panesaar as a hero. The stupendous Ashes Series brought a new audience to the game. So the authorities will probably do all they can to be as pompous as possible - in an effort to turn all the new people off cricket again.

By the time they've finished their hearing they'll probably decide that, from now on, all Pakistanis have to go through a security check, in which every item is removed from their pockets, before taking the field; and that Inzamam-ul-Haq must be detained for 90 days while the umpires carry out their inquiry.

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