The great conceit about cricket is that with its elaborate rituals, crisp white clothing, traditions such as the tea interval, the classic English public school honour code, and penalties for quaint notions such as “bringing the sport to disrepute,” it has acquired an exalted status, a breed apart from other sports.
The abiding idea is that cricket is a gentleman’s game. The admonition—it’s not cricket—resonates beyond the sport to describe an action that’s not fair. These two ideas give legitimacy to the mantra that an umpire’s decision is always final.
Not anymore. Now that the last ball has been bowled in the dramatic India-Australia series, which came close to being called off, what will be remembered in the end is not the silly controversy over whether Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symonds a monkey or whether Brad Hogg called Anil Kumble a bastard, and whether Indians are racists or not (some are), or whether they worship monkeys (some do), or whether Indians opposed apartheid (many did), or whether Symonds should have taken offence (you get what you give), or whether “bastard” is an affectionate term (in some cultures) or a grave insult (in other cultures).
More remarkable was the Indian success in getting Steve Bucknor removed as the umpire for the Perth Test. Many purists bristled at that unprecedented removal, even if they agreed that Bucknor had been particularly inept in Sydney, because the Indian protest challenged the sacrosanct status of an umpire. They blamed the authorities for caving in to India, which controls the game’s purse.
But umpires’ decisions have always been questioned; to argue that the decision is final is based on the myth about the umpire’s infallibility. The players have never bought that line wholly: not by Inzamam-ul-Haq, who found Darrell Hair’s decision to award the Oval Test last year to England unjust and high-handed; nor by Mike Gatting, who jabbed his fingers at Shakoor Rana; nor by Sunil Gavaskar, who chose to walk out with Chetan Chauhan during an earlier Australia series after he was given out wrongly in a Test that India later went on to win; nor by Gavaskar again, who chided David Constant for his “constant” support for England in the 1970s; nor by Bill Lawry, who walked up to Shambhu Pan and Judah Reuben, with his bat on his shoulders, at Eden Gardens in 1969; nor by Ray Illingworth, who could not trust Lou Rowan’s eye-sight when he no-balled John Snow in 1971; not, all the way back by the inimitable W.G. Grace, who scolded an umpire who gave him out, by saying the spectators had paid good money and come all the way to the ground to watch Grace bat, not to see him umpire. Few cricketers placed umpires on a pedestal; what they’d say, charitably, is that umpiring decisions even out in the end.
Technology and money are changing the equation, increasing stakes and allowing second-guessing. If in the past, spectators had to make do with conjectures, gossip in reports filed by sports journalists, or deciphering the gestures of players unhappy with decisions, television now intrudes, magnifying and replaying every incident, with HawkEye adding salt to the umpire’s wounds by unerringly tipping the bails off after a vociferous leg-before-wicket appeal: woe to the umpire who remains unmoved, infuriating the jingoists at home, still in their pyjamas, who think they know more about right and wrong, while watching the match from their sofas. From the impeccable final arbitrator, umpires have become charlatans.
To that, add blatant partisanship and human errors, and the umpire’s position has been severely undermined, and his decision is no longer final. So, when India protested against Bucknor’s continuance, it marked the culmination of a long series of events: To avoid the problem of bias, the authorities had already accepted neutral umpires, but only recently, and that appointment, in itself, undermined the game’s ethos because it accepted the idea that umpires had their frailties.
If the idea of the umpire as the wise man appears anachronistic, it is because many other notions that governed cricket are also changing.
The game is becoming more democratic at every level: In England, the West Indies, and elsewhere, cricketers from ethnic minorities are increasingly becoming part of the national team, and in India, cricketers from Mumbai, Karnataka and Delhi don’t believe it is their God-given right to be in the national team. Globally, some 70% of the game’s revenues now come from India, which calls the shots. And the sport’s headquarters has moved from the sylvan Lords to the sun-baked but air-conditioned Dubai. Tax savings is one reason, proximity to India is another.
India has flexed its arms: Bucknor is not the first official to suffer. Mike Procter, whose verdict in the Harbhajan case now looks increasingly shaky, may be the next victim. A few years ago in South Africa, India had challenged Mike Denness’ ruling against its cricketers and played a match against South Africa in defiance of the authorities. And now, India has signalled it may not even abide by the appeal panel’s verdict in the Harbhajan case.
Clearly, cricket was never just a meadow game with a fair name, played among gentlemen and amateurs. Not in the hot maidans of India. It is a tough sport, with millions of dollars riding on it. The stakes are too high. How can a poor umpire’s decision be final?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org