Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Most Discussable Match

It was an amazing match, wasn't it? As in, the cricket at times was stunning. WHAT an innings by Laxman! The first 70 runs or so were straight out of batting heaven. If one could forget all the controversies etc, that would've been the single most persistent memory for me from this match. But then, we can't really forget all the controversies. And that, more than anything else, is what makes this such an amazing match. So many different issues arose through the match and after it that it is impossible to think of any single match, or series, that even comes close for "the most discussable match" award that I am hereby awarding to this match. As I see it, a lot of people are just messing the situation up by mixing many different issues together (and then there are others who don't care about issues as long as they get to burn a few effigies!). First and foremost, I think people are just going way overboard in their criticism of the australian team and Ponting. I don't think they did much wrong on the field (except on a few occassions that I'm going to write about). Or at least not much that was more wrong that most teams do anyway, or that aussies have usually been doing for a long time anyway. Not to say that either of these things make them correct (appealing when you know batsman is not-out, sledging etc), but to turn the world upside down about these things after losing a match just doesn't sound all that right to me. These ARE things that should be done away with, but that issue should be sorted out independently and not necessarily in the context of this match.

In my opinion, the events that were most worrying were:

1) The Bhajji judgement. And all I am talking about is the judgement. Not the reporting by Ponting. I am completely willing to believe Ponting when he says that it wasn't a matter of choosing to report or not. It has been made completely clear to every international captain that any incident that might be related to racist behavior should be immediately reported. It does NOT matter whether Ponting actually heard the words themselves, (and as far as I know he hasn't lied about it. He says he didn't hear anything and was just reporting, and that is fine by me). It does NOT matter whether he knew about Bhajji's intentions. If Symonds tells him that Bhajji's words had racist overtones, the only thing Ponting can do is to report it as a possible racism-related incident. His own opinion of what kind of chatter should or should-not remain on the cricket field is completely irrelevant as soon as the issue of possible racist-behavior arises. It is another matter altogether whether there should be such a huge difference between ICC guidelines about various genres of "insults". Tim de Lisle has an article on cricinfo that talks about this. I don't understand why anyone should dictate what ought to be considered offensive for anyone else and to what degree. I might feel offended at being called by my last name and - however unbelievable you might find that - it doesn't mean I am not entitled to feel so. And once I let you know about it, it doesn't matter what you believe, your using my last name again when you could avoid it is just as big an offense as me insulting your parents might be to you. Which is why all the people who are writing about how "monkey" is not a racist term when used by an indian are missing the point. Once Harbhajan has been clearly told that Symonds, for whatever reason, considers that term to be racist, he really shouldn't call him that. And if he (or Tendulkar) told Proctor that he DID use that word (even if they believe that he didn't mean anything racist by it), then the 3-match ban is perfectly fine. Or if Proctor has a recording which proves Bhajji said it.

What is unbelievable is that Proctor can just say "I did not judge on one person's word against other's.... I was sure beyond reasonable doubt that he said it and meant to use it as racist abuse... In my opinion only one of the groups was telling the truth" and pass that on as a fair judgement. Er, how does one decide which group was telling the truth when all he has to go on is their words? Majority vote? between a fielding team and two batsmen of the other team? Gimme a break! How do these match-referee hearings work anyway? What does the rulebook say? That the referee can use his "gut-feeling" in handing out judgements. Is there any place he has to record the evidence and the reason for his judgement?

If the rulebook that all the boards have already agreed to follow assumes that the match-referees can use their own subjective judgement in arriving at decisions then no one should have a problem with this judgement. If we feel that Proctor's opinion is incorrect, we should just go ahead and appeal against it and go as far as we legally can. Drag ICC to court if that is possible, if you think there really wasn't sufficient evidence to brand Bhajji racist. And let ICC know that we do not consider Proctor qualified enough to be a match referee in the future because we do not agree with his subjective judgements. No offense, mind you, we just do not think we want someone with a different set of values to be sitting in a chair where he does not have to give objective reasons for arriving at a judgement. Not someone who considers "I know racism when I see it. I have grown up with it around me" to be a fair reason to condemn someone. And again, I do NOT wish to say that Proctor is willingly being biased against Indians. He might be doing EXACTLY the right thing according to his opinion, but correct intention is not good enough for someone to sit in judgement of other people if those people believe that he/she might not correctly understand some of the issues under consideration. And I DO believe that Proctor probably does not understand us all that well.

Another thing that I find difficult to believe is that during his 4-hour (or was it 8?) long hearing process, he did not find out what exactly did Symonds say to Bhajji that presumably enticed Bhajji into saying something in return. It was hilarious to read that Symonds casually said something to the effect of "Bhajji patted Ponting's backside and I thought - Hold on! That's not on! - and I believe in sticking up for my teammates, so I went and let Bhajji know exactly what I thought about it." How the hell did Symonds get away with THIS!! What was Proctor thinking? It would sound a little more reasonable to me (only a little, given the apparent lack to evidence for the racist charge) had Symonds been at least fined for his action and Bhajji handed a ban for the racist comments. As of now, Symonds seems to actually be boasting about his "sticking for the teammate" bit and "let him know exactly what I thought about it" bit! What exactly did he say to Bhajji? "fucking Homo!" if you believe Prem Panicker. And he actually seems to think he did something worth applauding! How thick can one get? Again, WHAT WAS PROCTOR THINKING??

Having said all that, I would now like to take my "How thick can one get?" comment back. I haven't met any australian in real life. I haven't visited Australia. I REALLY don't have any reason to believe that his comments aren't the aussie-athelete-speak analog of "abe kya kar raha hai!". So being thick has nothing to do with it. But then I also don't think Proctor has any right to believe that the same comment can't be offensive to Bhajji if that is why Proctor thought that bit not even worth mentioning in his comments about Bhajji's racist behavior.

Phew! So much about the judgement. As to what should BCCI/indian team do about it, I firmly believe this is NO reason to pull out of the tour. The match referee gave a judgement, you have a method of following it up. So.. follow it up. Appeal the judgement. If you are not satisfied by the appellate commission's judgement, do the next thing you can do. Go to the courts if that option is open to you based on the agreements/constitutions/lawbooks that the cricketboards are supposed to follow. If you have stupidly agreed to something in writing that does not give you that option then make sure that from now on you do not agree to those clauses. Make sure you do not agree to having Proctor in the match referee panel the next time you sit in ICC meetings. And make it absoluetly clear to everyone that you will agree to the ban because you have no legal recourse against it as things stand right now, but neither you, nor Bhajji admit that he has been racist and that you consider the judgement to be incorrect. As for using your financial muscle, do it to change the agreements/rulebooks/lawbooks in future so that such things don't happen again. Pulling out of the tour is really not going to solve ANYTHING. And I don't see the sense in doing anything that doesn't achieve anything other than appeasing 20 people who don't have anything better to do than get a TV news crew and burn effigies.

2) Umpiring. I can't believe that some people still scream their lungs out about lbw decisions that they think are 100% out. All they need to do is take a little poll of 100 people who have seen it live (and not the replays later) and they'll probably find quite a few of them having at least a little doubt about it. That is just the nature of the thing. It would be nice to have some method of finding out exactly when someone is out lbw, but that really is just not true right now. Hawk-eye is great, but there are occassions when you feel that the algorithm messed up in calculation the bounce or the line. There is still a strong case for taking all the decisions with Hawk-eye (if it becomes fast enough to give those results in real-time) because then at least the mistakes will be equally applicable to everyone in every context and the nagging doubt that a lot of people have about best teams and big-name players having an effect on umpires' decisions will be done away with. Anyway, I digress. The point is that it is stupid to get angry about close lbw, caught decisions and blame the umpires when most people make up their minds after looking at the replays. These things are part of the game as it is played right now and even though they might not even out over a match, or a series etc, all you can do is discuss about how best to use technology to make sure that these instances can be reduced.

What is more problematic are the howlers that we get to see every once in a while. Symonds' caught behind in innings 1 and Dravid's in innings 2 are probably the only 2 decisions that fall in that category. Some people might, possibly justifiably, include a couple of other decisions too. But even one such decision is one too many. There really should be a way to make sure that these do not affect match results as they really are difficult to swallow for the losing team. Having a decision referral system is a great way to do this and I just don't understand why it shouldn't be tried as soon as possible. And if we are not going to have that any time soon, it just doesn't seem right to not have any system of accountability for umpires who make such mistakes. Someone said "Batsmen make mistakes, bowlers make mistakes, so do umpires". Come on! When batsmen or bowlers make mistakes, they lose the match for their team and possibly their places in the side. When umpires make mistakes, what do they lose? Even a little mistake like a wide or a no-ball has consequences for the player's team (extra run, extra ball, free hit etc), but even potentially match-turning mistakes that an umpire makes have absolutely no impact on their careers, even their match fees! I can understand that the umpires' job is very difficult, but that is no reason to accept ridiculously bad decisions. If the job is too difficult, make it easier by using technology. (Take the front-foot no-ball decision making away from the on-field umpires and you'll suddenly see better decisions on lbw front!). It just doesn't cut to say "it happens, lets move on".

That said, the major problem that I had with umpiring in this match is not even these howlers. That problem exists in almost every match and is not specific to any umpire. But there were incidents in this case that are beyond just the matter of umpires' skills. I was horrified (as, clearly, was Dhoni) when Bucknor did not refer that Symonds' stumping chance to the third umpire. This, I'm afraid, is not a matter of skill or wrong-judgement. This is plainly a problem with his attitude and as far as I'm concerned this single incident alone is enough to convince me that he does not deserve to stand in a match. ANY match. If his defense is that he thought there was no doubt that the batsman was not out then he clearly over-estimates his own skills (in fact, overestimates the acuity of human senses if he thought it was possible for ANYONE to judge that based on what they saw in real time. It was THAT close). And that should be a good enough reason to convince that he is no longer a good umpire. (And he was standing in a world cup final just last year! *shudder*).

Then there was the case of Benson asking Ponting (or Clarke) about the catch. I was under the impression that the agreement between the captains (about taking the fielder's word) extends to the umpires too. i.e. the captains agreed that during this series the umpires will take the fielder's words for any close catch. Though I do not completely agree with Ponting's view that it should be so, it doesn't matter as long as that was the understanding between the captains AND the umpires. Turns out that I was being stupid in assuming that any such understanding between the captains can extend to the umpires. The umpires have to play by the book, and if Ganguly decided to not take Clarke's word and walk, Benson had no business doing anything of the sort. His instructions were clear: ask Bucknor if you did not have a good line-of-sight, and if none of you do, then ask the third umpire. That an umpire, thus instructed, should ask Ponting (or take his word for it, if he didn't really seek Ponting's opinion but Ponting gave it nevertheless) is just not acceptable. ICC should make this clear to everyone. As I see it, it was a match-turning decision, but that is irrelevant. This was a huge enough mistake on the umpire's part (a bigger mistake than any howler any umpire can give) and should be treated as such.

Again, was Ponting wrong in letting the umpire know what Clarke thought? I am not too sure. If he thought that Benson was asking him then what was he supposed to do? Probably the most appropriate thing to do would be to remind Benson that he was supposed to direct his query to Bucknor, but do you really see ANYONE doing that? The umpire asked a question (wrongly, but still..) and Ponting told him that Clarke was sure he caught it. I really don't see why Ponting should be called arrogant for this. (Does not mean that he is not arrogant. He might be, but this incident is hardly an exhibit in favor of that).

Also, there was the little matter of a TV umpire getting the decision wrong! There is a reason why the decisions where the third umpire gives the benefit of the doubt to the batsman take so long. They are supposed to see all the possible angles (and I believe they can even ask the TV producers to give them any specific camera angle that they might find helpful) before deciding that there is enough doubt to not convince them either way. He gave Symonds not out BEFORE seeing the angle that (at least to me) seemed to show clearly that his foot wasn't grounded. For all I know, the 3rd umpire would probably have thought that even that angle leaves enough doubt and would've given him not out. But he couldn't have known that BEFORE even seeing that angle. And that is just plain unacceptable. Why give him not out in a hurry? There is also a possibility that he might have been convinced that Symonds HAD, in fact, grounded his foot. In that case he and Bucknor should get together sometime and learn Braille. If they can recognize each other, given their eyesight.

3) Ponting's attitude after the match. I don't think sledging (or "mental disintegration" or whatever else you want to call it) has any place in the game. Ponting and his teammates think it does. Beyond this general disagreement, I really don't have any problem with anything that Ponting did on the field during the match. Or even after it. I find it hilarious that some people are on Ponting's case about the method of their celebrations after their win and the fact that they didn't immediately go to shake Kumble's hands. Come on! They had just snatched a win out of nowhere. 10 minutes ago, they were probably preparing themselves to go to Perth with just a 1-0 lead and suddenly, within 5 deliveries, they had won the Sydney test match! How many teams would've acted any less than thoroughly ecstatic in such a situation? And how many players do you remember who, in such a situation, rightaway go to the opposition player? Just that one instance of Flintoff going to Brett Lee? Had that been anywhere near a usual scene, then that image wouldn't have become such an iconic image. So, it really is a bit too much to suggest that Aussies did something dirty at the end of that match.

However, then came some things which weren't all that appropriate. Starting with Ponting and Gilchrist mocking the critics who suggested that the timing of declaration was wrong. They thought that the result vindicated them. Really? Umpiring errors helped them, and yet they ALMOST didn't win the match. Indians batted splendidly on a really difficult pitch, and almost drew the game. No wonder some people thought that the declaration was a bit too late. Not that I can't see why Ponting might've been worried about giving Indians a somewhat easier target. One person playing a great innings over two sessions might've made it 1-1. But to act as if the critics didn't know what they were talking about and as if the final result vindicated Ponting's position was a bit too cocky.

This was, however, still a somewhat minor issue. What Ponting did after this is what irks me more. He is the one player who wishes every team to take the fielder's word whenever there is some doubt over whether the catch was cleanly taken or not. And he was, admirably, true to his word when he didn't claim a catch earlier in the match. However, he claimed a much more crucial catch off Dhoni in the second innings when it was clearly grounded. I must say that I wasn't initially too sure about that catch being grounded as I wasn't sure about what the rule says. Ponting seemed to be in control of the ball for a fraction of a second before he fell down on the ground with the ball not just completely touching the ground but also dragging along. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to assume that the rule might allow that catch. If so, it would be ok to catch a ball on the boundary by jumping high and being in control of the ball while still airborne. That clearly is wrong. The player has to come down inside the boundary for the catch to be legal, otherwise it is deemed to be a six. So, clearly a catch is not completed until you are in control of the ball AND your body. In which case I fail to see HOW can anyone believe that Ponting didn't ground that catch. And if Mcgrath (who has said that in his opinion Ponting was in control of the ball before he touched ground) and Ponting strongly believe that the catch was fine, then they should be even more embarassed than I am for not knowing what a catch means. In fact, I do agree with most people who say that it is beyond belief that players who practice catches day in and day out can have any such misconceptions. Which means that either Ponting was just appealing for a catch that he KNEW at that time to be illegal, or that in the heat of the moment he had failed to realize that he had grounded the ball. And in both cases it should now be clear why it is not advisable to take the fielder's word about catches. Which is about the only thing Ponting could've come out and said in the Press conference had he been honest about it. What he did was just plain stupid. If he didn't know that he had grounded the ball, all he had to do was see the replay and he'd have known that there was no way that question won't be asked of him. His response about "doesn't my first innings action tell you the way I play my cricket... If you are doubting my integrity then you should not be standing there.... I am 100% sure I didn't ground that ball.." was not something you'd want your team's captain to come up with. I wish that journalists don't let him get away with this. In EVERY single press conference from now on, someone should ask him if he has seen the replays of that catch and if he thinks he caught the ball cleanly until he answers that particular question rather than going on a tangent about his integrity and his past actions. And if he actually DOES say that he has seen the replay and he thinks it was a clean catch then just show him the rulebook, and that should shut him up about why we should take a fielder's word about a close catch.

Another comment that Ponting came up with later is that he "will sit down with Anil Kumble if Kumble felt it was necessary.. though I don't think he will..". What is he smoking? It does not matter one bit that he thinks he team has been a paragon of virtue through these test matches as long as Kumble is irked up enough to say publicly that aussies weren't playing in the spirit of the game. That is enough reason to sit down with him and have a chat. There really has been something wrong with Ponting's handling of this situation and even though I won't go so far as to suggest that he should be sacked (like that entirely over-the-top article by Roebuck), he really should calm down and think about some of these things.

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