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July 15, 1998


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Unhappy umpires, unfair selections...

Prem Panicker

Another day, another diary entry.

And increasingly, given the state of affairs in cricket, both national and international, it is with a rather morose frame of mind that I find myself writing this.

An optimist by nature, I keep thinking, when I come to the end of yet another piece criticising some sin of omission or comission on the part of the national selectors, that maybe, next time round, things will be better, that maybe, better sense will prevail, that maybe, the selectors and the board would realise just how much the game means to millions of Indians, and stop dicking around with it.

But no. Just when I think matters cannot get any worse, it goes and does just that! And the recent selection exercise, when the gang of five picked the A team to tour Holland, is merely the latest case in point.

What is the purpose of an A team? It is, as far as I can understand it, to put in place a good second string, to provide a platform for aspirants to international level to strut their stuff, to show what they are made of, and to make a push for the senior side.

Judged by that yardstick, whose names would you expect to find in the A team to Holland? The likes of Gagan Khoda, Jatin Paranjpe, Amol Muzumdar, Amit Pagnis, Ananthapadmanabhan... the list of talented players in the domestic arena is endless. And yes, we would expect to see Rahul Dravid wearing the captain's armband, with Vinod Kambli as his deputy.

The first five, and many others I haven't mentioned, because they are supposed to be the players in line for slots in the senior side. Dravid, because if in the opinion of the selectors "he is a good batsman, but needs to fine tune his game for the demands of one day cricket", then this is the perfect opportunity for him to do so -- after all, you can't "fine tune" your game sitting at home. And Kambli because, having recovered from a crippling injury, he needs a chance to play himself back into prime form before the national side undertakes its next adventure.

But instead of these worthies, who do we get? Vikram Rathore as captain, for starters. Are any of us under any illusion that Rathore can make it back to the national side, having had his limitations cruelly exposed during his first foray at the senior level?

No we are not. Neither are the selectors -- for remember, they were the ones who unceremoniously dumped him, and then hyped Gagan Khoda as the opener of the future. So what then is the sense, even by their own warped logic, in leaving Khoda at home and taking Rathore, that too as leader of the side?

If method lurks under that exhibition of madness, it escapes me.

But there's worse -- epitomised by the strange case of Hyderabad off spinner Kanwaljit Singh.

"He should be given a chance to prove," says chairman of selectors Kishen Rungta.

Prove what, precisely?

I mean, his first class debut happened way back in 1980. And today, he is precisely 40 years and three months old.

This is the man we pick for the team of 'young hopefuls'? Indian cricket is so impoverished of talent that we need a 40 year old to form part of the core group of talent that we are building up?

Then why not stretch the envelope a bit, and pick the likes of Bedi and Prasanna, Gavaskar and Vishwanath?

The national selectors have, in recent times, been strident in dismissing media criticism as motivated. They have been vehement in their insistence that performance, and no other criterion but, dictates team selections.

So okay -- just what performance, what criterion, dictates Kanwaljit Singh's presence in this side? By the remotest stretch of imagination, would Messers Rungta, Wadekar, Pandove, Bannerjee and Yadav see Singh making it to the Indian side?

The supreme irony lies in the fact that Singh is an off spinner. If age was not a criterion when picking the A side, why then didn't the selectors do the logical thing, and go with Rajesh Chauhan?

After all, the man was dumped by the selectors on the grounds that the ICC has held his action as suspect. It turns out that the accusation -- for the second time in the bowler's career -- has been retracted by the global body, and that the ICC technical committee has yet again cleared Chauhan for selection.

If the selectors were really concerned about team-building, was this not a superb opportunity to take the offie back, let him play against some relatively weaker opposition, get rid of the nerves, the mental pressure that has weighed him down, and ready himself for a return to the first XI?

Why Kanwaljit Singh, for god's sake?

"We are building a core group of 60," says Rungta, mendaciously.

Never mind the sheer absurdity of a 'core group of 60', I mean, why not a 'core group of 950 million' while we are about it -- but are we to believe that a list of the top 60 cricketers in the country would contain Singh's name?

And, by way of supplementary -- how would pointing out this absurdity, speculating on the kind of horse-trading that went on in the selection committee meeting in order to bring about such a choice, translate into media bias?

The problem, right now, is the selectors don't give the proverbial hoot for the media, and its criticism. Simply because they believe they are an autonomous body -- they have paid their dues to the men who run Indian cricket, and are now glorying in total, unbridled autonomy, in the belief that they are answerable to none.

And thus, with every passing day, they become more arrogant, more autocratic.

While the pessimist in me thinks things will merely get worse, there is yet an optimistic streak. A very faint one, pared to a sliver after two years of observing this lot in action, but its there.

And that optimistic streak tells me that one of these days, the selectors in their arrogance will take that one step over the line too many, will make that one indefensible wrong choice too many.

And on that day, they will discover that they are, after all, answerable -- to an outraged Indian public.

And while on outrage, that is the mood that apparently prevails among the ICC's panel of umpires.

Meeting under the aegis of the ICC earlier this week, the umpires who form part of the National Grid international panel have expressed, in the strongest possible terms, their outrage at what they believe is organised cheating by international players.

Their ire is directed against batsmen who, after nicking a ball, point to their pads or, by other similar gestures, attempt to indicate that they had not touched the ball; by fielders who claim catches that they have taken on the first bounce; by close cordons that go up in unison to claim catches they know are not valid, hoping through concerted, frantic appealing to pressure the umpires into error.

"It is time," says Peter Willey, "to label these people for what they are, and that is cheats."

Another umpire who refrained from calling a spade a manually operated eco-recreational implement was Steve Bucknor of the West Indies -- one of the most widely respected of officials, and a double international in the sense that he has even refereed at the World Cup level in football.

Bucknor in fact related the story of a 'keeper in the Windies who was told that if he didn't go up in support of the close cordon, he would lose his place in the side.

"The emphasis is to win, win at all costs," Bucknor said.

While the assembled umpires expressed their unanimous dissatisfaction, concern, with this aspect of the modern game, they however seemed to run out of ideas when it came to halting what is obviously a despicable trend.

"We can only draw attention to this," said Willey. "Only when the media, and that includes television, focusses on such acts of gamesmanship, and highlights the actions of the cheats and holds them up to public ridicule, will things change."

Interestingly, the one player more than others who has come in for stringent criticism in this connection is Alec Stewart. Who first hit the headlines when he claimed a slip catch during England's tour of the West Indies earlier this year, while knowing very well that it was a false claim.

Another recent instance relates to Sanath Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka, who during the final of the recent Akai Singer Nidahas Trophy, 'ran out' Robin Singh during the Indian innings, despite the fact that the ball was not in his hands when he broke the wicket.

I don't know about you guys, but I do believe that this whole 'professionalism' bit has gone way too far, to the considerable detriement of cricket as a game.

It is true enough that the media has a responsibility to highlight such acts on the parts of the players -- but I suspect that this alone will not lead to a solution. I mean, the cricket media is by no means a united body, joined together by a common concern for the welfare of the game.

One classic instance suffices to underline what I mean. Remember the famous 'dirt in the pocket' incident involving then England skipper Michael Atherton? The media in the rest of the cricketing world slammed the incident as a clear case of cheating. And the media in England promptly united in an impassioned defence of its blue-eyed boy.

I remember, too, instances involving India, during the last couple of years when I have been covering the game, that I have had occasion to bring up. Body-charging of players, abuse, and on the odd occasion, downright cheating by rival players.

I would write about them. And sure enough, a day later, I would get a basketfull of email from outraged readers suggesting that my 'patriotism' was getting the better of me, that the incident was not as serious as I had made it out to be. Why? Because the media of whichever country was then playing India had made light of the incident, or often, ignored it completely. And if wasn't written about, then it hadn't happened, right?

This is why I believe that the media's ability to influence such contemptible behaviour is limited.

So what is the alternative? Simple -- follow the example of football, and hand out cards to the umpires.

These days, video replays are a tool employed by the third umpire and match referee. I would have the ICC bring in a rule which says that a player found cheating -- whether batsman, bowler, or fielder -- the third umpire and match referee are allowed to immediately alert the on-field umpires, who would flash the yellow card for a first offence, a red (involving immediate sending off, and a ban for one or more games depending on the seriousness of the offence) for a second one.

Maybe then, we can get down to playing -- and enjoying -- cricket in the real spirit of the game.

In passing, a mention that we will be live with coverage of the upcoming Diana Memorial cricket match, at Lord's, on July 18. The game begins at 4.30 IST, and we will be bringing you ball by ball coverage right through.

For the record, the two teams are:

MCC XI: Michael Atherton (captain), Aamir Sohail, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, Javagal Srinath, Allan Donald, Mohammad Azharuddin, Saurav Ganguly, Brian McMillan, Ian Healy, Anil Kumble and Glenn McGrath.

Rest of the World: Sachin Tendulkar (captain), Sanath Jayasuriya, Saeed Anwar, Aravinda D'Silva, Graeme Hick, Tom Moody, Andy Flower, Chris Cairns, Wasim Akram, Mushtaq Ahmed and Ian Bishop.

Despite its unofficial status, it should be the heck of a game -- both teams are star-studded, both will be looking to outdo the other in performance, there should be fireworks in plenty.

See you there.

Mail Prem Panicker