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October 20, 1998


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Prem Panicker

Diwali Diyas won't do it for Harbhajan Singh -- only the ICC can bring some light into the teenage offie's life. And on past performance, I wouldn't expect the ICC, or its affiliated arm, the BCCI, to be so obliging.

Harbhajan Singh -- easily the best off spinner in India today, and the most promising one in the world since Saqlain Mushtaq burst on the scene -- has been suspected of throwing, and is being rusticated from the Indian team. And for us who follow the game, it is deja vu time.

Earlier, it was Rajesh Chauhan. Articles written on the subject at that time are being apended at the end of this one, since the points made therein are still relevant.

This case, however, has some differences. Examining them in turn raises some questions that beg answering.

First, look at the circumstances surrounding Bajju's ouster. Harsha Bhogle tells me that while he was covering the tri-nation one day series featuring Kenya and Bangladesh, he noticed while in Gwalior that Sri Lanka's Ranjan Madugalle, ICC match referee for that tourmanent, was in the TWI production box, taking a long look at tapes of Harbhajan Singh bowling.

Apparently he had asked for special tapes to be made during the previous game -- India versus Bangladesh at Bombay, on May 25th.

It is on the basis of this study that Madugalle -- who is himself a member of the ICC's throwing committee -- made his recommendation to the global body.

So much for one set of facts -- now for some questions that they raise.

What precisely is the role of the umpires on the field, regarding throwing? In this case, the umpires were B K Sadashiv and R T Ramachandran. Even in the earlier case of Rajesh Chauhan, it was the ICC match referee, in that case Bobby Simpson, who blew the whistle.

Now, look at the laws of cricket. Law 24, which deals with Mode of Delivery, reads, in section two: For a delivery to be fair, the ball must be bowled, not thrown -- see Note (A) below. If either umpire is not entirely satisfied with the absolute fairness of a delivery in this respect, he shall call and signal "no ball" instantly upon delivery.

For the record, Note A, which defines throwing, reads: A ball shall be deemed to be thrown if, in the opinion of either umpire, the process of straightening the bowling arm, whether it be partial or complete, takes place during that part of the delivery swing which directly precedes the ball leaving the hand. This definition shall not debar a bowler from the use of the wrist in the delivery swing.

Thus much, for what the rule books say. Now to underline the key bits: If either umpire is not entirely satisfied with the absolute fairness of a delivery in this respect, he shall call and signal "no ball" instantly upon delivery.

Look at the portions in bold italics -- they place the onus squarely on the two umpires, and ask that either of them instantly call an illegal delivery. The rule book does not say that the match referee should do so, five months after the event.

Who rewrote the rule books without telling us, and deemed that while the umpires on the field play possum, it is the match referee who will henceforth do the hatchet job? Why are the umpires reluctant to call a bowler for throwing?

When this aspect was referred to during the Chauhan imbroglio, a reader wrote in suggesting that maybe the umpires were reluctant to tarnish a bowler's name. I am sorry, but that excuse won't wash -- the umpire's job is to uphold the rules, not worry about a player's reputation. Besides, doesn't the match referee's innuendo equally tarnish the player?

So first up, the situation cries out for the ICC to do the following: one, clearly define what is a throw and what is not, since the existing definition seems not clear enough for umpires to feel confident about enforcing and two, define with equal clarity the role of the match referee, and let all concerned know what he can do and what he cannot?

As Harsha wondered, during a chat we were having on this subject just now, can the match referee now start calling no balls from the pavilion, as well?

The second point that needs to be looked at is the process being adopted by the ICC. As it stands, this is what is happening: A match referee (Simpson in the case of Chauhan, Madugalle and Talat Ali in the case of Harbhajan) raises doubt about a bowler's action, the ICC recommends to the concerned board that the player be omitted and remedial action be taken.

Sorry, but this militates against every principle of natural justice. The ICC cannot prescribe punishment without first having analysed the evidence and determined conclusively if there is wrongdoing and, if the answer to that is yes, precisely what the nature of the crime is and what the remedy is.

Look at the Chauhan incident. There, too, the ICC's throwing committee recommended that the bowler not be picked. The bowler was dropped. Chauhan with E A S Prasanna in tow went off to London, to Fred Titmus' bowling school, for remedial action -- and, as Chauhan himself said at the time, he didn't know what he was supposed to remedy, because no one told him what the problem was (I mean, was his arm being bent at delivery? or was it bent all along and he was illegally straightening it?).

And then the ICC throwing committee reviewed the tapes and decreed that the bowler's action was okay after all!

Meanwhile, Chauhan was dropped. And he has never been able to make it back.

Here we have a reprise -- a bowler is told to correct he knows not what. Meanwhile, the throwing committee is reviewing the evidence. Suppose it decides tomorrow that Harbhajan's action is fair -- will the ICC recompense him for his loss of earnings? Will the ICC take the responsibility for the mental trauma a teenager in his first season in international cricket will be suffering now?

Isn't the better option to have the throwing committee completely examine the tapes, come up with a conclusive report one way or the other, and then suggest action?

A related question has to do with the wording of the ICC letter to the BCCI. It suggests that if Harbhajan continues to be picked, "there is the risk that he will be called for throwing."

Sorry, but I don't get it. Madugalle's doubts apparently originated during the four overs the offie bowled against Bangladesh in that match in May. Since then, Bajju has bowled in Sri Lanka (five matches) and Zimbabwe (three matches, plus the Test). No umpire has called him during that period, no match referee either in SL or in Zimbabwe has felt the need to raise any suspicions.

So what does the ICC mean, there is a "risk" of his being called? What risk is there now, that wasn't there between May to October?

The simple fact is that an umpire cannot call a bowler because the ICC wants him to -- a bowler can only be called if he throws. The ICC, therefore, is out of bounds when it suggests to a board that a particular player should be dropped and threatens by innuendo that he could be called -- it is as simple as that.

And all that brings us, finally, to the Indian board. Did the BCCI undergo some kind of operation in the recent past, that we don't know about? Did someone take out its spine, and replace it with jelly? What's with the BCCI's unholy rush to dance to whatever tune the ICC plays, anyway?

The ICC suggests that Harbhajan Singh should not be played, and the BCCI, in the person of secretary Jaywant Lele, falls all over himself in his haste to drop the lad.

Why? Since when did the ICC have the right to decide the team composition of the Indian cricket side?

Since when did the ICC begin paying Lele's wages?

What is most interesting in this case is that during the selection committee meeting in Ahmedabad, only Lele was in favour of dropping the player. The majority of the selectors were in favour of picking Harbhajan -- which is a vote of confidence right there.

The Indian coach, Anshuman Gaekwad, was in favour of including the player. "No umpire has called him so far and unless an umpire actually calls him, I don't see a problem," says Gaekwad.

Gaekwad, in fact, takes the trouble to summon Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who was coach of the Indian team in the Youth World Cup in South Africa. Media reports had suggested that Bajju had been called during that series. "Rubbish," Srikkanth told Gaekwad, "no such thing happened, that was irresponsible reporting by some section of the media."

Interestingly, even Bobby Simpson -- the match referee involved in the Chauhan case -- sees no problem with Harbhajan. Remember that Simpson, in his guise of consultant coach, worked with Bajju during the Chennai camp. During a chat we had in course of that camp, Simpson in fact told me that he rated the young offie very highly, that he was the most promising find in recent times, and a player with the potential to do brilliantly at the international level.

In Zimbabwe, where Harbhajan confirms his growing promise, not only does no umpire or match referee suspect his action, but David Houghton, coach of the home side, says in his post-tour comments that the young off spinner is a hugely promising talent.

But Lele thinks otherwise. "What if he is called, we will be a bowler short!" is how the BCCI secretary justifies his insistence that Harbhajan Singh be dropped.

Elswhere in this issue, in a piece on the team as picked for Dhaka, we look at that argument, so I won't reiterate it here.

Meanwhile, are we to understand from the above that neither the five selectors, nor the Indian coach, nor Simpson, are concerned with India's performance in Dhaka -- only Lele is?

Or is the real reason this: that if the BCCI, in the person of the coach and selectors, defies the ICC diktat and picks the boy, it will be one in the eye of the ICC? The ICC's president is Jagmohan Dalmiya -- to whom Lele owes his high profile post? And anything that could potentially embarass Dalmiya is something Lele will walk around the world the long way round to avoid?

Is that the real reason, here? Or is it an unfair charge?

I think not. When the Chauhan imbroglio was at its height, Lele was asked why the Indian board had not imitated the courage of the Sri Lankan board, which picked Kumara Dharmasena in the face of an ICC ukase. Lele's answer, then, remains in memory: "Sri Lanka can afford to do that because it has nothing to lose. We can't afford to do that, after all, the ICC president is our very own Jagmohan Dalmiya."

Is the career of a young, promising cricketer to be harmed in this thoughtless fashion simply because of one board official who makes a career out of sycophancy?

Earlier Stories:

Lankans cock a snook at ICC

The last segment of the Cricket Diary titled Busman's Holiday

Tell us what you think of the Harbhajan Singh issue, on the Rediff Discussion Group.

Postscript: My colleague, Syed Firdaus Ashraf, spoke to BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur on this head just now.

Dungarpur's quotes are illuminating, to say the least. Asked what action the BCCI had taken, Dungarpur told Ashraf: "We have written to the ICC, but it is confidential and I am not free to reveal the details."

Yeah, right, the contents of an ICC letter that damns a teenage offspinner can be splashed -- courtesy the oh so considerate Lele -- on the front pages of the national media. However, a BCCI letter on the subject -- hopefully, supportive of the lad -- is "confidential".

Asked, further, if the BCCI is liable to take any other action, Dungarpur said that the BCCI will get India's premier off spinners, EAS Prasanna and S Venkatraghavan, to examine Harbhajan and give a verdict.

Again, the horse laugh seems indicated. In Chauhan's case, Prasanna with all the vehemence possible said he saw no problem with the off spinner. Venkatraghavan said he had seen no reason to ever call him in match play. What did that verdict matter to the BCCI, once the ICC sent its famous letter? Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar were specifically appointed to examine Chauhan, they gave him a clean chit but when the ICC diktat arrived, the BCCI ignored the Kapil-Gavaskar verdict as well.

And now they want Prasanna and Venkatraghavan to stage another examination? To what purpose -- merely to satisfy people that everything possible is being done?

And oh yes, if the ICC recommends, the BCCI will -- so says Dungarpur -- send Harbhajan, at its own expense, to England, to practise in the Fred Titmus school of off spin bowling, and "correct his action".

Sorry, but again, we don't get it. With due respect to the former Test player, by what yardstick is Titmus a better off spinner, or more knowledgeable about the art, than either Prasanna, rated by every single great who played against him as the best of all time, or S Venkatraghavan, rated by Prasanna himself as his equal?

Why does an Indian player have to go to England, to Titmus, to learn off spin?

For the ICC, Titmus may be the last word in off spin -- but by accepting that judgement, the Indian board reveals nothing other than its own ability to kowtow to the global body at any and all opportunities.

Then again, did anyone expect the board and its president to show any signs of possessing a backbone?

Prem Panicker

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