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Chaos at the Oval sends cricket into a spin

23 August 2006

Dear comrades,

It may seem strange that I am writing to a Marxist site to comment on a game of cricket. Many Marxists, especially Irish Marxists, see it as the aristocracy at play and, even worse, the colonial aristocracy at play.  In fact, in the former British colonies of the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean cricket is above all a working-class sport.  Not only that, but one of the most distinguished Marxists of the 20th century, the West Indian writer CLR James, wrote extensively on Cricket and class.  In my view there is more to the current row between Pakistan and the cricketing bureaucracy  than simply another sports scandal.

The shambolic climax to the fourth Test between England and Pakistan at the Oval, which saw England awarded victory by forfeit after a Pakistani protest at allegations of ball-tampering, has rocked the cricketing world to its foundations. It also shows up the underlying political tensions in a sport whose establishment likes to consider itself on a higher cultural plane than that yobbish game with the big inflatable ball.

Despite the gentlemanly code implied by the phrase “it’s not cricket”, the summer game has a rather chequered history. Going right back to WG Grace and beyond, cricket has abounded in cases of underhand tactics, gamesmanship and dodgy ploys that stop just short of outright cheating – and not a few incidents of the latter. No follower of the game with any sense would consider buying a used car from a professional cricketer. Yet this is not to say that cricketers do not have any code – while bending the laws of the game is considered fair by players (if not by umpires), breaking them is a dangerous business. Ball-tampering in particular is deemed especially despicable behaviour.

This must be borne in mind when looking at the actions of the Pakistani players on 20th August. Another contributing factor is that under the leadership of Inzamam-ul-Haq, a captain who commands enormous respect, Pakistan have spent many years trying to live down past incidents of sharp practice, including ball-tampering, and the match-fixing scandal of the 1990s. The underlying racial tensions in international cricket, although the game’s leaders do not like to discuss them, play a key role here. There have, for instance, been recent ball-tampering scandals in the English county game, but it is popularly believed – in the “white” cricketing countries, at least – to be an Asian practice. Similarly, although Australian and South African players were implicated in the match-fixing scandal (which, incidentally, was broken by the Indian press), the mud has tended to stick to India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis are keenly aware of the racial slurs that underlie much of the criticism of their team. 

The third factor, and the one most remarked on, has been the personality of the controversial Australian umpire Darrell Hair. Hair has upset many players down the years, and Asian teams in particular believe he is out to get them. 

So this brings us to the afternoon session on 20th August. At 2:39 the umpires, Hair and the West Indian Billy Doctrove, examine a ball they had examined just a few overs earlier. Hair signals five penalty runs to England and offers the English batsmen a choice of replacement ball. This, apparently, is done without the umpires first having a quiet word with Inzamam, which might have defused the whole affair before it started. Although Inzamam is obviously furious, play goes on.

At 3:45 tea is taken. During the tea break the Pakistani players discuss the events and are united in enormous umbrage. Coach Bob Woolmer later says every player swore on the Koran they had not tampered with the ball. The umpires visit the Pakistan dressing room. Apparently Inzamam asks Hair to (a) explain his actions, and (b) let Inzamam have a look at the disputed ball. Hair replies that he doesn’t have to do that, which is legally correct but has the effect of pouring oil on troubled flames.

At 4:43 the umpires walk to the middle, but no players of either team go out, and the umpires return to the pavilion. At 4:54 the umpires walk out, accompanied by the England batsmen, but the Pakistani dressing room door remains shut. After two minutes in the middle, Hair removes the bails and awards the match to England on the grounds that Pakistan are refusing to play and have therefore forfeited the match. Various officials from the two boards shuttle back and forth. At 5:24 the Pakistani team emerge, and it is made known that England are happy to play on, but the umpires refuse to budge. There is lots more shuttle diplomacy, and eventually at 10:35 it is confirmed the match is over.

This row deviates from previous bad blood between teams – actually relations between the England and Pakistan teams are extremely good, and both were willing to play the match to its conclusion – in being a fight between players and officials. According to the laws of cricket, the umpire’s word goes, and dissenting from an umpire’s decision is a very serious offence. But this is based on an implicit contract with the players, whose respect for the umpire is based not only on his legal but his moral authority, and this contract is undermined when an umpire is seen to be arbitrary and capricious. Darrell Hair is a stickler for the letter of the law, and there is no doubt he did not exceed his powers – but, as has been widely remarked, there are the laws of the game and there is the spirit of the game. Basically, as Nasser Hussain argues, Darrell had better have cast-iron evidence (and two dozen Sky TV cameras haven’t found any yet) because, even though he can legally rule that a ball has been tampered with based on his opinion, his opinion doesn’t win the moral argument.

It is also the case that the on-field umpire’s word is not strictly final. The umpires can of course change their minds, but anyone familiar with Darrell Hair could see that wasn’t likely. The match referee could theoretically overrule an umpiring decision, and it would not have been impossible for the ICC to broker a deal. What seems to have happened is that the sport’s bureaucrats were afraid that overturning an umpire’s decision would set a dangerous precedent, and the prestige of the officials mattered more than any other consideration. This also seems to lie behind the ICC’s decision to not only uphold the decision of Hair and Doctrove, but to further charge Inzamam with ball-tampering and bringing the game into disrepute. Thus a sport’s governing body operates as basically a self-serving bureaucracy.

The Oval fiasco also shows up the shifting power balance in world cricket. The Asian countries are now clearly the dominant force in the game’s internal politics, and are becoming more so with every year as they supply the biggest audiences and most of the money. India-Pakistan series are now more important than the Ashes. But the English and Australian cricketing establishments still haven’t come to terms with this fact. (Nor have the more backward section of the fans. The predictable comments on English message boards along the lines of “the Pakis are notorious cheats” have a definite defensive and racial shrillness about them).

This affair could, in its own way, be as important a turning point for Asian cricket as Bodyline was in establishing Australia’s cricketing identity. The huge public outcry in Pakistan, including the intervention of President Musharraf, is not merely a tabloid frenzy. It is a question of national honour, and a statement by one of cricket’s emerging superpowers that it will not accept being treated as anything less than equal. The sympathy shown for Inzamam by many English players and commentators suggests that they know this just as well as the Pakistanis do. The Oval Test has marked another nail in the coffin of Anglo-Australian dominance, and that is no bad thing for the game as a whole.

The picture of cricket as a snooty game for upper-class white colonists was a construct of the British class system.  It was never true even in England and in complete contradiction with the facts in many countries dominated by the long-gone empire.  Any defeat for the establishment would be good for working-class supporters, a victory against racism and colonialism and good for cricket itself.

Yours in solidarity

Andrew Johnson


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