A game of confrontation

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

The disciplinary action taken against six Indian cricket players during the country's tour of South Africa almost leads to an unseemly confrontation between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the International Cricket Council.

A STUBBORN governing body, a defiant warlord, a bitter battle and an uncertain future. The game of cricket was on the brink in November 2001.

A trigger-happy match referee set the ball rolling, a country passionate about the game reacted with anger and then the administrators, with their inflated egos, took over. Eventually, both sides succumbed to the pressure.

The dust has settled, but the scars remain, and the coming days will be crucial. "I am pleased we have been able to avoid a collision. Don't underestimate the problem. Strong emotions were aroused," said Malcolm Speed, chief executive, International Cricket Council (ICC).

The truce between the ICC and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), forced as much by the circumstances as by a need to save face, not only rescued England's tour of India but also prevented a tragic split in the cricketing world.

There were no winners in the feud. The distrust and anger that clouded the horizon had already cast a shadow over the game's image. However, cricket survives, for now.

While BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya swallowed his pride, the ICC came down from the moral high ground.

According to the agreement reached over the phone between ICC president Malcolm Gray in London and Dalmiya in Kolkata on November 30, the BCCI would not field banned cricketer Virender Sehwag in the Mohali Test. On the other hand, the ICC would set up a referee's commission, consisting of at least two former cricketers, to inquire into the controversial second Test between India and South Africa in Port Elizabeth. More important, the commission would decide whether former England captain Mike Denness followed the right procedures while wielding the stick against six Indian cricketers. The right to appeal against a match referee's verdict, apart from framing a separate code of conduct for them, will also come up for discussion.

However, the issue of whether the five-day 'first class' match at the Centurion Park could be given Test status would be taken up only in the next executive panel meeting of the ICC, to be held in Colombo in March 2002.

It was clear that the BCCI was bent on being on a collision course with the ICC when it kept Sehwag out of the Centurion Park Test, declared 'unofficial' by the ICC, and then insisted that he had already served his one-Test ban. The national selectors included the Delhi cricketer in the squad for the Mohali Test, and the ICC saw red.

The response of the ICC, which stuck to the rules, was on predictable lines. Sehwag would have to undergo his sentence at Mohali and, in case he was included in the playing eleven, the Test would be declared 'unofficial'.

The ICC gave the BCCI time until noon on November 30 to withdraw Sehwag's name. Later, in a last ditch attempt to find a way out, the deadline was extended by another day to facilitate a meeting between Gray and Dalmiya at Kuala Lumpur on December 1.

However, the administrators took the easier option - the telecommunication system - and a solution was found much before the 'important' men were to leave for the Malaysian capital.

INDIA'S South African campaign of 2001 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A bizarre and dramatic sequence of events sparked the bitter confrontation that could have been avoided. While it is true that several match referees, like Mike Denness, have been inconsistent in their interpretation of the laws concerning on-field behaviour - the root cause of the conflict - the need of the hour was to defuse the situation rather than add fuel to the fire.

Feelings ran high in the Indian camp after Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Deep Dasgupta, Shiv Sundar Das and skipper Sourav Ganguly were charged by Denness on seven counts of 'indiscipline' on the third day of the Port Elizabeth Test.

Tendulkar was handed out a one-Test suspended ban and fined 75 per cent of his match fee for attempting to alter the condition of the ball. (The television cameras had caught the Indian star running his fingers along the seam.)

Denness also pulled up Sehwag, Harbhajan, Deep Dasgupta, and Shiv Sundar Das for expressing dissent at a decision and attempting to intimidate umpire Ian Howell. The last three were docked 75 per cent of their match fee and handed out a one-Test suspended ban for each. Sehwag, also accused of using abusive language, was to part with 75 per cent of his match fee and was not to play the next Test, with the ban coming into effect immediately.

Ganguly was punished with suspended ban for one Test match and two limited-overs international matches for failing to control his men.

The Indian team's unhappiness with Denness' decision was understandable for, during the same match Shaun Pollock, the South African Captain, got away with a 'war cry'-like appeal against V.V.S. Laxman. The Indian anger, that had been simmering for quite some time, boiled over.

The media highlighted the episode and there was much anger on the streets back home. With politicians getting into the picture, talk of racial discrimination started doing the rounds. The issue had snowballed into a crisis.

Dalmiya wanted Denness removed as match referee or his rulings kept in abeyance until they were reviewed by an independent panel, if the Indian team were to continue with its tour. He insisted that his demand was in keeping with the sentiments of the Indian team management. However, the ICC stuck to 'principle' and spoke about having a set of rules and adhering to them without making any exceptions. It stressed on Denness' 'fair record' as match referee and dumped the demand.

The controversy then took a dangerous turn. The BCCI, in a clear act of defying the world body, and the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA), influenced by financial considerations, decided to do away with Denness and appointed Denis Lindsay as the match referee for the third Test at Centurion. The ICC moved swiftly. It declared the match 'unofficial' and withdrew its panel umpire George Sharpe from the game.

In retrospect it appears that the confrontation could have been avoided had Denness spoken about the exact nature of the offences soon after announcing his verdict. For instance, it was only in London that Denness clarified in an exclusive interview to The Hindu that Tendulkar was not accused of cheating. Instead, Tendulkar was, as was widely believed, punished for a purely technical offence of failing to inform the umpire before cleaning the ball of dirt. Much of the frenzied and highly emotional reaction in India was caused by the fact that Denness hauled up Tendulkar for picking the seam.

Similarly, it was believed earlier that Denness had acted on his own. However, it became clear later that the umpires had actually reported four of the players to the match referee. It is being pointed out that the ICC will do well to make the match referee more accessible to the media.

THE incident also revealed that India needed to mature as a sports-loving nation. Indian supporters clearly overreacted. The issue was without doubt a highly charged one, still there can be no excuse for angry mobs burning effigies of Denness.

The storm on the cricketing horizon following l'affaire Mike Denness should also not distract one's attention from India's dismal performance in South Africa.

The Indians continue to stumble when they play outside the subcontinent and the reasons are not difficult to comprehend. A basic lack of ability to cope with the seam movement and the extra bounce of the pitches, coupled with the absence of mental toughness that can help lesser players overcome technical shortcomings, led to the downfall.

The current Indian team works in fits and starts - an odd brilliant innings here, a fine spell of bowling there, without displaying consistency, the key ingredient in any successful combination. Put the Indians in a tough situation and they would succumb, as they did in the first Test and the third match of the series.

The history of Indian cricket is replete with tales of glorious fightbacks, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when players such as Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath scripted many a great rescue act.

A welter of one-day cricket matches have affected India's Test chances. Indian batsmen tend to play too many shots, and the results have often been disastrous.

The team-management has not covered itself with glory either. The complete absence of clarity of thought, and a tendency to seek short-term options, continue to haunt it. During the South African Test campaign, several baffling 'decisions' were taken. For instance, Rahul Dravid, one of the few Indian batsmen with an outstanding 'away' record, was promoted to the opening slot for the first Test at Bloemfontein. A specialist opener was available in Connor Williams and fielding him would have been the right thing to do. Dravid failed and thus started the series on a disastrous note. India thus made the worst possible use of a committed performer. The opener's slot is a specialist one and should never have been tampered with. It was only when Connor Williams walked out with Das that India registered its highest opening partnership of the series, 92, in the second innings at Centurion Park.

There were several other lapses. India played Zaheer Khan and Aashish Nehra in Bloemfontein. However, when Harbhajan Singh returned after recovering from an injury to figure in the eleven for the second Test at Port Elizabeth, not one left-arm paceman, who could have created a rough for the off-spinner to exploit, was picked.

Moreover, it was puzzling when India, with two spinners in its ranks for the second Test - Harbhajan and leg-spinner Anil Kumble - opted to bowl, denying its spinners an opportunity to operate last on the pitch. In short, the team was self-defeating in its methods.

On the positive side, the performance of senior fast bowler Javagal Srinath, who became the second Indian paceman after Kapil Dev to scalp 200 Test batsmen (in his 54th Test) when he dismissed Pollock at Bloemfontein, was heartwarming. Although he received little support from fellow pacemen, the Karnataka paceman bowled with great spirit to produce two five-wicket innings hauls in the series. He bowled well within himself, concentrated on the 'corridor', wisely cutting down on short-pitched deliveries.

With skipper Ganguly continuing to be clueless against short-pitched bowling by the quicks and V.V.S. Laxman still not consolidating on starts, much depended on Tendulkar and Dravid. While Tendulkar, who crossed 7,000 Test runs during the series, hit a sizzling century in Bloemfontein, Dravid produced a match-saving knock at Port Elizabeth. However, consistency eluded both the batting heavyweights.

Among the youngsters, Deep Dasgupta showed the right temperament and attitude with the willow, though his wicket-keeping had a long way to go yet. And Sehwag? The promising youngster made a cracking start to his Test career with a strokeful century in Bloemfontein. He was in the eye of a storm days later.

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