Tuesday, August 02, 2011

That was never a champagne moment !



The atmosphere in the Pavilion, never mind the rest of the ground, was electric at the Tea interval on the third day of the India Test match - the good burghers of Nottingham were sure that cricketing justice was not being done. Hence the booing. Not that a riot was on the cards - but the natives were restless. What we had just witnessed had defied belief. In short when the last ball of the over before Tea was hit towards the boundary the fielder, Kumar, dived over the boundary rope like a dying swallow. Seeing this batsmen, not unreasonably, assumed that a boundary had been hit. Kumar assumed the same. He picked up the ball and tossed it gently towards the wicketkeeper. Meanwhile the batsmen, Bell and Morgan, headed Pavilion-wards for a well-earned Tea. The keeper, Indian Captain MS Dhoni, caught the ball and threw it gently to the bowlers' end where the stumps were broken. Why did Dhoni do this? Well maybe he realised that the Umpires had not signalled a "Four" and that technically the ball was still in play and with the batsmen en route for Tea one of them (Bell) could be deemed to be Run Out. The Umpires then burst into action. Was Bell Run Out? Much radio chat with the third Umpire. Meanwhile Bell and Morgan were barred from returning to the Pavilion by one of the umpiring team! Back at the square the Umpires asked Dhoni if he really wanted to appeal. He said that he did. In the circumstances the Umpires had two options. They could have said to Dhoni that such an appeal was likely to be deemed later not to be in keeping with the "Spirit of Cricket" (unequivocally entrenched in the Laws of the Game). They didn't do this. They took option 2 which was to accept Dhoni's appeal and, inevitably, give Bell out.

There is a real sense of what is natural justice amongst cricket supporters. Instinctively we tend to know right from wrong. And this was wrong. The Umpires and the Indian team were roundly booed as they went to the Pavilion for Tea. It was loud, pointed and not open to misinterpretation. The forcefulness of this reaction no doubt supported the England team as they tried to cope with a gross injustice. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss elected to go to talk with their opposite numbers Fletcher and Dhoni. And, as the later interview with the honourable and decent Rahul Dravid confirmed, the Indian team thought again and decided to withdraw their appeal. The brief version of what had happened can be summarised as follows:

1. Everything pointed to a four having been scored and the over having being finished – not least Kumar’s relaxed returning of the ball to Dhoni.

2. The breaking of the stumps was almost an afterthought. There was little urgency to it and it seemed little expectation, on the part of the Indians, that a run out had really been effected.

3. Bell and Morgan were already on the way to the Pavilion for Tea when the stump breaking took place. They clearly assumed that it was the end of the Over and the Session.

4. It eventually dawned on the Indians that in fact the ball had still been in play when they broke the stumps and that technically Ian Bell was run out. It was at this point that they appealed.

5. When the appeal happened former England Captain Michael Vaughan’s commentary on television was “[That was] a big mistake by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I think this is [against] the Spirit of the Game.”

6. The Umpires then asked Dhoni a second time whether he wanted to pursue the appeal. Dhoni said he did. Bell was given out.

7. The Umpires and the Indians were roundly booed off the pitch not only by the majority of the crowd but by I would say a third of the members in the Pavilion where I was sitting.

8. During the Tea interval the Indians discussed the matter and, in the words of Rahul Dravid, they concluded that “If we took the letter of the laws of the game strictly [Bell] was out. But something was not right.”

9. The England Coach and the England Captain asked the Indians to withdraw the appeal which they graciously did. They might have done this anyway without the two Andys’ intervention. Who knows? Dravid’s remarks suggest so.

10. No announcement was made to the crowd and at first the Umpires and the Indian team were booed again. Then Ian Bell emerged and some amongst the members thought that England was playing hardball and refusing to accept the dismissal! Then, slowly, the truth emerged and in time the Indians were applauded for their belated sportsmanship.

Subsequent to this sequence of events the cricket Establishment has sought not only to praise Dhoni but to say that the "Spirit of Cricket" is enhanced by his actions. Well yes - but remember it was Dhoni and his team who created the mess in the first place! As Michael Vaughan correctly put it in real time on commentary the Indians were technically correct to appeal - but that appeal was plainly not in line with the "Spirit of Cricket”.

So to sum up. Technically Ian Bell was run out. But to pursue this offended natural justice as well as undoubtedly the "Spirit of the Game”. Dhoni, initially, pursued the appeal and the Umpires complied. They did not need to do this! Remember again the "Spirit of Cricket" is in the Laws and the Umpires would have been within their rights to advise Dhoni that his appeal conflicted with this Spirit. But this didn't happen. It was only when they were sitting in their dressing room having been booed from the field of play the enormity of the error that they had made dawned on Dhoni and his team that they saw sense (as Rahul Dravid pointed out).

The willingness of MS Dhoni to appeal in circumstances that were clearly suspect and unique was regrettable. The smiles on the faces of his colleagues as they went into Tea were reprehensible. That they subsequently, under some pressure, recanted is commendable. But let's cut out the bullshit. This whole problem came about because the "Spirit of Cricket" was initially, and in the heat of the moment, far from the mind of the Indian Captain. And it didn't feature with the Umpires either. Cricket's spirit has been rescued by England's Flower and Strauss and by India's Fletcher and Dhoni's reconsideration and welcome retreat.

The final (possibly!) coda to this affair was when the Test Match Special team of commentators and summarisers elected to give MS Dhoni the “Brian Johnston Champagne Moment” award for his withdrawal of the appeal. I found this so stomach-churningly obsequious that I “Tweeted” immediately from the ground “BJ Champagne moment choice is sentimental, craven, establishment-pleasing nonsense. Really bad.” On cool reflection I stand by this 100%. It was a match full of genuine champagne moments on the field of play – not least the brilliant third ball of Stuart Broad’s hat trick. That MS Dhoni had the wit and the sensitivity to reverse his appeal was commendable – but in truth I think that he had little choice but to do this if the match and the rest of the series was to progress smoothly. I was right among the cricket fans at Trent Bridge and at Tea they were incensed by what had happened and in unforgiving mood.

The day after these events the establishment closed ranks and the message in the media was disturbingly consistent – Ian Bell was dozy, naïve, careless or worse. MS Dhoni was a hero. The umpires were blameless. Yes, as I have shown, Bell and to an extent Morgan were a bit sloppy but the former had been batting through two sessions under considerable pressure and with the game in the balance. He played magnificently and was certainly entitled to his Tea! He saw Karma dive over the boundary and saw the subsequent body language of Karma and the rest and understandably felt there was no suggestion that a “play” of any sort was on. The Indians initially thought so too and when they appealed a quick word from the umpires to the effect that this was not a very good idea in the Spirit of the Game would certainly have sufficed. The umpires did not do this and this was very bad judgment on their part. It really was!

And Dhoni and the Indian team’s belated retraction of their appeal sullies the good record of Test Match Special – it was no champagne moment! No Way!