|Ground:||Kennington Oval, Kennington|
|Event:||Pakistan in British Isles 2006|
DateLine: 21st August 2006
Pride, runs the old adage, comes before a fall. And when the pride of the Pakistan team came up against the pride of an umpire in Darrell Hair there was no denying that cricket fell some way, if only from its often absurdly lofty view of itself as a more 'moral' pursuit than other sports.
The first forfeit in the 129-year-history of Test cricket, after the umpires awarded the fourth Test match to England following Pakistan's refusal to take the field after tea at The Oval here Sunday when they'd been penalised five runs for ball-tampering, would have struck many new to the sport as curious.
Isn't, for example, claiming a catch when you know the ball has bounced first, just as bad a cricket 'crime' as ball-tampering?
Yet, in another seemingly perplexing move, the on-field punishment of five runs is a trifling penalty.
So why on earth risk a match and in the process deprive fans in the ground of cricket and the 12,000 spectators who'd bought tickets for Monday's fifth day in advance (the estimated total refund cost is 400,000 pounds (600,000 euros)) for such a small setback?
The problem though is not so much the offence, which is as old as the game itself, but its history in relation to Pakistan.
During the 1990s, Pakistan pace bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis enjoyed immense success by pioneering the practice of reverse swing.
This can happen when, after a ball has been roughed up, it deviates in the air in a way opposed to that of conventional swing bowling.
However, it's also possible to boost reverse swing by altering the condition of the ball by illegal means such as nicking it with a bottle top or deliberately rubbing it into the ground.
Here too cricket treads a line in fine distinctions which seem baffling to the uninitiated.
Players are allowed to polish the ball on their trousers, dry it, spit saliva onto it, rub sweat into the surface and clean dirt from the seam.
Yet raising the quarter-seam or picking the main seam on the five-and-a-half ounce leather covered cork ball is forbidden.
On Pakistan's 1992 tour of England there were dark mutterings about the condition of the ball as Wasim and Waqar bamboozled their hosts and during a one-day international at Lord's the ball was changed.
But, back then, there was no five-run penalty for ball-tampering. To most spectators at the ground it simply looked as if the ball was being changed because of natural wear and tear, a common sight at major cricket matches.
It was only until the story broke in the newspapers that 'foul play' became an issue.
History of a different sort was a factor here too.
England, which exported cricket to the rest of the world through the British Empire, has often taken at best, a patronising colonial attitude towards nations such as Pakistan, and at worst downright racist sentiments have been in play too.
Naturally, this has been deeply resented by Pakistanis, whose pride can be injured just as easily as anyone else's.
More sensitive souls, including former England captain Mike Atherton, have argued that the 19th century concept of the 'spirit of cricket', itself often disregarded in its English birthplace, with all its implications of muscular Christian 'character-forming' and which still permeates the sport's rules, is an absurd concept to apply to a different culture such as Pakistan.
The irony of the present situation is that relations between English and Pakistani cricket authorities have rarely been more cordial and the upcoming five-match 1 day series between the two nations is set to go ahead as scheduled.
Instead it is an Australian Anglo-Saxon in the shape of Hair who has once again found himself angering an Asian cricket nation, having a decade ago caused huge controversy when he no-balled Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing - itself another of cricket's heinous 'sins'.
Some observers, carried away by the clamour of the current incident, have asked if the future of cricket is at stake.
But the truth is cricket has always been a controversial game.
Back in the 1930s Test cricket's founding nations were almost split apart, diplomatically as well as sportingly, by the row over England's use of 'Bodyline' bowling designed to stop Australia run machine Don Bradman.
To many cricket traditionalists and indeed it must be suspected Hair himself, the lessening in the belief that the umpire's decision is final come what may has been a cause for regret.
During his time, the power of on-field officials has been eroded by the introduction of the third, television, umpire and the match referee.
So far, the all-seeing eye of television - broadcasters Sky had 26 cameras covering the Test - has not produced footage of Pakistan wrongdoing at The Oval on Sunday.
In the short term, at least, it is Hair's future as an umpire which appears at stake. He is not a naive man and would have been well aware of the furore his decision would cause.
If he is right, Hair will have the ideal riposte to his critics. But in an age where few sports escape the attentions of cameras and lawyers, Hair may find his word alone is no longer enough.
(Article: Copyright © 2006 AFP)
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