A storm in a tea break

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The Darrell Hair ball-tampering affair has gone from absurd to utterly farcical. Now ICC chief Malcolm Speed is flying in like a cricketing Kofi Annan, and Pakistani President Musharraf has shoved his oar in as well. And just when you thought the situation couldn’t get more ridiculously overheated, Shane Warne butts in with an opinion that Hair isn’t racist. Hate to say it, Warney, but in a racism controversy, I don’t know that the words of a white Australian are going to carry much weight on the subcontinent.

John Buchanan hasn’t exactly helped either by saying that Australia would never forfeit a match, implying that Pakistan are a pack of whingers with less moral fibre and regard for the much-vaunted “spirit of the game” (Which I think is Bundy, isn’t it?). I guess it comes down to values. The Pakistan team apparently values making principled stances, even self-defeating ones, while Australia don’t value anything so much as winning.

Surely there would be some issue of principle over which Australia would walk off the field and forfeit a match? Nah, mate. Not if it meant losing a Test. Not even if they disrespected the Don.

Not that Pakistanis haven’t said irritatingly provocative things too. Mini-Hitler, Imran? Slight difference of degree here with six million murdered Jews, wouldn’t you think?

It’s virtually impossible to judge this situation until the independent inquiry. None of Sky Sports’ 30 cameras on the site caught anything, which is troubling for Hair to say the least. I expect the umpires will be exonerated though, at least technically, simply because Hair seems like an absolute stickler for the strict letter of the rules, and willing to attract an almost unlimited amount of controversy where he feels he’s in the right.

But umpires have to exercise good sense as well as rigidly applying the rules. And the biggest problem here is that everyone involved has been acting so self-righteously, to the verge of pig-headedness. Without knowing precisely what the tampering involved, the umpires’ initial actions can’t really be critiqued, but Hair’s subsequent comments have been extremely provocative. While Pakistan’s refusal to take the field was always going to invoke a forfeiture scenario, particularly when the umpires had already shown they were going to strictly apply the rules. And talk of libel is only going to seem Pakistan seem more inappropriately petulant. The time to act was after the match. After all, It was only 5 runs.

But something’s got to give. Like the chucking issue that created Hair’s other infamous media storm, this situation ultimately highlights a flaw in the game. I know everyone loves cricket traditions, but designing a ball which can’t be tampered with – with a synthetic, unpickable seam for example – seems only sensible. Sure, it’s good the way the ball changes over the time of the match, and that new balls have distinct challenges to old balls. But like diving in football, any situation in sport where cheating is relatively easy and gets you an advantage, but ultimately relies on the umpires’ subjective discretion, is a recipe for disaster.

And further, any situation where the consumption of breath mints can potentially affect the outcome of a series is absurd.

Cricket traditionalists often sigh and say “it’s just not cricket.” The more appropriate thing for everyone to remember here, though, is that it’s just cricket. There is more than enough distressing conflict in the world at the moment without needing to add so much energy to such a trivial issue as this one ultimately is. Everyone tampers with the ball. The only sensible thing to do is change the rules so that no-one can.

Dominic Knight