The man in white is (not) always right

26 July,2023 02:02 PM IST |  Mirpur  |  Srijanee Majumdar

Umpire-player altercations are rare on the cricket field, but nothing comes close to Harmanpreet Kaur`s finger-wagging exchange with the on-field umpires

Team India (Pic: AFP)

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Amazingly enough, ‘a cricket umpire is like the geyser in the bathroom, we cannot do without it, yet we notice it only when it is out of order'. Thus wrote Sir Neville Cardus, who has rarely been heralded for his plumbing mastery.

His assessment of umpires was to the point, though, and we have noticed them all too frequently in recent weeks. Muhammad Kamruzzaman and Tanvir Ahmed have attracted the greatest attention.

Umpire-player altercations are rare on the cricket field, but nothing comes close to Harmanpreet Kaur's finger-wagging exchange with the on-field umpires, qualifying as one of the most notorious images in the sport - outwardly an angry contravention by the Indian skipper of the summer game's sporting spirit.

The unedifying drama unfolding in Mirpur is the result of a number of issues that have been bubbling away beneath the surface with increasing intensity since the beginning of the series. They all exploded in a furious head as Kaur's conduct came under wider scrutiny than umpiring follies.

A visibly irritated Kaur directed her anger at the stumps, smashing all three of them after being caught out at slip-off Nahida Akter while attempting a sweep. Did the ball touch the pads or not? Or did the glove or bat get in the way? Just as the umpire's dreaded finger went up, Kaur charged towards him in fury before channeling her anger at the unsuspecting timber, then walked off with a thumbs-up to the crowd.

There has been much talk of the principle that ‘the umpire's decision is final' and how it represents one of the absolute and inviolable tenets of the game - as if the game was designed for the benefit of the umpires rather than players or spectators.

It must be remembered that, according to the laws of cricket, it is illegal for a player to show dissent at an umpire's decision or wilfully mistreat any part of the cricket equipment. It really was a grave sin.

But let the ‘blame game' take a back seat here. What transpired it? Shouldn't the umpires and their judgements be placed under a greater measure of scrutiny too?

In an era when, more than ever before, the performances of international teams have come to be associated as much with national prestige as with the stature of the players, winning takes top priority always. In that context, there was a great deal at stake for the Indian women's team touring neighbouring Dhaka.

Perhaps, the Indians are only too well aware that anything less than a thorough humiliation of lowly Bangladesh could injure their reputation even if not their rating. Understandably, therefore, Kaur had been willing to ensure that flawed umpiring decisions do not prejudice the outcome of the series.

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Judgements, frequently, are based on informed personal decisions rather than precise and foolproof calculations, and one of the effects that replays and reviews and challenges to umpiring decisions have had on the game is to expose the accuracy, or otherwise, of those decisions. Since, however, umpiring was never intended to be informed by perfect judgement, the replays often do more to provoke controversy and debate than to challenge the competence of umpires.

While deputy Smriti Mandhana defended her captain at the post-match press conference, Bangladesh captain Nigar Sultana didn't hold back, saying Kaur "could have shown better manners".

Mandhana had said that Kaur was caught in the heat of the moment as she couldn't accept the umpire's decision. "When you play for India, you want to win the match, and it happens in the heat of the moment," Mandhana said. "I think she [Kaur] wasn't really happy with the decision given and she felt she wasn't out. That is why that [reaction] came about. It is just the heat of the moment and nothing much.

"What happened in the middle is a part and parcel of the game. We've seen these incidents so much in the past as well. When you really want that 'W' on the board for India, these things happen."

Mandhana did, however, call on the ICC to appoint neutral umpires in the future.

"In any match, sometimes it happens that you are really not happy with the [decisions]. Especially when there is no DRS in a match in a series of this kind, we kind of expect a little better level of umpiring in terms of some decisions," she said. "It was very evident that there was not even a second thought given when the ball was hitting the pad when our batters were batting. There was not even one second of thought given before the finger went up.

"I am sure the ICC, BCB, and BCCI will have more of a discussion on that and maybe we can have a neutral-umpiring system from maybe next time so that we don't sit here having these discussions and maybe we can focus more on cricket and cricket-oriented questions."

Kaur swings her bat at the stumps as jubilant Bangladesh players celebrate her wicket. (Pic: Bangladesh Cricket)

Umpiring neutrality, however, is not a cure for all of the game's ills. While no one would doubt the complete absence of bias from the current panel, there are many who would doubt their competence.

"A lot of learning from this game," Kaur had said at the presentation ceremony. "Even apart from the cricket, the type of umpiring that was happening there, we were very surprised. The next time whenever we are coming to Bangladesh, we'll have to make sure we have to deal with this kind of umpiring and accordingly, we'll have to prepare ourselves."

Bangladesh, batting first after winning the toss, rode on Fargana Hoque's 107 to score 225 for 4. In the chase of 226, when Kaur was dismissed, India were 160 for 4 in 33.4 overs, and well placed to win. But they collapsed to 225 all out.

When the end-of-series photograph with both sets of players was being taken, Kaur shouted "bring the umpires too", suggesting they were a part of the Bangladesh side. Nigar, taking offence at this, took her players back to the dressing room soon after.

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The Women in Blue have ever since refused to grumble publicly about the umpiring in this series, and at the close of play, one of my sources close to the team seem to insist that nothing was amiss. But in private they are known to be seething.

"It is totally her problem. I have nothing to do with it," Nigar said in the press conference when asked about the incident. "As a player, she could have shown better manners. I can't tell you what happened, but it didn't feel right to be there [for the photograph] with my team. It wasn't the right environment. That's why we went back. Cricket is a game of discipline and respect."

About the umpiring, Nigar said, "The umpires wouldn't give her out if she wasn't out. We had umpires from men's international cricket, so they were good umpires. What are they [India] going to say about the caught or run-out dismissals [of which there were six excluding the Kaur and Meghna wickets]? We have respected their decisions. The umpire's decision is the final decision, whether I like it or not. Why didn't we behave in that way [like the India players]?"

We all knew Kaur would not get away so easily. She herself knew.

The ICC handed her a two-match suspension, a move that could see the skipper missing two crucial games of India's campaign at the Asian Games in September-October in Hangzhou, China.

"Harmanpreet Kaur has been suspended for the next two international matches following two separate breaches of the ICC Code of Conduct," said the ICC in a statement. Kaur was also fined 50 percent of her match fee for expressing dissent at an umpire's decision, a level 2 offence, and 25 percent match fee, which is a level 1 offence, for openly criticising the umpires.

"Kaur was fined 50 percent of her match fee for the Level 2 offence and received three demerit points on her disciplinary record. She was found guilty of breaching article 2.8 of the ICC Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel, relating to ‘showing dissent at an umpire's decision'," the statement read.

Kaur admitted the offences and agreed to the sanctions proposed by Akhtar Ahmed of the ICC International Panel of Match Referees. Hence, there was no need for a formal hearing, and the penalties were implemented promptly.

A Level 2 breach typically carries a penalty ranging from 50 to 100 percent of the player's match fee, and three or four demerit points, while a Level 1 breach entails a minimum penalty of an official reprimand, up to a maximum penalty of 50 percent of the player's match fee, and one or two demerit points.

"In Kaur's instance, the accumulation of four demerit points converted to two suspension points, leading to her suspension from either one Test match or two ODIs or two T20Is, whichever comes first for the team," the ICC added.

Anyone who has followed the game for any length of time will have seen the ball do interesting things after it has passed the bat. The physics of these actions are well beyond even the cleverest of television motion capture systems. Pun intended!

Technology might eliminate some of the umpires who are less than sympathetic to the plight of visiting sides, but there are still many ways that an umpire can influence a game apart from by dismissals. And not all are on a positive note. Fair play, anyone?

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