Hair trigger for drama which became a crisis

At least Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council (ICC), got one thing absolutely right. At the beginning of the most explosive and jaw-dropping press conference that I can remember, he said that the whole episode was due to a series of ‘entirely avoidable and unnecessary overreactions’.

This is not the biggest crisis that cricket has ever faced. It is not even the biggest crisis that cricket has faced in the last decade – match-fixing, the greatest possible fraud on the paying public, was a far graver threat to the game – and, in time, people will look back in amazement at how one little pimple was allowed to grow and fester into a boil that finally burst at Friday’s press conference, spreading puss all over the game.

Hair’s midweek madness gifted the ICC with a convenient way out of the impasse that threatened to engulf the one-day series between England and Pakistan and, by extension, the wider international game. By releasing the details of three private emails that Hair sent to his employers in the early part of last week – the first proposing a payment of $500,000 with conditions attached, the second, more sinister email, holding the ICC to ransom for a ‘revised amount’, and the third which revoked the two earlier emails and cheerily hoped that life would ‘go on regardless’ – the ICC were able to lay responsibility for the whole sorry mess at the feet of one man.

Speed may have couched Hair’s assassination in a caring, paternal tone, arguing that the umpire sent the emails at a time of great mental turmoil, and that there was no malicious intent involved, but it was, ultimately, a calculating and brutal act of self-preservation from an organisation noted more for their lawyerly rigidity (think back to the Zimbabwe furore) than their humanity. The events of last Sunday at The Oval are now likely to be forgotten as Hair’s madness takes centre stage. The most likely result of it all – though making predictions is a fool’s game in the current climate – is that the meeting of the ICC’s executive committee in Dubai will dismiss Hair from their employment and subsequently the hearing against Inzamam-ul-Haq is likely to be concluded in Pakistan’s favour.

It is a rough kind justice on Hair, but justice nonetheless because if there is one man who could have stopped this episode from escalating it is him. If a more sensitive, pragmatic and less dogmatic umpire had been standing alongside Billy Doctrove then the full house at The Oval, and millions watching around the world, would have been allowed to enjoy a splendid contest reach its natural conclusion. The day before Hair sent his emails to the ICC, he told the Brisbane Courier Mail that he stood by his actions at The Oval. I bet he wishes he could now jump back in time and revisit the decision to charge Pakistan with ball tampering, applying a little more of the wisdom and humanity he might have subsequently hoped for from his employers.

So let us revisit that afternoon at The Oval, the point of origin of the whole affair – the first entirely avoidable and unnecessary over-reaction. For nothing that I have seen, heard or read in the interim – not the apologists for Hair who sprang up midweek, nor the conspiracy theorists who fretted over whether Duncan Fletcher did or did not see the match referee, nor those who slammed Pakistan for their undoubtedly disproportionate response – has convinced me of anything other than the whole sorry mess was caused by the crassest and most insensitive piece of umpiring I have ever seen. By applying the law to the letter, Hair enslaved us all to the rule book instead of allowing us to enjoy the fascinating contest between bat and ball that was so clearly developing.

Despite the subsequent threats in his emails to take civil action against the Pakistan team, I do not believe Hair to be biased against the sub-continental teams. I believe that he tries to do his difficult job without fear or favour. But I also believe that he made a catastrophic error of judgment last Sunday. It wasn’t inevitable that his grand gesture would lead to the first ever forfeiture of a Test match, but it was inevitable that the accusation of ball tampering against Pakistan would dominate that day, and days to come, to the exclusion of everything else.

Why? Because of the complex history between these two teams – the undercurrent of empire and race that has always added a certain tension to the confrontation – and because both these teams, especially Pakistan, have previous where ball tampering is concerned. In short: because of the context within which a modern-day England-Pakistan series is played. Hair’s action and, in my opinion, his over-reaction, paid no heed to anything other than the moment, midway through the afternoon, when he saw what appeared to him to be unusual marks on the ball. His decision was blinkered, it was narrow-minded and, in good time, I have no doubt that it will be considered to have been plainly wrong.

Let us for a moment assume that Hair was right and that the ball had been tampered with. If so, it is surely fair for us to assume that the misdemeanour was relatively minor. How so? The umpires inspected the ball 15 minutes earlier, at the fall of the previous wicket, and must have been satisfied with its condition. Sky Sports have scoured footage of the intervening 15 minutes and can find no evidence of tampering. Granted, television should not be used as judge and jury (though it is ironic, given last week’s events, that 12 years ago a certain England captain was hauled up before the beak on television evidence alone when both umpires insisted that the ball’s condition had not been changed), but it is inconceivable that the cameras would not have picked up anything major.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly likely that Hair cannot have seen anything being done to the ball. How so? Because, until Friday, the ICC had not asked Sky Sports, the host broadcaster, for any footage to be used in the hearing as evidence and because no Pakistani individual, except the captain-cum-scapegoat, had been cited for tampering. It is therefore highly likely that Hair saw marks which concerned him and that he presumed that those marks had been caused by tampering. What a presumption to make!

Let us continue to assume, then, that tampering of the most minor kind – a scratch here, a scratch there – had occurred. You now have a choice. Do you rigidly uphold the letter of the law or do you recognise that a full house and millions around the world are enjoying a fascinating game and take the more pragmatic approach. I hope that you, like me, would take Inzamam quietly aside, register your concerns, ask him to relay those concerns to his team and ask him to put a stop to it. (That no conversation between Hair and Inzamam occurred before Hair changed the match ball was confirmed by Bob Woolmer.)  If it continued, you would knock politely on the Pakistan team’s dressing-room door during the tea interval and ask them to stop again. If it continued after tea then, and only then, would you put your traffic warden’s hat on.

I used the analogy of the traffic warden – the type who slaps a ticket on your windscreen 20 seconds after your time has run out – at the time on television. It provoked a response from a viewer that, while detesting the actions of the warden, most people would simply grumble a bit and then get on with life, rather than beat the warden to a pulp, which was the analogous over-reaction from Pakistan. True enough. But if that ticket resulted in a permanent criminal record, with all the attendant problems and damage to your reputation that it caused, then I reckon most people would look to take the matter further.

So did Inzamam. The rest, as they say, is history. Sunday Telegraph, 27 August 2006