The week that went by saw Steve Bucknor, the former International Cricket Council (ICC) elite panel umpire from the West Indies, confessing that he made two mistakes during the Test between India and Australia at Sydney in 2008, “that might have cost India the game”. This brought the focus back on a match that was intensely fought but marred by acrimony between the two sides and almost led to the tour getting cancelled. This statement also raised the issue of mistakes committed by umpires, their impact on the game, and what could be done to minimise them.
India toured Australia for a four-Test series followed by tri-nation One-Day International (ODI) series, also involving Sri Lanka, from December, 2007, till February, 2008. India, led by Anil Kumble in Tests, possessed a balanced side and had in their ranks the main players who had performed creditably during their previous visit there in 2003-04 when they drew 1-1. Australia, under Ricky Ponting, were on a roll having won 14 Tests consecutively and were looking forward to extending their hegemony over India as well. A hard-fought series was on the cards when the proceedings began at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the traditional Boxing Day Test.
However, India shocked their fans by going down meekly in the first Test, losing by 337 runs inside four days. The Indian batsmen could not get going against the Aussie pace attack led by Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark. This was a bad start and brought back memories of the disastrous performances by the visitors during their tours in 1991-92 and 1999-2000. It was imperative that the Indians improved their performances by several notches in the next Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground if the matches were to sustain spectator interest.
Australia won the toss and chose to bat but found themselves in trouble soon losing six wickets for 134 runs, with all their main batsmen back in the pavilion. But they recovered to post a total of of 463, helped by an unbeaten 162 by Andrew Symonds and half-centuries from Brad Hogg and Brett Lee. In reply, India fared better, led by centuries from Sachin Tendulkar (154) and V V S Laxman (109) and half-centuries by Rahul Dravid (53), Sourav Ganguly (67) and Harbhajan Singh (63), to secure a lead of 69 in the first innings.
The hosts struck back strongly in the second knock powered by Mike Hussey (145 not out), Matthew Hayden (123) and Symonds (61) to reach 401/7, when skipper Ponting declared the innings closed just before lunch on the last day. This left India an almost unattainable target of 333 in just more than two sessions on the final day. The Australian bowlers went all out and succeeded in dismissing India for 210 with less than two overs of play remaining. Michael Clarke picked up the last three Indian wickets off five balls with his part-time left-arm spin bowling.
But what won this game lasting infamy was the poor umpiring by the two officials - Bucknor and England's Mark Benson. Bucknor was at that time the senior most umpire in the ICC panel, having officiated more than 100 Test matches and five World Cup finals. Benson, a former England opener, though less experienced, had stood in 21 Tests and 61 ODI till then. It has since been ascertained that there were a total of 11 incorrect decisions in this match, out of which eight went against the Indians. Bucknor’s share in this mistakes was four while Benson contributed six and the remaining was on account of a lapse on the part of third umpire Bruce Oxenford.
Symonds gets lucky
The most important among the 11 mistakes involved Symonds being adjudged “not out” by Bucknor in the first innings when he edged a ball from Ishant Sharma to wicketkeeper M S Dhoni with his individual score on 30. Later, Oxenberg, the third umpire, negatived an appeal for stumping when Dhoni removed the bails with Symonds apparently out of the ground. Symonds made the most of these two reprieves to remain unbeaten on 162.
In the second innings, Benson turned down an appeal when Hussey edged one from Rudra Pratap Singh to Dhoni. Hussey, who was on 45 when he got the benefit of this decision, went on to score to score an undefeated 145. When India batted in the second innings, Bucknor gave Rahul Dravid “out” when the ball brushed his pads on the way to the gloves of wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. The dismissal of Dravid gave a fillip to the Austraian bowlers and put them on the path to victory.
Worse was to follow when Ganguly edged a ball which was held by Clarke in second slip but there was a doubt as to whether ball had touched the ground first. Benson did not refer to the matter to third umpire but chose to ask Ponting whether the catch was held cleanly and on getting affirmation from the Aussie captain, he lifted the index finger. Television replays were inconclusive, indicating that third umpire would have given the benefit of doubt to the batsman.
In the middle of all this, on the third day of the match, Australia lodged a complaint against Harbhajan Singh stating that he had called Symonds “a monkey” during a verbal spat that the two had on the field. Since this expression fell under the category of “racist abuse”, an inquiry was conducted by Mike Proctor, the match referee. Both the umpires claimed not have heard the exchange, which was surprising as it took place right in the middle of the ground. After completing a quick inquiry, Proctor adjudged Harbhajan to be guilty, based primarily on testimony of the Aussie players and banned him for three Test matches.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India did not take this lying down and announced that it was discontinuing the tour, subject to the decision in the appeal filed by Harbhajan. But soon better sense prevailed on all sides and it was decided not to enforce the ban immediately but to wait until the appeal process was over. The appeal was heard by John Hansen, a High Court judge from New Zealand, at the end of the Test series. The appellate authority exonerated Harbhajan, thus closing the matter.
Thus came to end one of the most acrimonious Test matches in the history of international cricket. The relations between the two sides got strained badly and Aussies faced all-round criticism for their brand of cricket which was seen to be too aggressive and against the spirit of the game. India’s victory in the next Test at Perth helped to assuage the feelings of the followers of the game back home and helped to buoy up the spirits of the side. The fourth Test in Adelaide ended in a draw as Australia won the series 2-1. However,the India team under Dhoni perked up sufficiently to win the tri-nation ODI series convincingly by defeating Australia 2-0 in the finals.
How did the Sydney Test go this way despite the presence of a match referee, the officials involved having considerable experience and the two captains being senior players who commanded the respect of the players? This can only be attributed to the failure of all these individuals in their respective capacities as well as collectively. What can be done when an umpire has an off day at work? Unlike a bowler who can be taken off from the attack if he was having a bad day or a fielder who can be hidden, an umpire has to continue with his job even if he was performing poorly. Like any other human being, they can also have bad days when their decision making abilities are less sharp than normal. When that happens, it is up to the captains and match referee to support them and help them to regain their confidence. This can be done by talking to the umpires directly to boost their confidence and also asking the players to go slow with pressurising them on the field. Neither of these appear to have happened at Sydney as the pressure on the umpires kept on increasing and they kept on making one mistake after the other, mostly to the advantage of the home side.
In this regard, I can cite a personal experience during my early days as an umpire at the first-class level. Those days Ranji Trophy was played on zonal basis with the one-day match between the two sides taking place first followed by the four-day game. I was umpiring a match between Vadodara and Saurashtra at Vadodara. The hosts lost the one-day game by three runs due to which they lost their chance of qualifying for the knock out stage. As it was a close game there was a lot of pressure on the umpires and even after the game one could hear adverse comments from the Vadodara dressing room against us. Next morning, before the four-day game started Kiran More, the skipper of Vadodara, team came to us as we were inspecting the pitch and said “Sir, you people did an excellent job yesterday. It was a close match and you handled the tense situation very well. I apologise for bad comments from our players. Please continue with the good job during this match also”. These words put both of us in a better frame of mind, which was reflected on the manner in which we officiated the four-day match.
If Procter and the two captains had sat down with the two umpires after the close of play on first day and had a chat, it would have helped the officials no end and helped to avert the mistakes that they made on the succeeding days. More confident umpires would translate into officials exercising better control over the game and this would have served to thwart the verbal spats between players and controversy over racial slur as well. The moral of the story is that conduct of the game within the laws and upholding its spirit are the responsibility of not only the umpires but also the entire set of players led by the two captains and the match referee.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)