The week that went by saw New Zealand cling on to a draw in the first Test of the ongoing series against India at Kanpur while the opening day of the second Test saw Mayank Agarwal score a superb century. Ajaz Patel walked his way into the record books by picking up all 10 Indian wickets in the first innings of the Mumbai Test, thus joining the elite company of Jim Laker and Anil Kumble as the only bowlers to get a “Perfect-10” in international cricket. Patel, a 33 year old left-arm spinner, had played only 10 Tests and picked up 29 wickets prior to the game at Mumbai, the city where he was born, when he made the cricketing world sit and take notice by this stupendous performance.
The two Tests also showed the enormous talent pool of batsmen available within the country. Agarwal would not have played in this series had either K L Rahul or Rohit Sharma been fit, which goes to show how difficult it is to get a spot in the playing eleven of the national team in Test cricket. If Ajinkya Rahane had not pulled his hamstring in the run up to the second Test, the selectors would have faced the dilemma of choosing between the batsman who scored a century in the last Test and the player who led the side in that game, for the last batting spot in the eleven! One shudders at the thought of having to select five batsmen from among Rahul, Rohit, Agarwal, Shubhman Gill, Cheteswar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer and Ajinkya Rahane. Suffice to say that Indian cricket has not been blessed with this luxury of riches for a long time.
The difficulties faced by the selectors and Patel’s achievement apart, umpires drew attention to themselves during both the matches. In the first Test there was considerable debate over the action of Nitin Menon, the field umpire, in warning Ashwin for finishing his follow through in front of the batsman at the non-striker’s end. This invited plenty of opinions from commentators and former players, with some like Sunil Gavaskar choosing to criticise Menon while others found fault with Ashwin. In the second Test controversy surrounded the dismissal of Kohli, who was given out leg before wicket by umpire Anil Chowdhary off Patel. The television replays indicated that the ball had taken the under-edge of the bat before striking the pads. But when India reviewed the decision, Virender Sharma, the third umpire, decided not to overturn the call of the field umpire and hence Kohli had to return to the pavilion. This incident drew a plethora of criticism, all directed against the third umpire.
It will be interesting to analyse the logic behind the decisions of the umpires in both instances. Ashwin is an off-spinner who usually bowls over the wicket to right-handed batters. The laws of cricket do not lay down any stipulations about the follow through of a bowler except stating that he should not tread on the “danger area” of the pitch, which starts five feet in front of the popping crease and extends one foot wide on each side of the line joining the centre of middle stumps at either end. It is also stated in the laws that the non-striker should stand where he does not interfere with the bowler’s run up or the follow through. Hence the normal practice adopted is for the non-striker to stand on the other side of the stumps from where the bowler approaches the bowling crease. Thus, when Aswin bowls over the wicket, the non- striker will stand on the right side of the umpire. Since the bowler is required to avoid the danger area, and the non-striker usually runs outside the borders of the pitch, instances of these two coming into contact or obstructing each other do not arise in the normal course.
At Kanpur, Ashwin adopted the ploy of bowling from around the wicket to a right-hand batter and chose to approach the bowling crease through the gap between umpire and the stumps. This is not abnormal as left-arm spin bowlers usually adopt this approach to the bowling crease. But where Ashwin chose to be different lay in the manner in which he chose to move after delivering the ball. Instead of moving away from the pitch, Ashwin moved across the wicket to the other side, thus not only blinding the umpire when the ball was en route to the batsman but also coming in front of the non-striker! It is worth mentioning that Ashwin took care not to move into the danger area; his movement across the wicket was in the area between popping crease and this area.
What should an umpire do in these circumstances? As Gavaskar correctly pointed out, Aswin had not breached any of the laws and hence could not be issued a formal warning for an infringement. If the umpire is blinded on account of bowler coming in front of him, then the loss will be for the latter as the former is unlikely to uphold an appeal for leg before wicket or caught close to wicket without being able to see the event. An umpire can only politely point out this possibility to the bowler. And the non-striker can, if he is inconvenienced by the follow through of the bowler, move to the other side of the wicket, after informing the umpire.
However, the point that Gavaskar missed completely was that Ashwin’s action went against the spirit of the game. He should have informed the non-striker about the possibility of him moving across the wicket in his follow through. This prior information was necessary as it would have given non- striker the option to move to the other side of wicket. Umpire Menon interfered only to inform Aswin about his coming in the path of the non-striker. Instead of accepting his mistake and making amends by correcting it, Aswin chose to argue with the umpire, which was in very bad taste. And the action of Gavaskar in criticising the umpire was unbecoming of the great man as he knew very well what Aswin indulged in was an act of gamesmanship, which did not merit any justification or support.
In the Kohli episode, the available evidence in the form of television replays showed that batsman was “not out” as the ball had nicked the bat before striking the pad. The Indian captain had reached the crease after Cheteswar Pujara had fallen to Patel for a duck. Kohli, who had not played in the previous Test, seemed a bit tentative and chose to play from inside the crease to a ball that straightened up after pitching on the good length spot. The Kiwi close in fielders appealed vociferously when the ball struck the pad and umpire Chowdary had no hesitation in giving Kohli out. Kohli was certain that he had edged the ball and sought a review. After seeing the replays many times over, the third umpire Sharma held that there was no “conclusive evidence” to overturn the decision of the field umpire..
This brings one to the key question as to what would constitute “conclusive evidence” in such cases. In appeals for “leg before wicket”, umpire has to consider three aspects - (i) whether the ball pitched in line with the stumps or outside the off stump (ii) would the ball have hit the stumps but for it being interfered with and (iii) did the ball touch the bat before striking the person. In this instance, Kohli indicated that his challenge through the review was on account of the fact that he felt the ball struck the bat first. Hence the decision of the third umpire appeared like an outright miscarriage of justice, given the fact that replays showed the ball striking the bat first and then getting deflected to the pad. Coming as it did, from the third umpire, who had time on his side and access to any number of replays, this was indeed a poor decision, to put it mildly.
What can be done to minimise such errors on the part of umpire? There are no ready-made cures for this malady as one attains perfection in umpiring only through constant practice. The Board of Control for Cricket In India (BCCI) should not hesitate to pull out the umpire concerned from the panel, so that the message would go out that there is no compromise on quality. At the same time the BCCI should also support umpires who take bold measures to implement the laws and uphold the spirit of the game. These measures will send across the strong message that top drawer umpires who discharge their responsibilities in a free and fair manner and do not panic under pressure will be encouraged. This will help to bring the focus on quality, which should be the sole criterion governing promotion of umpires to international panel.
Players, on their part, would do well to avoid instances of gamesmanship as the umpires have their hands full trying to keep track of the ball on pitches that offer inconstant bounce and turn. Mounting pressure on the officials in the middle in the hope of getting a favourable verdict is never a wise move as this strategy invariably proves to be a double-edged weapon in the long run.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)