The highlight of the week that went by was undoubtedly the brutal assault launched by Rinku Singh in the final over of the Indian Premier League game that saw him hit five sixes in a row to snatch victory for his side Kolkata Knight Riders against Gujarat Titans. Rinku came into his own when 39 runs were required off the last eight balls. He struck a six and a boundary off the last two balls off the penultimate over to bring the equation down to 29 runs off the final over. Umesh Yadav wisely took a single off the first ball and gave him the strike for the rest of the last over. The bowler Yash Dayal bowled three full tosses in a row, all of which Rinku gleefully smashed over the ropes. In desperation he bowled a short ball which was also struck out of the park. The last ball was not a bad delivery but Rinku had by then grown so much in confidence that he had no difficulty in hitting this for a fifth consecutive six to pull off an almost impossible and in many ways, an unbelievable win for his side.
The ease with which Rinku performed this act might have made the uninitiated think that this was a “cool” task. But the difficulties involved in reaching a target of this proportion was made evident in a couple of days when Mahendra Sigh Dhoni, the acknowledged master of taking the game deep and hitting sixes at will in the final overs, failed to win the game for Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in a similar situation. Dhoni struck Sandeep Sharma for two sixers off the second and third balls of the final over but could not repeat the magic when only seven runs were required off the last three deliveries. Sharma bowled an excellent delivery at run denying length and topped off with two brilliant yorkers that ensured Rajasthan Royals (RR) won the game by a margin of three runs.
The match between RR and CSK was in the news for two more reasons. The first was the docking of a penalty on the Rajasthan side for slow over rate. Sanju Samson, the skipper of RR, was imposed a fine of Rs 12 lakhs for this offence, with the IPL press communique stating that this was the first such offence by the side in this year’s championship. May be, this will also act as a warning for the other sides to follow the rules relating to over rates and implement them strictly.
The other reason for this game attracting the eye balls was the statement of Ravichandran Ashwin against the umpires, which earned him a penalty as well. Ashwin said that he was surprised that the umpires had changed the ball on their own accord due to the dew, something which had not happened before. He further stated that he was flummoxed by this decision as well as by many other decisions and wanted umpires to adopt a uniform standard. The match referee acted quickly and imposed a penalty of 25 per cent of match fees on Ashwin for his statement, which was deemed as a contravention of article 2.7 of IPL code. Further, he was also incorrect regarding the contents of the statement as the umpires are empowered by the Laws of Cricket (law 4.5) to change the ball on their own accord and replace it with one of similar wear and tear.
Ashwin is considered to one of the most “brainy” amongst the present lot of players wearing the national colours. Hence it is highly unlikely that he was unaware about the provisions in the laws of the game allowing umpires to change the ball. If that be the case, then why did he choose to make such a comment in the post match press conference? The answer is obvious - he wanted the umpires to know that not only was his side unhappy with their judgment but they would not hesitate to ridicule the officials openly. This amounts to bringing pressure on the umpires as the officials posted for the next match of RR would wish to avoid a similar situation and thus be extra careful before giving any decision against that side.
It was this aspect that the match referee would have considered the most while taking action against Ashwin. Players get opportunities to interact with the media after each game while umpires do not any chance to state or clarify their position. Press conferences are to be used for throwing light into some development or decision taken during the game which might have had a significant impact on the final result. The captain or the player attending the media briefing is not expected to use the platform for criticising any official or player or team. Hence there is no doubt that this action of Ashwin was incorrect and improper and warranted the punishment that was imposed.
This strategy of players or captains bringing pressure on umpires through criticism, subtle or otherwise, is not a new one. During the early decades, it was the responsibility of the media team accompanying the side to India to report “leaks” from the dressing room about the ”mistakes” of the umpires. From late 1970s onwards, when sports magazines started gaining in popularity, captains of visiting sides were approached to write columns in these periodicals about the Test matches. In addition, some visiting skippers also gave interviews to selected journalists where they praised some umpires and applauded their decision making. Indian side soon started seeing red as they felt that the umpires so appreciated became too accommodative to the appeals of the visitors while giving short shrift to the home side! Soon Sunil Gavaskar also started writing syndicated columns which became quite popular with the public, thus making it a level playing field.
However, the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) brought out a new stipulation that players in the national side should not comment or write about the game. Dilip Vengsarkar was the captain of the national side when this restriction was brought in and a series against West Indies was in progress. The rival skippers - Vengsarkar and Viv Richards - were contracted by a Kolkata-based sports magazine to write about the ongoing Test matches. The BCCI ordered Vengsarkar to stop writing, which he refused to do. His stand was that the direction of the BCCI was unfair to the Indian side as there was no such restriction on the West Indies captain who was free to continue writing. Vengsarkar had also consulted his teammates before refusing to comply with the diktats of BCCI. The end result was that he was suspended by the BCCI after the third Test of the series, which led to Ravi Shastri captaining the side for the last Test.
Though Vengsarkar had to face suspension and sit out for a Test, his principled stand drew considerable support from the media and public. So much so that the BCCI was forced to place a condition with other cricket boards that captains of sides visiting India should not write columns in newspapers or magazines when the tour is in progress.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since those days. Post-match press conferences are the norm these days, when the media gets opportunities to interact with captains/ senior players and get their comments and observations about the game. The availability of slow motion replays, ball tracking apparatus and snickometers and the provision of Decision Review System have put to rest complaints and grievances about umpiring. Further, the International Cricket Council and cricket boards have developed systems for identifying and promoting good umpires with the result that quality of decision making on the field has gone up considerably.
Rival captains and match referee are required to submit their reports to the authority in charge of the game after each match, wherein they have to report on quality of umpiring. Similarly umpires also submit the report about each match wherein they can give their version about any incident they wish to report. These reports are confidential and are not shared with the public, but they are used to correct any lapses in decision making by the umpires. When there exists such a provision for reporting about decisions taken by umpires, the act of Ashwin in airing his views in pubic was certainly uncalled for. One expected a sterner action than docking of match fees as such incidents should not be allowed to recur and must be dealt with firmly.
Players, especially those in the national side, should realise that no one is bigger than the game. Every player, including the most famous and accomplished ones, should respect the rules of the game and the officials conducting it. They should understand that upholding the spirit and good name of the sport is as important a task as winning matches.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)