2009-12-12 00:00

ASKED about the long-term effect of the French Revolution, a Chinese premier of recent vintage famously replied: “It’s too early to tell.” Much the same can be said about the review system that dominated headlines during last week’s compelling Adelaide Test match. Cricket writers seldom actually write about cricket. Instead they find themselves talking about umpires, protests, strikes, politics, outbursts and so forth. But then, two cricket nations feature prominently in the list of most dangerous countries for a journalist — Pakistan (second) and Sri Lanka (sixth). Amazingly Zimbabwe did not feature in the top 10. Cricket is not played in quiet backwaters. It lives and dies on the battlefront.

Adelaide provided a terrific tussle made memorable by Chris Gayle’s unexpectedly innovative captaincy and substantial batting, Kemar Roach’s furious pace (he is the fastest bowler in the world) and Sulieman Benn’s lofty left-armers and constant chirps. Alas, the match was also marked by reviews that created as much head-shaking as the original decisions. As JM Keynes once observed, “the cure can be worse than the disease”.

To recap, the first day of the Test contained several contentious decisions and one surprising over-rule. All of the controversies involved Mark Benson, an English umpire with a record of ill-health. Benson also stood in the far nastier and badly umpired SCG Test match of January 2008 when the Australians produced their most ill-mannered performance in 25 years. Last week Benson left the field at stumps on the first day in Adelaide and was never seen again. Amidst all sorts of rumours, he flew back to England and lay low for a few days. Eventually Benson emerged to announce he had been ill and unable to carry on in good faith, but added he supported the review system and his withdrawal was unconnected with the overruling. Meanwhile journalists reported that he had been angry in the umpire’s room after play.

Two of Benson’s decisions were over-ruled by Aleem Dar and one was supported. First he gave Shivnarine Chanderpaul not out after he flashed outside off stick. Convinced they had heard a noise and observing that bat was far from body, the Australians were incensed. Ricky Ponting made his feelings known. So much for Australia’s supposed tradition of accepting the umpire’s verdict. The replay and microphones picked up a loud but flat noise. It did not look like an edge but what else could it have been? Scientists argued that the proximity of ball and flashing bat created noise in the same way as helicopter blades. Chanders continued.

Next Benson gave Dwayne Bravo out leg before wicket. A single replay was enough to confirm that the ball was easily clearing the bails and the decision was over-turned. Perhaps Benson already felt affronted. If so, he had little cause. The game is not about the umpires. It’s about the players. Whether justice had so far been served only Chanderpaul can know. But it had been seen to be done. Fieldsmen are not always right. Ponting was convinced Gayle had edged one glance, but replays confirmed that he had missed the ball by inches.

Next came the moment of highest dispute. Chanderpaul had reached a gritty 50 and appeared set in stone. Australia again appealed for a catch at the wicket. Benson again shook his head. Replays seemed inconclusive. Overrules are only allowed when a decision is obviously wrong. Nevertheless, Dar found enough evidence of guilt to send the batsman on his way. At lunch the next day Chanderpaul was overheard telling the Pakistani that he had erred. All concerned were surprised by the overturn, but that does not mean Chanderpaul missed the ball.

Benson left the next morning — in a huff or, unwell, it was anyone’s guess (but it’s unusual for an ill person to travel so soon). Inevitably umpires sprang to his defence, complained about humiliation. Even the captains raised doubts. Gayle has never favoured reviews (though West Indians have often complained about umpiring in Australia). Ponting has become a tentative supporter. Daniel Vettori suggested one unsuccessful review a side is sufficient. Now there is talk of installing more cameras. Nothing is infallible. Apparently hotspot only lasts a fraction of a second and angled bats can render it redundant.

It’s too early to tell whether the system is fatally flawed. Its application has been too muddled. Not until the kinks have been ironed out can an informed judgment be made. Meanwhile, umpires need to pull their heads in. Ian Gold had an excellent match, and the review backed him up every time.

However, it is possible to say something about the French Revolution. Although imperfectly applied it was a good thing because it rid the country of the notion that some people are born to rule. Pity the same has not happened elsewhere.

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