When bad light stopped play shortly before tea on the penultimate day of the Fourth Test between England and Pakistan, we were disappointed but not surprised, for clouds had been gathering over the Oval cricket ground in south London for some time. Little did we realise how apt this image would be for the coming (metaphorical) storm.
The sky appeared much brighter when the umpires emerged after tea, so there was consternation when the teams did not join them. Entirely uninformed about what was taking place, we assumed that the umpires were still unhappy with the light, and so barracked them as they returned to the pavilion. They deserved our ire, but not for the reasons we thought.
The Pakistan team were refusing to take the field after the Australian umpire Darrell Hair had accused them of ball-tampering. He alleged that Pakistani players had sought to change the aerodynamic properties of the ball by scuffing up one side of it, thus assisting ‘reverse swing’ of the sort that got out English batsman Alistair Cook.
The award of five penalty runs required by the ‘laws’ of cricket (whose administrators are too pretentious to have mere ‘rules’) was barely significant in the context of the game. Although England had fought back on Sunday, Pakistan were still in much the stronger position to win. Inzamam-ul-Haq’s team took their stand in protest at the cavalier way in which Hair was prepared to smear them as cheats.
I’m afraid to say that it was a sentiment shared by much of the Oval crowd. With tannoy announcements telling us nothing more than to be patient, news seeped through from radio sets and phone calls about the smear and the protest.
For many in the crowd, prejudice supplanted any need to hear the facts of the case. When the Pakistan team took to the field in a gesture of reconciliation, they were shamefully met by boos and insults. A few of us clapped their appearance, but we were in a small minority.
Their magnanimity was equally spurned by the umpires, who had already decided that they had forfeited the match. This was the first such instance in 130 years of Test match cricket, and was entirely unnecessary. But it was primarily significant in its exposure of the covert racism that bedevils the game.
Firstly, the appointment of Darrell Hair as umpire was a sign that the games governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC) was entirely deaf to the concerns expressed by sub continental teams about his dismissive attitude towards them. This has included repeatedly calling Muttiah Muralitharan, one of the greatest spinners in the history of the game, for ‘chucking’ (despite his bowling action having been declared legal by bio-mechanical tests).
It also manifested itself in the last series between these teams, when Pakistan were aggrieved at poor decisions and punishments which bypassed normal warning procedures. They requested that he not officiate at their games again, but were rebuffed.
The ball can get scuffed through normal wear and tear, and given the force with which Kevin Pietersen was hitting it into wooden advertising hoardings and concrete stands, this seems by far the most likely explanation.
But some commentators and fans seem unable to envisage that England might have been losing fair and square. When Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis pioneered reverse swing bowling in the early 1990s they too were smeared as cheats, their achievements devalued.
Yet when England deployed the technique to help them win the Ashes last summer there were no such complaints, despite the widespread acknowledgement that they were sucking sugary sweets and administering their saliva in contravention of Law 42 (the rule on ball tampering). And lest we forget, it was England’s respectable former captain and current Sky commentator, public school educated Mike Atherton who was caught on camera rubbing dirt into the ball in 1994, another no-no.
In the great scheme of things, an abandoned cricket match may not seem to amount to much more than an irritation for those of us who shelled out for vastly overpriced tickets. And certainly, the press hyperbole about ‘crises’ and ‘disasters’ is obscene when measured against the real thing in Lebanon or Iraq.
But we should be concerned about the Islamophobic undercurrent to this debacle. The willingness of many to ascribe base motives to an overwhelmingly Muslim team is not coincidental. It’s one reflection of a broader racism fuelled by Blair’s so-called ‘war on terror’.
It was evident the last time the Pakistan team toured, and some of their fans attempted, as was customary for many years, to celebrate victory on the pitch after the game. They were decried by the press as a violent mob.
And it was a message sent to fans as our soft drinks cans were binned on the way into the ground on Sunday. This procedure was unprecedented in my experience at a cricket ground, and again implied that Pakistan fans could not be trusted.
There were ugly scenes at the Oval on Sunday, but the Pakistan team and fans were the victims, not the perpetrators.