Fair and Balanced, Please

I’m still in Mumbai, watching the 24-hour news channels dissect the Harbhajan scandal, and I think I’ve found what’s so wrong with cricket fandom and coverage on the Indian side. Greg Chappell’s coaching tenure went awry for a range of reasons — reluctant Board and selectors; the fracas with Ganguly; the unperforming youth — but he lost chiefly to the Indian media, which every once in a while colludes together to create a perfect storm, akin to a lynching mob.

The three channels I’ve followed — NDTV, Times Now, and CNN-IBN — have replayed the umpiring decisions that went against India over and over again, often with the commentators’ own reactions played in the background, for the past three hours. Experts — all Indian, of course, and occasionally of dubious distinction — come on and make all sorts of pronouncements that would make any level-headed cricket fan ashamed. K. Srikkanth, for one thing, needs to learn to slow down and speak clearly, or he’s on a one-way street to a big stroke. And then, there’s the worst display of all: the angry Indian fans, who, goaded no doubt by the Indian media coverage, absolutely lose all sense of perspective. Bucknor was in the Australians’s pockets! India should appeal to the ICC to make the Sydney Test unofficial! Etc., etc.

Lost in all this chatter is any rational analysis, which would have to conclude that India face some serious batting issues. Once again, as Sunil Gavaskar predicted on the morning of day 5, India caved in the fourth innings, lasting just over two sessions. Yes, they certainly would have lasted longer if Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson did not make the decisions they made, but to lose three wickets in one over to Michael Clarke — and to lose the others to Andrew Symonds, a part-time bowler (and a part-time spin bowler, at that) — suggests India needs to take a long look at their own effort, not just the umpires’. At the end of the day, do not make excuses: it was absolutely ridiculous that Indians had to depend on 19-year old Ishant Sharma to save the day, bad umpiring or not. India knows now, with Perth next, that they seriously face the prospect of a series whitewash. And they can gear up against that, or they can make their point (about the bad umpiring) and move on quickly.

Then there’s the question of Bucknor: all of a sudden, Indian fans and experts have discovered their long-term memories, which they usually lose during the latest results involving the Indian team. Bucknor, they say, has always had some “friction” with the Indian team. Whatever is this about? Considering that Bucknor has been around for so long, of course he will have made some bad decisions against virtually every team, India included. And if India did have a problem with the man, they should have made that clear before the series started, just as Pakistan and Sri Lanka regularly do with regards to a certain Mr. Hair.

Thirdly, while the umpires came down more on India than on Australia, there is no doubt that there were a few decisions that went against Australia as well, which Chetan Chauhan was magnaminous enough to admit. Keep that in mind. In fact, when Australia were in India in 2001, Harbhajan Singh shone brightly enough to get a hat-trick, which he owed more to the inept umpire than to any of the actual deliveries. YouTube it.

Finally, there’s this weird notion that technology should supplant the umpires on the field. The Sourav Ganguly episode comes up in this regard, but it makes no sense: had the third umpire been called in (yes, as the rules said he should), he would have given Ganguly not out, not because it was conclusive, but because the batsman gets the benefit of the doubt (and having watched a million replays of the episode, I can assure you, there’s more doubt here than in the Bhutto assassination). Even if you employ the tennis system of three referrals, you will not remove the human element, because behind every snick or hawkeye projection, there often remains significant room for interpretation.

This is not to say that India shouldn’t feel they got a raw deal. As one excellent writer on Cricinfo noted, the context matters in all things: this was an exceedingly close and well-fought contest, and precisely because it was so, it adds that much to fans’ frustration knowing that the deciding factor could have been the umpires. Still, before the effigies start burning and the voices raised, keep the above points in mind.

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