I was surprised by the strong reaction on Twitter to the Munaf/Harbhajan umpire incident. After the Ian Bell and Ashwin ‘Mankad’ controversies, I had come to assume that the “spirit of the game” discourse is largely not accepted among cricket followers anymore; most see it either as a vague imperialist holdover or a conspiracy to benefit batsmen over bowlers. But then, if we don’t care if players are exactly polite to each other, why do we care if they badger umpires? What is the legal difference between, say, appealing en masse to nudge an umpire and arguing vigorously with him to call in for the replay? Was it just that Munaf seemed particularly belligerent, or was it the fact that he questioned the umpire at all?
Of course, I’m happy that Munaf was penalized, but fans shouldn’t put all the blame on his shoulders. What Harbhajan and Munaf did was the culmination of a decades-long trend to undermine the authority of the on-field umpire (mostly to the benefit of the the ‘television umpire’ — i.e., the replay and DRS technology). At one point during the argument, a commentator said that players should just accept that umpires can’t be questioned even when they are wrong; it is, he said, the “human nature of the game.” How quaint. But imagine this scenario: if a player has been dismissed wrongly and the proof is displayed on the stadium replay, why can’t that player argue with the umpire to reverse the decision? (Assume that DRS is not in play because it either isn’t available or reviews have all been used.) Right now, I suspect older fans would say it’s simply wrong to question the umpire; indeed, the very sight of Munaf almost bumping into the umpire caused a visceral reaction of disgust and anger. Will that hold for younger generations, though? Will fans accept the absurdity of forcing players to walk off even when there is proof they are not out?
Which leads to the biggest question of them all: what is the source of the authority of the onfield umpire? If every decision he makes is now only validated/respected after a television replay, why bother with the onfield umpire at all? In the old days, cricket umpires received protection and respect because they were treated like a Hobbesian sovereign. (I’ve made this argument in more detail before here.) Hobbes, you will recall from your college philosophy days, was worried about how rulers could preside in a new era that did not respect the divine right of kings. If everyone had an equal claim to rule (because every human was equal — a radical concept), how could any order be had? Hobbes argued the only way out was for everyone to “give up my right of governing” to the sovereign. It’s the same with cricket: we don’t respect the umpire because he is infallible and all-knowing, but precisely because we know he is human and likely to err. But without an agreement that he alone decides, there would be chaos — in this case, the specter of Munaf and Harbhajan intimidating an umpire.
The weakness here is that this arrangement only works if everyone agrees to this contract. For a long time, it worked; people would more or less accept umpire stupidity because they viewed that as an inherent feature of the game (and, I would say, part of its charm). Now, with television, there is a competing source of legitimacy. The mistake people make is that they assume the television will offer viewers a better replication of reality. As we have seen from a frustrating few years with DRS, that hasn’t completely worked out. But don’t have any illusions about the DRS: it isn’t there to help the onfield umpire; it is there to ultimately undermine and replace him. Sooner or later, the king will fall.