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Maybe they just can't resist?

By Adam Griffin
October 12 2004

Australia are the number one test side at the moment. Yes, India appear to have their measure, but India are not quite so consistent over other sides. Australia are reasonably judged to be the team most likely to beat any other team in the world on any given day, which makes them number one. Australia are also a side with "personality". Shane Warne, Ponting, Hayden, Gilly, they are all players with a bit of an infectous personality. They stand tall on the pitch. They have an air of confidence, a somewhat "arrogant" swagger about them which simply comes from knowing they win. And they get media attention. Everyone knows who Glenn McGrath is. They know he likes to chat to batsmen in the middle. They know he is one of the world's greatest bowlers. Australia are, as a team, as people, as personalities, very much "in your face". Compared to India, well really, who writes newspaper articles about Dravid outside of commenting on his cricketing achievements? That's not a criticism, just a statement of what I think is an obvious fact. The Australians are imposing, noticeable, big, unavoidable.

What does this all mean? It means that they are expected to win. Not just predicted to win, but EXPECTED. You might think that if McGrath, a world class bowler with 400 test wickets, makes a very strong appeal that its quite likely that it's a good appeal and worth listening to. If he's backed up by the entire Australian team, well then as an observer surely you'd be sensible to take notice. This is, after all, Australia. So much attention, so much power, such irresistable force... who could resist this?

So my suggestion is that maybe the umpires are affected by this! For all that they are supposed to impartial and objective, maybe their own humanity and tendency towards human error makes them quite susceptible to just "going with the flow". After all, if Australia think that the guy was out LBW, who are you to say they are wrong. This is the all-powerful Australia, media icons, everyone knows who they are and how great they are. Maybe the umpires are just like everyone else! Maybe, for all their required impartiality, they simply... well... they just agree.

And when you look over the other side of the coin, what are you competing with? Ganguly? Dravid? Sachin? These mild-mannered yet graceful players who according to most Indians wouldn't hurt a fly? It's not like they get their own newspaper column when on tour. One would be even forgiven for calling them mentally weak. They don't sledge, they don't have that appearance of confidence. There is occasional division. Sometimes they are good but sometimes they are just downright awful. They fall apart, they can't win in finals, they can't win away from home. These may be over-generalisations but they are ones held in popular opinion. And when was the last time ANY Indian player got press coverage outside of India the way Shane Warne does? It might be negative, but doesn't it really make a difference?

So what I see is India, the reluctant heros, the quiet achievers up against Australia, the juggernaut, the crushing bulldozer of adrenalin and testosterone with the world media just aching for them to do something interesting. Once you ignore the actual cricket, it's clearly no competition.

Now of course umpires SHOULD be beyond all of this. Notice the word in capitals. They SHOULD be strong-willed. The should be capable of a wry smile or a harsh word to the Aussies at any time. They should be able to walk away from a strong appeal and be unaffected by the crowd, the jeers, the screams of agony from Brett Lee as he gets again denied an opportunity to perform his rediculous celebration for getting out a tail-ender. It would make sense that these stalwarts of modern cricket should be sacrosant, untouchable, impervious to something as flimsy as personality or a media-created viewpoint.

But are they? Let me ask you: had this all been around 60 years ago, would Shane Warne have gotten the same sort of press he gets today for his rediculous antics? Would anyone have even cared? Umpires might know who he is, might know of his bowling, but they wouldn't see too much of him on TV (what TV?). He would be nothing more to them than another bowler, albeit a talented one. There was no media pressure back then. Today, even the umpires themselves are personalities. Bowden is a prime example. He loves to put on a show, so you know he is aware of the attention. It follows quite logically that he is also not impervious to it. He likes the attention so it follows that he is prone to giving a bit of it back the other way. He plays the game that the fans want him to play. That much is obvious. So maybe when that game involves having the Australian juggernaut roll on to yet another victory, Bowden is just filling his role.

See, back in the days, all of this was impossible. Players were amatuers. They didn't fill the back pages, hell, were there even back pages to fill? Newspapers werent like this 60 years ago and neither were umpires. What has happened is that what was once just cricket is now a circus. It's a circus of entertainment and pressure and gossip and extraordinary nonsense that we know is mostly a waste of space but we buy it anyway. And where once an umpire was protected by annonymity, a sense of good manners, a sense of simply not being known, well now there is nowhere to hide. We know who you are Billy, or Shep, or Bucknor. You are now the object of that attention. How could they possibly resist?

You see, it all makes sense. It's not scripted. No one has to orchestrate anything. It's just how its happening. Australia ARE the dominant side and they do have the media behind them both for good times and for bad. The ICC don't have to sit down and have a meeting where they discuss how to engineer the next Australian victory, the whole world just expects it. So does Billy Bowden and, for that matter, Steve Bucknor. Whilst they should be beyond such an influence they are themselves merely human. And when it all happens, this "game", without you even realising you are taking part, especially in the heat of the moment, then there is also nothing that you can do to stop it. The only way to do anything would be to realise the cause and somehow circumvent it or deal with it in a novel way. But we can't even get to that stage because no one really sees anything going wrong. To the contrary, it's all going quite right, just as we EXPECT it to.

And if you think that Australia gets it all their own way, well maybe you didn't see the Champions Trophy semi-final. This was England's big chance, it was in all the papers so how could you ignore it. And when they had a chasible target, well you could also have written the outcome and turned it into a movie script. England dominates the old enemy, cruises to an easy win. And how did they do it? By having close to 10 very strong LBW appeals by Australia's fast bowling contingent conveniently turned down. Those very same appeals that seem to be going FOR the Aussies now that they play India! You could also explain it through simple umpiring standard deviation. But then, how come that standard deviation seems to so clearly follow a script that must surely be conceived by the same folks who brought us 'The Mighty Ducks'? For me, it just seems possible enough to be true.

No doubt, technology is one answer. It does appear as if umpires are fallible and that's no great surprise. There is pressure on them today that they've never had to experience before, and its only going to get worse. We either build them of steel, or we accept that they are not quite perfect and make their lives easier. The force will still press on them heavily. They still may expect that Aussie juggernaut to roll on to another test win, but if you make them stop and watch a reply 5 times, perhaps they wouldnt be so quick to raise the finger. Perhaps they might just stop and ignore that feeling in their gut that is telling them what to do. Perhaps they might just accept their own limitations and finally give the modern fan just what he wants: the right decision!

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