As the players tramped off the
field for tea on the last day of the final Test Match of the Ashes series, the
game seemed to be meandering to a sedate close.
The previous day having been entirely lost to rain, the Australians – though
in a superior position, as they had been from the start of the match – were
left with too little time to score enough runs to set the English batsmen an
impossible winning target, and too little time to bowl them out.
Or so it was assumed by the crowd
at the Kennington Oval, many of whom had decided to head home for their own
And then, the Australian captain,
Michael Clarke, decided to liven up the proceedings. He boldly threw down a gauntlet. Tapping on the door of the England dressing-room, he declared the
Australian innings closed and invited England
to score over 200 runs in the two hours remaining in order to win the match –
or to give Australia
the victory by perishing in the attempt.
The consensus in the stands, and
among most of the television pundits, was that England’s batsmen would reject the
challenge, simply play for time by defending stoutly but not making much of an
effort to score the required runs. But
captain, Alastair Cook, taking a cue from his opposite number, had other
ideas. He and his colleagues went for
Wickets soon tumbled – Cook’s
included – but runs were being scored at a decent rate, and after an hour or so
the target started to look achievable. Now,
into the lists, as if welcomed by trumpeting heralds, strode Kevin Pietersen, a
powerful if unpredictable batsman, but more significantly an egotistical
showman who likes nothing more than to ply his talents in the spotlight – the
brighter its glare the better. The
situation was tailor made for him, and he did not disappoint, flaying the
Australian attack to all parts of the field for a rapid-fire 62 runs. By the time he was out caught, attempting one
flamboyant boundary too many, victory was in sight.
Other English batsmen played
their part, however, and suddenly – with Ian Bell, the best batsman on either
side in this series at the crease – the situation heavily favoured an England
victory. Twenty-four balls left to be
bowled and 21 runs to win. The
bookmakers fancied those odds. So did
the rest of us.
And then, abruptly, before the final
act could be staged, with the audience perched on the edges of seats in
anticipation, the curtain came down. No,
it did not rain. The evening was
balmy. But it had also become a little
dim, the shadows lengthened. This, after
all, is England,
in late August.
Anyway, it was too dim for the
two on-field umpires. They consulted each
other, but more importantly they consulted the light-meter provided for the
purpose of determining whether the light was sufficient to allow play to
continue without endangering the batsmen.
The meter made the decision for them, as prescribed in the rules. In the blink of a digit on a screen, game on
became game over.
The Australians, on the verge of
a defeat which ironically they themselves had contrived, were mighty relieved. No sooner had Clarke, who earlier had complained
that his fielders could hardly see the ball in the gloaming (well, he would
wouldn’t he) summoned his team together and off the field they trotted, as if
fearful that the meter reading might have been wrong, obliging the umpires to
order them back. The two English batsmen on the pitch stood and watched with
expressions mingling incredulity and anger.
The Oval immediately resounded
with boos and catcalls, an unseemly breach of the accepted rules of behaviour in
a sport in which dissent has always been more appropriately expressed discreetly,
perhaps in a letter to The Times. Quaint traditions of muted protest are fading
fast – if they ever existed, and few are left who can remember when they did.
Was such vocal dissent justified? Of course it was. Spectators who had paid up to £100 per ticket
had every reason to expect the day to be brought to a natural conclusion,
especially with the prospect of a nail-biting climax. The sky was overcast, it is true, but the floodlights
were on (what are they for, if not for allowing play to continue?) and more
relevantly, the English batsmen, whose opinions were surely the ones that
mattered, since they were the ones supposedly endangered, were naturally eager
to stay on to finish the job.
But further discussion was
fruitless. The umpires had followed the arcane
procedures laid down by cricket’s international ruling powers for such
situations, and that, as far as they were concerned – and regardless of the
circumstances to which they had been instructed to pay no heed – was that. With the benefit of hindsight, the team
captains might have secured a prior agreement to ‘fight to the death’ – but
with whom or what body? Cricket is not
good at handling such spontaneity.
The outcome of the game was
academic anyway. England had
already clinched the series, and the most that might have been changed was the
score-line from 3-0 to 3-1. England would have liked nothing better, of
course, than a margin of 4-0, which would have been a first, and for them a
fitting prelude to the return series in Australia in November. But that result would surely have been unfair,
as it was the Australians who had made the gesture that might have allowed such
The controversy will roll
on. Cricket’s controversies are as hard-wearing
and long-lasting as Roman roads. Englishmen and Australians still argue about
the ethics of the infamous Bodyline Tour of 1934, in which English fast bowlers
were allegedly ordered to bowl at Australian batsmen rather than at their
stumps, a more conventional and certainly more gentlemanly target. The ‘bad light’ issue will simply be added to
scores of other unresolved controversies involving how umpires go about supervising
an increasingly unruly and fractious playing arena: from the use of technology in
determining whether a batsman is out to the on-field sanctions they can impose
on players who undermine the concept commonly referred to as the ‘Spirit of the
Cricket is a complex game, and
the traditional dependence on that elusive and rarely practised Spirit – once adopted
by the English as an identifying virtue under the rubric, A Sense of Fair Play
– can no longer be sustained in the hard commercial environment in which the
sport is now played. “It’s not
cricket”, is now a literary redundancy.
Those of us who will continue to spend
a small fortune for the privilege of spending a day on hard, plastic seats, in
defiance of bad weather, warm beer, outrageously expensive wine, inaccessible
lavatories and, yes, pedantic umpires, will show up regardless. And that gives us every right to boo and hiss
the ‘villains’ for whom the umpires are merely the visible proxies.
No wonder Americans think we’re