In the history of professional sport, equality before the law is at best a tenuous concept. Star players and champion teams in most sports have come to expect anything from leeway to outright preference from umpires and referees. LeBron James, the world’s most talented basketball player, is routinely allowed to take four or five steps with the ball without being called for a travelling violation. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo persistently wins fouls for outright dives and play-acting. Profit-minded administrators, PR executives and sponsors have crafted an environment in which fans often identify with individuals rather than a team.
In cricket, the notion that the right of a star player to perform his art ought to take precedence over fair application of the rules has over a century of precedent. Most famously, the first cricketing superstar WG Grace refused to depart when dismissed, informing the umpire that the spectators had come to “watch me bat, not to watch you umpire”. More recently, Shivnarine Chanderpaul spoke for many of his fellow players when he claimed that the great Australian team benefited from 80% of 50-50 umpiring decisions.
Preferential treatment is detested by everyone other than the players involved and their supporters. Advancements in video technology have emerged as a powerful force for fair and equal enforcement of rules. Since 1992, cricket benefited greatly from the application of technology. Replay for run-outs, ball-tracking for LBWs and infrared imaging for edges have added to the umpires’ toolkit, culminating in the present Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS). Every study of the UDRS has found that it significantly improves decision-making accuracy. Yet the Indian cricket team’s persistent refusal to accept UDRS has prevented the system from achieving universal acceptance. Given India’s hegemonic position in world cricket’s administration, it could take several years until the system becomes standard.
While most fans and journalists tend to blame the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for its opposition to UDRS, it is now clear that the driving force behind this opposition is Sachin Tendulkar, the WG Grace of today. Just as paying spectators went to watch Grace play cricket in the 1890s, today’s Indian fans attend matches to watch the player they have come to refer to as ‘God’. While Tendulkar’s genius is above question, his stature in the game has ensured that for much of his career, he received a greater benefit of doubt in marginal decisions than other cricketers. Additionally, as a relatively short batsman, he is often reprieved in close LBW situations.
Tendulkar’s official explanation of his opposition to UDRS is that he only approves of the system when it includes Hot Spot, the infrared imaging technology. Yet he, along with MS Dhoni and other senior players, has now vetoed UDRS for India’s upcoming tour of England — where Hot Spot would have been used. In this context, his opposition to UDRS is an opposition to more accurate decision-making in cricket.
In the US, with its obsessively star-driven sporting culture, Tendulkar would be lauded by journalists for earning the “respect of umpires”. But with the rest of the global cricketing community clamouring for greater fairness through UDRS, his continued opposition merits comparison to Grace and Don Bradman, two great batsmen notorious for putting self-interest above the interests of cricket as a whole. Conversely, if Tendulkar changes his mind, the BCCI is sure to accept UDRS, and thus go some way in convincing other ICC members that India’s dominance of world cricket is no despotism.
( Keshava D Guha is a Bangalore-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal