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Umpire Reuben and cricket’s cheats

india Updated: May 20, 2013 02:34 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
spot-fixing scam

Before the current spot-fixing scam and the match-fixing scam that broke in circa 2000, the biggest controversy in cricket in India happened in 1976 when England's fast bowler John Lever was found using Vaseline, allegedly to get more ‘swing,’ by umpire Judah Reuben of Bombay who died in 2006.

The incident happened in the third Test at Chennai when Reuben found Vaseline on a gauze strip that Lever had used on his eyebrows to prevent, as the bowler was to say later, sweat from his forehead running into his eyes before discarding it on the ground.

This was before even before ball-tampering earned notoriety, but in previous Tests, Lever had demolished India with lethal late-swing and the umpire’s suspicion was aroused. Reuben lodged a complaint with the England team and the BCCI.

The England team hotly refuted the charge. In those days the BCCI was not the powerhouse in cricket it is today and pursued the matter only perfunctorily with the MCC which took the moral high ground, rejected all allegations and gave Lever a clean chit.

The net result of the controversy was that India’s then captain Bishen Singh Bedi lost his contract with county Northamptonshire. For Reuben, this was the last Test he stood in, but that was because he had turned 55 which was the retirement age for umpires.

Some years later, I asked Reuben why he suspected Lever of cheating. “Why couldn't he mop his head dry like other bowlers were doing instead of using a gauze strip that had to be stuck on his brow with Vaseline?” was his counter-query.

Proficiency in deductive and inductive logic was Reuben's strength. He was a hugely interesting man, thin and wiry, humble and soft-spoken, but upright and no-nonsense when it came to work.

While his passion was cricket, his primary calling was as fingerprint expert with the crime branch of Bombay for whom he was reputed to have cracked several vexing cases. His powers of observation and concentration earned him widespread accolades. Pinning down Lever was a piece of cake for him.

As his name would indicate, Reuben was from the Bene Israeli community the first lot of whom moved from the Konkan to Bombay in mid-18th century as Wikipedia reveals.

Jews today rarely occupy our mind-space except when the horrific 26/11 terror attack targeted Chabad House in Colaba. Most have migrated to Israel since the 1970s, but at one time several thousand lived in Mumbai, largely in the area spanning Dongri, Byculla and Mazagaon.

Mainly converts from the Konkan, they spoke excellent Marathi and were culturally indistinguishable from the sons of the soil, as it were. Reuben lived at Mazagaon, co-incidentally next to the police court.

“Howzatt!” was a greeting commonly reserved for him because of his dual-vocation as fingerprint expert and cricket umpire. He would always respond with a smile and if he felt indulgent, would respond with raised index finger of one hand to ‘give out.’

I got to know about him first when he once came to my school, where his daughters also studied, to lecture us on fingerprint detection. When I began writing on cricket, I met him more often at events and got to know him better.

His knowledge of the game was deep, though he had never played at the first class level but it was as a person that he left a bigger impression. He was thin and wiry physically, but upright in his conduct; he was soft-spoken and humble, but forthright in his views

I once asked Reuben why cricketers would cheat? “Cricketers are also human beings and human nature is complex. So difficult to understand that only god knows” he replied.

Perhaps even god couldn't, if I might be permitted a little sermonising, which explains the fall of man.