London Cricket Flap Costs Pakistan a Match

Pakistan is in an uproar after a controversial umpire accused the Pakistani team of tampering with the ball in a cricket match in London. In protest, the team briefly refused to resume play after tea. When the team did return, the umpire ruled that Pakistan had forfeited the match, the first time that had happened in 129 years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The sun set on the British empire long ago, but not on one of the empire's distinctive games. And that helps to explain why so much of the world is trading insults today over a game of cricket. People in Britain's former colonies are denouncing a portly Australian umpire. His name is Darrel Hair, and he's being attacked over one of his calls in a match between England and Pakistan.

That call led to a crisis, which NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves is tracking. And, Philip, what made this call so explosive?

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, this happened on Sunday during a game in London between England and Pakistan. Now in cricket, Steve, the condition of the ball is very important. It can determine how much the bowler - that's the pitcher to you and me - can swing the ball or whether he came make the ball change direction when it bounces.

Now Mr. Hair decided that the ball had been tampered with by the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis took offense at being accused of cheating. A slur which they saw not only as being one on them but on the entire Pakistani nation. And so often...

INSKEEP: This is the equivalent in American baseball, for example, of fiddling with a bat, of having a too heavy bat or pine tar, those kinds of controversies in the United States. That's what's at issue here basically.

REEVES: Yes, that's right. And so after tea was taken on Sunday - one of those quaint traditions that they maintain in cricket - the Pakistani team decided that they weren't going to come out. And Mr. Hair and his fellow umpire decided this amounted to refusing to play, so they called off the game and awarded it to England. The Pakistanis say they were only protesting for a couple of minutes and they were ready to play.

INSKEEP: What happened to the dignity of the sport?

REEVES: I know in the States, you know, cricket's often seen as a game involving, you know, a bunch of guys dressed in white wasting days on end playing an incomprehensible and usually inconclusive game in between drinking, you know, cups of tea and stuff. I can see where that comes from. After all, this game was, by the way, the second to last day...

INSKEEP: Because it's right, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

REEVES: Second last day of a five-day game in a series that England had already won. But in fact, cricket is big business, particularly in this part of the world. There have been cheating scandals in the past, and there's evidence of those scandals being true. Although in this case, the evidence against the Pakistanis seems to be pretty thin. There is no evidence of ball tampering on camera or anything like that.

But there's a bigger issue here, Steve. This is about an old game and its traditions clashing with the new game. It resolves around a key question: are umpires still, as they were by tradition, you know, the high priests of the game whose ruling is final whether right or wrong, or do modern rules that govern other forms of entertainment apply here, particularly, you know, the old showbiz rule, which says that the show much go on at all costs? Because a lot of people were very unhappy when Hair stopped play. A lot of fans were hoping to see it on television, and, of course, there were plenty people in the crowd who were hoping for the last day's action.

INSKEEP: Let's set aside for a moment the fact that Pakistan - the party that feels aggrieved here - is a nuclear power, and just ask what's the reaction been in your part of the world? You're in New Delhi.

REEVES: Well, you know, cricket in South Asia arouses, you know, almost religious passions. It's all over the newspapers and TV. They're having a field day. You can imagine the wordplay on Mr. Hair's name. Bad Hair Day being a favorite, Hair-brained.

But there is an intense rivalry usually between the South Asian teams, particularly India and Pakistan. This affair has for once brought them together somewhat. And the reason is that India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have all had arguments in the past with Mr. Hair. They think he picks on them.

And a lot of the comment in the media has focused on the question of whether, you know, he's prejudiced against South Asian sides. Some commentators and Web sites have been debating whether this constitutes an example of the white cricketing world against the non White cricketing world. So there's a lot of politics at stake here, and there is a serious undertone to this debate, believe it or not.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Philip Reeves talking to after the first forfeit in a major cricket match in 129 years. A match between England and Pakistan.

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