21 July 2009

Armchair umpires and perfidious Albion

Australia lost 20 wickets and the second Test at Lords in North London earlier this week. They had previously narrowly failed to get the 20 wickets they needed for victory in the first Test at Cardiff, when England ran out the clock on them.

The Ashes are a wonderful full bottle contest between two nations battling for sporting supremacy in a long fought over tradition of rivalry. For most Australian males this is the pinnacle of the game. And we care. Deeply. It hurts to lose.

It's a pity however that the people who run the game of cricket don't have a similar feeling for the importance of this contest. Australia had to be bowled out twice for England to win this game. And they were. 20 Australian wickets fell and England won by a little over 100 runs.

But....at least 4 of the Australian batsmen who the officials ruled out in this match, have been shown by television replays to have been wrongfully given out. That's the rub of the green and it happens in most matches, one way or another, but there is an edge to it this time.

During the first innings of this match an English batsmen was given the benefit of the doubt on a catch when referred to a TV replay, and the Australian captain was abused by the English press for questioning a referral system that doubted the word of a fielder that a catch had carried to him. That's what sporting captains have to expect I'm afraid. But the spectacular hypocrisy of the English press when, in the second innings, an Australian opener had a dubious catch to the English captain ruled out, with no referral to the TV umpire, cannot pass with the same sang froid. If it's OK for Australian Nathan Hauritz's word about whether a catch carried to be ignored and referred to the TV umpire in the first innings, then, it's OK for Englishman Strauss to have his word challenged on the same issue in the second. For Rudi Koetzen and Billy Doctrove, the two on field umpires, not to refer that second innings decision on Hughes and Strauss to the TV umpire is amazing, after what was said about the Hauritz incident in the first innings. Let's be clear about this. The patronising English media gave Ponting a right bollocking for daring to suggest that an Australian fielder's word should be honoured about whether a catch had carried. But this same ridicule doesn't apply to an English fielder (even if he is an imported South African).

We've now seen the TV replay It's clear that, whatever the English captain might have believed at the time, he did not catch Philip Hughes' snick. The ball clearly hit the grass first. Hughes was not out. And this is what makes the other wrong decisions of the umpires in this game so much more galling. Katich was given out off a Flintoff no-ball. Hussey missed the ball completely but was given out caught at slip to Swann. And Ponting's alleged catching dismissal in the first innings was a travesty. It was referred to the TV umpire, who clearly saw that Ponting had not hit the ball as it had only deflected off his pads. But, even though the laws of cricket expressly require a TV umpire to inform the on field umpires if a batsman has not hit the ball, the TV umpire failed to tell the on-field umpires of this salient fact.

The TV umpire's stated reason for this manifest failing was that he thought he was not entitled to tell the on-field umpires anything other than whether the ball had carried to the fielder. This error has occurred at the very highest levels of international cricket by a paid professional whose sole job it is to rule on such referrals. And he still managed to get this one rule 180 degrees wrong!

Darryl Hair was sacked as an umpire for enforcing the laws of cricket over chucking and ball tampering. The umpiring buffoon in this match who doesn't even know one of the tiny handful rules he is required to rule on, will continue to get paid.

And as any Australian male will tell you, the irony is that come October 2009, after the current Ashes series, international cricket will adopt the successful experiment of Tennis in allowing a team a couple of uncontested successful TV replay challenges to umpire's verdicts. That clearly would have been useful in 4 of Australia's 20 dismissals in this game.

There are still 3 matches to be played in this series. Watch out England. Australia feel justificably aggreived by England's boorish triumphalism over this minor victory. The umpires cannot continue to give appalling verdicts to only one team. England will be crushed now. Only the English climate can save them, and we keep being told by the BBC that that is changing.

13 July 2009

Rugby bureaucrats, Stalin's spawn?

In recent weeks two larger than life Rugby players have experienced the tyranny of justice in a universe even more capricious and hostile than their sport: the world of sports officialdom.

First Bakkies Botha, the great and brutal Springbok second-rower, got a raw deal from some small minded and ignorant Rugby officials. They banned him for a couple of matches over an incident that any disinterested rugby fan will tell you happens at nearly every ruck in every game of rugby: the clean out. The Springboks protested this dumb decision by each Springbok player wearing an armband saying "JUSTICE 4 Bakkies" at the following Test match against the British & Irish Lions in Jo'berg. And now the Springboks themselves have been cited by the International Rugby Board for "bringing the game into disrepute" and breaching the "IRB Code of Conduct" by questioning the disciplinary rulings of IRB sanctioned bodies. From little stupidities, big stupidities grow.

Then there's Lote Tuquiri, the ex-Rugby League Kangaroo and now ex-Rugby Union Wallaby winger. He didn't even get a game in a Wallabies guernsey this season, but the Australian Rugby Union still found cause to terminate his contract. And the ARU aren't even prepared to tell us what he did to warrant such drastic action. Lote has now sued the ARU for wrongful termination of contract. The lawyers will now slug it out. Rugby will be the poorer and lawyers the richer.

What's going on here?

Firstly the most recent controversy about that hoary old Bok warhorse, Bakkies Botha. Checkout what he did in the second half of the second Test between the Springboks and the B & I Lions in Pretoria.

Bakkies can be seen here entering a ruck "through the gate" (i.e. legally) and cleaning out Welsh prop Adam Jones with his shoulder. The live commentator doesn't even remark on this unremarkable incident, nor on the next collision at the ruck by a Lions forward bashing into Bakkies from the side (illegally).

After the ruck gets pulled up for some now forgotten infringement, Jones has to leave the field, where it is found later that he has a broken shoulder. After the game finishes Bakkies gets cited for the incident by an off-field match official .

Now what Bakkies is seen to do here is what happens at nearly every ruck in every game of rugby. One has to assume that Bakkies was cited because Jones was injured by the force of Bakkies' shoulder hitting Jones' shoulder. I guess the citing might be justifiable on the basis that if someone is injured then it is worth checking later that it wasn't from foul play.

The disciplinary tribunal found Bakkies guilty of foul play and banned him for 2 weeks. And its decision was upheld on appeal.

Look at the incident again. Now I'm a Wallabies supporter. I don't have any love for the Boks, and even less for Bakkies, but any tribunal reviewing this incident who can decide that what Bakkies did here deserves special punishment or treatment, over and above what the referee and assistant referees at the match had decided at the time (ie that there was nothing in it), knows nothing about rugby. I'd even relucantly be prepared to concede that you might be able to find an infringement here by Bakkies of one of the nearly fifty mostly unenforced sub-rules that govern rucks and mauls, because you can do so at every breakdown, if that is what you are seeking. That being so, it is possible that the referee got it wrong on the day and the Springboks should have been penalised for an infringment of some sort there and then, because say Bakkies "wasn't binding properly", "touched the ground with his hand" or "had his head and shoulders lower than his hips" (seriously), or some other incomprehensible ruling. But how can a tribunal ban a player for 2 weeks for such an infringement? It's not foul play. If you ban players just for committing infringements of the laws of the game, when there is no malice or foul play involved, there would be no-one left playing rugby anywhere. There are approximately 50 or 60 infringments called up by a referee every game.

Get real. Rugby is a collision sport that has highly nuanced rules to differentiate fair from unfair contact. But it is vital that the game remain an uncompromising and wholehearted contest of human physicality. That's why we love it, for all its frustrations and the stupidities of the sportsmen who play it and the idiots who commentate on and officiate in it.

The officials who run rugby bring the game into disrepute if they rule that a hard ruck collision warrants imposing a ban on a player.

I get why the Springboks are incredulous. I am incredulous.

Spiro Zavos at the Sydney Morning Herald however feels the Boks got what they deserved. But Sprio does after all work for the Sydney Morning Herald's "Chief Rugby Correspondent", Greg Growden. Growden is the rugby illiterate tabloid controversionalist who is Rugby League's secret weapon at the heart of Rugby Union in Australia. Growden determines what's said about Rugby in the main paper in Australia's largest Rugby Union playing city. And that's mostly hostile attacks on his perception of the wrong upper middle class demographics of rugby supporters in Sydney and wilfully negative controversy beat ups about people who haven't given him the access or information he wants about confidential and private matters behind the scenes in the game. It's rarely about rugby as such. Spiro, who at least is a genuine, if patchy, student of the game (unlike Growden) therefore feels it necessary from time to time to pick up Growden's anti-rugby ball and run with it. So he loudly proclaims that the Springboks were arrogant for carrying out this protest against rugby officialdom's idiocy. That'll boost circulation. Spiro then seems shocked when he get's deluged with abuse from ardent Bok supporters for his wantom attack on their team's integrity. There go yet more subscriptions to the Herald from all the ex-patriot Jarpies on Growden's much derided Sydney North Shore.

And whilst some might feel justified in seeing the Bok protest as a little adolescent, the Boks were indeed the recipients of some pretty rough justice in Bakkies' case, and they didn't seem have too many other avenues of redress open to them, except being meek. By drawing attention to such idiocies by rugby officialdom they may in fact be serving the interests of rugby, and all those who love it. Otherwise the idiot officials at the IRB might think they can go on with this self defeating behaviour of selectively banning players they don't like by treating infringments as foul play. Such actions by officials bring the game into disrepute with its own constituency. Ross Hastie at Planet Rugby is on the same page as me on this, even if Julia Harris at the same website is more inclined to just trot out the convenient and irrelevant prejudicial anti-Bok narrative, that we've all heard ad nauseam from the likes of Growden and Zavos.

Clearly there are larger "narratives" at play here, ie there are other stories that people with conflicting agendas want told even more than this story. This story of Bakkies' little injustice is inconvenient to those other stories. The other main story at the moment is Schalk Burger's eye gouge at the first ruck of the same game, along with the astonishing stupidity of the Springbok coach, Peter DeVilliers, in jumping in to defend Burger's indefensible conduct at the end of the game. These other stories reinforce the existing and familiar story lines about 'Jarpie boorishness and barbarism.

The problem here is the cross-fertilization and conflating of these separate, though related, other "narratives". Rabid British supporters wanted Burger's head on a stick for his barbaric attack on the eyes of an opponent. The press also wanted DeVilliers head for foolishly defending Burger's indefensible conduct. And the IRB wanted to protect the game from accusations of barbarity. Amazingly Burger only got 8 weeks for his blatant fully televised eye gouge! Some other dumb rugby official apparently found that Burger had not deliberately gouged the other player's eye socket. So it was found to be inadvertent. Judge for yourself. Accordingly as they didn't find this behaviour deliberate, they logically didn't ban him for ever, or for a year a two, which consistency and deterence demanded. When Bakkies got cited for the ruck incident at which Jones was injured later in the same match, he became caught up in the rising wave of dissatisfaction and rage against Burger and subsequently DeVilliers.

It seems that Bakkies ban was not based solely on an fair assessment of the incident on the field for which he was cited. This therefore cannot be seen to be justice and it is not justice. It looks like prejudice and it probably was prejudice.

And as for Lote? Well, I don't think I actually care who is right in this legal bun fight over his player contract with the ARU. That's just a lawyers' picnic and, I can tell you from experience as a lawyer, it will therefore almost inevitably be barren, un-edifying and depressing for everyone but the lawyers.

Like everyone else however, I am curious about what Lote could have done to elicit this response from John O'Neil at the ARU. The gossip around the dealing desks of Sydney on the afternoon this story broke was that Lote had been caught in bed at the team hotel with a young woman who was not his wife. But surely having sex with a sports groupie isn't a sackable offence? Dear God, we wouldn't have any professional sport at all if this was the case.

The villain here seems to be the ARU players' "code of conduct". The ARU allege Lote breached this code in some unspecified way after being on a "final warning". As usual these days layers and layers of incomprehensible regulatory bilge are bolted into the legal relationship, most of these rules are never enforced because no-one ever really runs their life by the kind of high minded wishful thinking sanctimony contained in such codes. Except that is, if the political convenience of an official suits their enforcement.

It's increasingly what happens in all walks of contemporary society. Tyranny by over-regulation. Officials simply pile on vast reams of laws, rules, regulations, standards and codes. Just in case. Just in case that is, it becomes convenient to stomp on some individual whose behaviour or mere presence has become inconvenient to officialdom.

The Rugby Players Association is understandably concerned about this capriciousness, even if you can now see the political wheels moving as the Wallaby captain has the pressure applied by his employer, the ARU, for him to back off this dispute.

Is what we are seeing here a form of tyranny? I notice elsewhere in the press today that China has shown its true colours as a totalitarian state by stepping in to imprison an executive from Rio Tinto, and, like Lote, without telling us the specific charges, for acting in his company's commercial interests against China's. As John Garnaut put it in the Age today:

"...in China, with its enormous system of laws that are seldom enforced, the specifics of Rio's iron ore dealings are only the starting point in working out how things went so horribly wrong. There is always the question: why did they choose to go after these people at this time?..."

But it seems now that it is not just totalitarian China that has capricious officials who apply formerly unenforced and incomprehensible rules at their political whim. It is so even for rugby players in Australia and South Africa who incur the random displeasure of sports officials.

Rugby is becoming a rougher sport off the field than it is on it. At least there is some honour between combatants on the field. Off it, as it is now in all walks of life, it seems a player is at the mercy of hidden political agendas of capricious officials.