Rule of law, at and after Sydney

Harish Khare

Once we get over all the hysteria and breast-beating about umpire Steve Bucknor’s infractions, those who love the game have to work together to preserve and deepen the rules-regime in international cricket.

In 1986, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a renowned scholar of classical English literature, an enlightened administrator, and a passionate historian and writer of baseball, decided to leave the world’s most prestigious academic position — president of Yale University — to take up the job of president of the National League of Baseball in the United States. Many of Professor Giamatti’s academic friends thought he had opted for a lesser world of professional sports. But Professor Giamatti thought otherwise because his central intellectual contention was that professional baseball, like any other organised sport, was essentially a device to tame man’s wild and violent impulses and to initiate and indoctrinate the spectators (and, by extension, the citizenry) into the complex web of obligations that lies at the heart of the rule of law.

Within a year of becoming a top sports administrator, Professor Giamatti was called upon to adjudicate the appeal against suspension (for 10 days) of a player who was accused of cheating. After a lengthy, elaborate and transparent hearing, Professor Giamatti put out a detailed judgment (reaffirming the suspension) but also eloquently underlining the principles of fair play. The Giamatti judgment reiterated “the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner — that all participants play under identical rules and conditions.” It talked of the need to preserve “faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness, and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist.”

These Giamatti propositions are being recalled in the context of the controversies that have come to surround the just concluded cricket Test at Sydney between India and Australia. And, at the very outset, it must be acknowledged that in India (as also in the rest of the South Asian region) there is a cultivated tendency to quarrel with the law-enforcer, particularly when the law-enforcer has given an unfavourable ruling.

Matter of national honour?

Predictably, the Sydney standoff was effortlessly converted by us in India into a matter of national honour. Television anchors and newspapers screamed: desh ki izzat. At best, izzat is a feudal concept, instigating over the decades mindless and bloody vendettas among families, clans, tribes, and nations in this part of the world.

And when on Tuesday morning the International Cricket Council chose to see merit in Indian protestations, a Board of Control for Cricket in India official permitted himself to say that the “ICC has respected the sentiments of the people of India.” That is missing entirely what was at stake in Sydney: just as it is incumbent upon a player or a citizen to obey the law, there is an equally vital obligation on the part of the law-enforcers to perform their responsibilities in a competent, transparent, and fair manner.

It would be most unproductive for the game of cricket if we were to make a habit of whipping up national emotions every time there is an imperfect umpiring decision. Like any other sport, cricket is also a test of players’ skills, physique, temperaments, character, and intellect. At times, hysteria among zealous fans can and does spur players to reach within themselves to raise their game; but, adulation cannot be a substitute for performance against a talented opponent.

And though international cricket is played according to a highly elaborate rule-book, what the Sydney standoff has shown is the need to ensure that fair rules are fairly and uniformly enforced. Also this enforcement of rules will need to be done more transparently than has been the case so far. For instance, so little is known of the procedural and testimonial protocols adopted by the match referee, Mike Proctor when he upheld the “racism” charge against Harbhajan Singh.

Australian cricketer Mike Hussey was reported to have said: “there have been a lot of contentious decisions, but you have got to accept the umpire’s decision. It takes discipline to do that without showing any dissent.” Hussey is not wrong, except that it needs to be understood by everyone who loves and enjoys the game of cricket that referees and umpires will be not be respected, on and off the field, if their decisions are seen to be arbitrary.

Any suggestion of arbitrariness goes against the very principles of rule of law and fair play.

Worthy decision

The ICC’s belated decision to replace Steve Bucknor, a real culprit on performance count, is a worthy acknowledgement that it was time to revisit bad and imperfect enforcement of rules, otherwise there would be disrespect and defiance of the whole structure of law. From Pakistan to Kenya, the lesson is obvious: Presidents, generals and administrators can keep on asking the citizen to fall in line and obey the law but there will be no obedience to lawful authority if the rules of the game are unfairly enforced.

Just as functional judiciaries all over the world take care to enforce some kind of behavioural and performance codes on judges and adjudicators, it had become incumbent upon the ICC to send out a message to all stake-holders — cricketers, administrators, umpires and referees, sponsors and fans — that it was alive to the possibility of imperfections and incapacities on the part of law-enforcers. To that extent, the standoff at Sydney will not go waste.