Why world-class cricket could find itself hit for six

After disciplining six Indian cricketers last week, referee Mike Denness was caught in a highly political row over who controls the world game

It’s been a bad month for referees. Premiership football’s Dermot Gallagher was condemned for booking Leeds striker Robbie Keane rather than dismissing him for retaliation, and found himself temporarily demoted to second division refereeing.

The rugby league Test series between Great Britain and Australia, which ended last weekend, will be most remembered for the argument over who should referee the final match: a British ref or Australian Bill Harrigan. In the end the referee’s name was drawn out of a hat – and Harrigan spent most of Saturday’s match in Wigan wrongly being called a “cheat” by the home fans.

But at least Gallagher’s and Harrigan’s alleged misdemeanours didn’t lead to questions being asked in the House of Commons, or the Australian Parliament. The name of Mike Denness, former England cricket captain turned referee, featured prominently in heated exchanges in the Indian Parliament last Thursday and Friday over whether the national team should continue its tour of South Africa.

Denness was central to the debate because, as referee for India’s second Test against South Africa last week, he disciplined six Indian players for various offences, including alleged ball tampering by national hero Sachin Tendulkar.

In itself the incident was minor. But the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and in particular its newly elected president Jagmohan Dalmiya, claimed the suspensions and fines were yet another example of a high-handed former colonial power handing down a judgment on India. Dalmiya immediately demanded that Denness be removed as referee for the final Test, which began last Friday.

The sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), refused, but the South African board, encouraged by the country’s president Thabo Mbeki, barred Denness from the ground. The South African board feared India would pull out of the final Test, costing it around &£2.5m, while Mbeki didn’t want to upset South Africa’s main trading partner.

As a result, Denness flew home, the ICC declared the third South Africa Test unofficial and dire predictions were made that India’s series against England – due to start on Monday – would be cancelled.

The row over Mike Denness has little to do with his abilities as a referee; India accepts the suspensions and fines he imposed. It is really a row over who controls world cricket.

After being replaced as president of the ICC last year by Australian Malcolm Gray, Dalmiya was thought to be finished as a force in the sport, after many allegations about his probity. But just seven weeks ago he unexpectedly returned in some style as president of the BCCI. The job comes with a place on the ICC executive, but more importantly it gives Dalmiya a chance to wreak havoc on those who opposed him when he ran the governing body.

He has taken this chance with relish. Such popularist arguments as those employed against Denness work well in cricket-obsessed India, where orchestrated street protests against him sprang up immediately. Such sentiments also echo around the other cricket nations of Asia – Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Dalmiya aims to create a coalition of countries to help him either enhance his position in the ICC, grab control of the body, or lead a breakaway authority massed around India and the economic potential of its cricket.

Breakaways in sport are nothing new. In recent weeks the motor manufacturers involved in Formula One have again talked about setting up an alternative to the Bernie Ecclestone show. And the idea of a two division football Premiership, with a further 14 clubs leaving the league, was again floated at the weekend under the working title of the Phoenix League.

Neither are likely to see the light of day, but Dalmiya’s breakaway may do. His aim is to capitalise on resentment in several countries about the way cricket is run from Lord’s. If he can mobilise support from the Asian contingent, South Africa – due to host the next World Cup in 2003 – the West Indies and Zimbabwe, he will create a very powerful base from which to make demands on those running the ICC.

For now, Dalmiya is likely to keep his powder dry, but he could raise the stakes later this week if India selects little-known batsman Virender Sehwag for the first Test against

England. Sehwag was banned for one match by Denness; India claims he served the ban by missing the third Test against South Africa, but the ICC did not not recognise this as an official match, so believes he should not play against England. If he is selected, the ICC would have to derecognise the first Test and England would have to withdraw from the series.

At the time of writing the Indian side has not been announced but the England Test series seems likely to go ahead. The reason is partly financial – sponsorship and television revenues have already been secured. More significantly, India should win the series – which would bring national rejoicing and make Dalmiya an even more powerful player.

Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times

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