Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sorry, Pluto - The Umpire Is Always Right

At first, solar system astronomy and international cricket would appear to have little in common, apart from both being in the news this week. But there is a link between the issues of Pluto's status as a planet and the ball-tampering saga from the England-Pakistan test match. In both cases, there is an umpire in the middle of the situation whose job it is to make decisions about what's acceptable and what's not. And some people are not happy with the umpire.

In the case of Pluto, the umpire is the International Astronomical Union. Faced with various views about what constitutes a planet, the IAU has produced a definition that leaves Pluto out in the cold - a planet is more or less spherical, orbits the sun and clears other objects from its orbit. That last bit was the kicker - Pluto apparently doesn't clear other objects from its orbit; specifically, it's orbit passes inside Neptune's, and therefore it's behaving outside the new "rules".

(Update: it's been pointed out that Neptune obviously doesn't clear its orbit either, so why is it still a planet? Conversely, the two are in a resonance pattern that means they will never come near one another, and their orbits do not actually intersect. So the IAU's rules either don't apply or they should apply to both Neptune and Pluto. It's easy to see why many astronomers are disputing the new definitions.)

Some astronomers have expressed their disappointment with the verdict. They'll made it clear that they will continue to debate it. Others have been philosophical about the matter. NASA's position is nicely diplomatic: "NASA will, of course, use the new guidelines established by the International Astronomical Union," said Dr. Paul Hertz, Chief Scientist for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. "We will continue pursuing exploration of the most scientifically interesting objects in the solar system, regardless of how they are categorized."

Pluto, at least, has handled the news gracefully and continues to orbit unperturbed.

In the test match, on the other hand, there are two umpires out in the middle, and for over 100 years, those two men out in the middle have been the ones with the final say in regards to anything and everything that happens on the field during the game.

In the England-Pakistan test match, the umpires saw something they thought looked like ball-tampering. They inspected the ball. They spoke to the Pakistan captian Inzamam-ul-Haq, and concluded that the ball HAD been tampered with, and penalised the Pakistani team. Inzamam then refused to lead his team back onto the field after the tea break. After half an hour and two requests by the umpires for the Pakistanis to resume the field, the bails were removed and Pakistan were deemed to have forfeited the game.

Since then, we have heard an extraodinary amount of discussion on the part of several people about whether the umpires acted properly. Australian umpire Darrell Hair has been singled out by several figures in Pakistani cricket, notably PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan, former England captain Mike Atherton, and former Pakistani players Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Sarfraz Nawaz. There has been a general implication from these figures that Hair has a bias against Asian players. These same people insist that there is no evidence of the ball being tampered with, and that Hair was wrong to end the match. The fact that Hair has in the days after this controversy erupted offered to stand down if the ICC was willing to compensate him for lost earnings has only complicated the picture.

let's consider the possibilities:

1. That Hair is biased against Asian players, and fabricated the accusation of ball-tampering. (But if this is the case, how did he convince fellow umpire Billy Doctrove to agree to it?) His offer to stand down is because he knows he was in the wrong.

2. That Hair is biased against Asian players, and wrongly concluded that Inzamam was tampering with the ball. His offer to stand down is because he knows he was in the wrong.

3. That Hair is not biased, but mistakenly thought that Inzamam was tampering with the ball. His offer to stand down was the result of the stress and pressure brought about by the implications of bias made by various commentators.

4. That Hair is not biased, and Inzamam was tampering with the ball. Hair's offer to stand down was the result of the stress and pressure.

5. That Hair is biased, but Inzamam was tampering with the ball. Hair's offer to stand down - probably still the result of the stress and pressure, but maybe a bit of the other as well.

Regardless of any of this, there's one thing that is (or ought to be) abundantly clear - Inzamam was absolutely wrong to not bring his team back onto the field. The umpires allowed them more time than they needed to get back out and resume play, and in failing to resume the field, the Pakistanis steered the game to only one possible result. In any sport, a refusal to continue play by one side can only be interpreted as a forfeit. Regardless of whether Inzamam and the rest of the Pakistan team thought they were being hard done by, they should have finished the game. Former legendary umpire Dickie Bird summed it up correctly: "Everybody should have used a little bit of common sense, tried to finish the Test match then thrashed it out behind closed doors."

Inzamam now faces a charge of bringing the game into disrepute, but therein lies another testing moment, but in this case for the ICC - Inzamam's decision not to return to the field was clearly wrong, but will the ICC deal with this in a way that does not undermine its own authority? If the ICC fails to discipline Inzamam, its credibility will have dealt a serious blow.

The ICC will also need to address some of the spurious rhetoric coming from the Pakistanis. Pakistan tour manager Zaheer Abbas said the news of Hair's offer was a "huge victory" for his side. A huge victory? Hardly. Zaheer went on to say, "This also proves our protest on the fourth day of the final Test was legitimate..." Does Zaheer really believe that not returning to the field and forfeiting the match is a legitimate way to protest a decision by an umpire? If so, he should get completely out of cricket and all other organised sport today.

Maybe Hair is biased. Maybe the Pakistanis have a problem with non-Asian umpires who don't put up with crap from the players.

The simple fact remains - during play, the umpire is always right. You might not agree with the decisions, you might think the umpire is an idiot, or has it in for you - it doesn't matter. You finish the game, then you can lodge your protest, have the debate, whatever.

During play, the umpire is always right - even on Pluto.