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Sport is played for enjoyment but the ball-tampering controversy makes you wonder where cricket is heading. writes Tim Lane.

WHO would want to trade places with Malcolm Speed? The Australian chief executive of the International Cricket Council is holding as onerous a job as there is in sport.

Some of the language flowing from this week's ball-tampering crisis in London suggests the task of administering cricket, which a while ago became a business, is now something much more.

The volatility of the atmosphere has caused the predictable burning of Darrell Hair effigies and had him likened to Hitler.

It also has prompted at least one Pakistani journalist to invoke Pakistan's support of the West in the battle against terrorism as a reason why his country is entitled to feel aggrieved about events at the Oval. How depressing that a sporting event should arouse overtones of the greater global conflict.

Cricket for some years has had to deal with the uncomfortable reality of polarised power bases, representative on one hand of its white, Anglo nations, and on the other of the subcontinent. This is made more problematic by the fact that there is no third bastion of power to diffuse the pressure.

Were the West Indies still the dominant cricket nation, or had South Africa made a more successful and less troubled return to the international arena, perhaps things might be different. But they're not.

The ICC, largely out of dire necessity, has sought to be meticulously multiracial under Speed's stewardship. Its president, Percy Sonn, is a coloured South African.

He is the man who, as chairman of South Africa's cricket board, controversially insisted on the implementation of the board's affirmative action policy in team selection for a Test in Sydney a few years ago. He is a veritable fire cracker on matters of racial disadvantage.

The chairman of the ICC's cricket committee is India's Sunil Gavaskar. One of his fellow members on that panel is none other than Sri Lanka's Arjuna Ranatunga. Also on the committee are Majid Khan of Pakistan and Tiger Pataudi, who like Gavaskar, is a former captain of India. This is not a group put in place to rubber stamp the wishes of some gin-soaked, antiquated, white, imperial executive.

Likewise, the panels of umpires and referees that now oversee all international matches are of mixed nationality and race. Four of the eight referees are from the West Indies or subcontinent, as are four of the 10 members of the international umpires' panel.

Apart from indicating the ICC's recognition of modern politics, tensions and practicalities, this sort of mix seeks to provide an expression of goodwill to all the nations in international cricket.

Yet the events of this week suggest it's still not enough, as Pakistan believes it has been victimised by umpire Hair.

At times as an international umpire, Hair has shown a tendency to be headstrong. After the introduction of the third umpire, for example, he was reluctant to refer decisions upstairs, preferring to wield power from on the ground. This has left him open to criticism when other, more serious issues have arisen in the years since.

Hair's many critics have been quick to presume guilt when interventions like this week's and the no-balling of Muthiah Muralidaran in 1995 occurred. It's unfair but it seems as though every time he walks onto the ground now, he has a target on his back.

An article published in these pages, by Mihir Bose, an Indian who lives in England and writes for The Daily Telegraph, says much about the treatment Hair receives.

The article contained a damaging anecdote suggesting racist behaviour by the Australian umpire with the explanation that it may have been an apocryphal story. This surely was not journalism but gossip.

The crying shame of all this is that if people cannot accept neutral arbitration on the field of play, what hope is there on life's bigger issues?

This is sport, for heaven's sake, where the participants are meant to enjoy themselves and the stakes are a few pieces of silver and a performer's ego.

It should be possible for Speed to bring Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team together with Hair and West Indian Billy Doctrove, and for no one to leave the room until handshakes have been exchanged and normal relations resumed. If only it were that simple.


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