“A combination of bad batting in England’s first innings and erratic umpiring by Swaroop Kishen in their second helped India end a sequence of 31 Tests without a win in a fast-moving and entertaining match. Their previous victory had also been at the Wankhede Stadium and at England’s expense, just over three years earlier when Fletcher's team lost by 128 runs and protested about the umpiring.”
This is the opening paragraph, or intro as they say in journalism lingo, of a match report about the Mumbai Test between India and England in November-December 1984.
As the intro said, India had won the match and it was a significant victory given they hadn’t won a Test in over three years before that. The reporter said that England’s batting wasn’t up to snuff in the Test but also hinted that questionable umpiring played a role in the match’s outcome.
The reporter also said that this wasn’t the first time England fell victim to poor umpiring in a Test in India as something similar had happened three years ago as well.
Almost 40 years have passed since that match and other than cricket historians, veteran journalists, cricket romantics well into their 50s and the players themselves, it’s unlikely that anyone else remembers the match or about its controversial decisions.
So, why dig up something that’s long forgotten and seemingly irrelevant, you may ask.
Forgotten, yes, irrelevant, no. The moment when India women’s team captain Harmanpreet Kaur accused Bangladeshi umpires of biased decisions during the post-match presentation of an ODI and crossed all limits of decency by saying the Bangladesh team should include the umpires in the group photo with the trophy as the umpires are the ones who enabled the hosts to tie the match and draw the three-match series, the 40-year-old match where an Indian umpire’s blatant favouritism helped them win once again became relevant.
The skeletons in India’s closet
In the olden days of cricket, when air travel wasn’t as convenient and there wasn’t as much money lying around for the boards to spend, all Test matches would be officiated by local umpires.
Umpires, by definition, are supposed to be impartial. When a person dons the umpire’s hat, his national identity has to take a back seat as he is expected to maintain fairness and uphold the sanctity of the game.
Unfortunately, not every umpire performed their duty with the integrity their title warranted.
Before teams started playing Tests with neutral umpires, a change initiated by Pakistan captain Imran Khan when he invited two Indian umpires to officiate a Pakistan-West Indies Test in Lahore in 1986, many Test series were tainted by biased umpiring. And it wasn’t just the perennial giants England and Australia who were accused of such deviances.
Swaroop Kishen was an Indian umpire who officiated 17 Tests in India from 1978 to 1987. He was one of the most recognised umpires during that period mostly because of his massive paunch and was affectionately called by the West Indies players as, “The big fella”.
He was a celebrated figure in Indian cricket and was the first umpire to be awarded the Padma Shri award.
Also, he was accused of helping India win a home Test with a couple of ‘highly questionable’ decisions.
Coming back to the Mumbai Test in 1984, England were trailing by 270 runs after both teams batted once. The touring side was already under pressure but was fighting hard to avoid defeat. But two controversial dismissals took the wind out of their sails and made way for an easy win for the hosts.
The first controversial decision was an LBW against Tim Robinson and the second one and a much more telling one was against David Gower, who was convinced the ball had come off the pads and not the bat.
Both decisions were taken by Kishen.
One could easily pass this off as a one-off incident, a bad day in the office as they say. But one aspect of his career as a Test umpire could make one think otherwise.
As stated before, Kishen officiated in 17 Tests in his career. And of those 17 Tests, India lost only twice. India during that period was not the cricketing powerhouse it is right now. Even though they had won the World Cup in 1983, their Test record was appalling, proved by the fact they won just three Tests overseas in that entire decade.
But whenever Kishen was one of the two umpires on the field, India hardly ever lost at home. The only two defeats came against the mighty West Indies. Was Kishen just a good luck charm for India or was it something much more sinister?
Kishen wasn’t the only Indian umpire accused of biased umpiring as many of his colleagues also were called out multiple times for questionable decisions by the touring teams.
In the fourth ball of the 34th over of the India innings in the third ODI, Harmanpreet was on strike against left-arm spinner Nahida Akter.
Nahida bowled a loopy full-toss, a ball the right-hander could’ve easily dispatched to the ropes.
Harmanpreet got on her knees and tried to play a sweep shot. The ball went very close to the edge of the bat before hitting the pad. Nahida and the Bangladesh fielders immediately started to appeal for Leg Before Wicket.
Umpire Tanvir Ahmed didn’t signal out immediately as he seemingly saw something the Bangladesh fielders missed.
After hitting the pad, the ball flew to the slip region where Fahima Khatun took a simple catch. Just as the catch was completed, the umpire raised his index finger. She was not out LBW but caught at slip.
But Harmanpreet didn’t look too keen for an explanation from the umpire. The first thing she did after seeing the raised index finger was whack the stumps with the bat. She then went on a verbal tirade against the umpire, the Bangladesh players and for some reason even the fans.
Harmanpreet thought she was wrongfully given out and reacted like a petulant toddler when its parents ask her to leave the playground. The Bangladesh fielders were initially appealing for an LBW, so it can be presumed that she thought she was wrongfully given out LBW as the ball grazed her bat.
But then again, she wasn’t out LBW. She was adjudged caught. Maybe she didn’t realise that initially as she was too busy smashing the stumps.
But after heading back to the dressing room, she must’ve seen that she was given out caught. So that begs the question, what exactly was she so angry about?
Another theory that was floated by the Indian vice-captain Smriti Mandhana in the post-match press conference was that the Bangladesh umpires were quick to raise the finger whenever an appeal was made against India.
In the India innings, Bangladesh appealed for an LBW four times. Twice they succeeded, once they were denied and the other occasion was against Harmanpreet, which ended up as a catch.
In the innings, six Indian batters were caught, thrice by the bowler herself, and two were run out.
For one moment, even if one accepts that Harmanpreet was a victim of a dubious decision and the umpiring was biased, that is not an appropriate explanation for why India couldn’t manage to score 10 runs off the last 19 balls with four wickets in hand against Bangladesh, a side that is lagging far behind India in women’s cricket.
Actually, if Harmanpreet had lost her composure over her team, that would’ve made more sense.
While the Indian captain made a mockery of herself and her team, Bangladesh captain Nigar Sultana handled a volatile situation perfectly.
When Harmanpreet was talking about bringing the umpires for the team photo, Nigar was standing right beside her. There was enough provocation from the Indian captain to induce a reaction from Nigar.
But Nigar kept her calm and didn’t engage with the Indian captain at all. In a moment of grace and authority, she simply looked at her team and told them to step down from the podium and return to the dressing room, leaving the Indian captain and her team to bask in their absurdity.
Two days have passed since the incident. The ICC slapped a 75 per cent fine on the match fee on Harmanpreet and added three demerit points to her record, one less than what’s needed for a two-ODI, two-T20 or one-Test ban.
From the looks of it, Harmanpreet got off easy from the ICC. But what about her cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), what will they do to reprimand Harmanpreet?
From the looks of it, nothing. 48 hours have passed and the Indian board hasn’t made any comments on the issue.
Interestingly, a faction of Indian fans is supporting Harmanpreet on social media, commending her for standing up against poor umpiring. While the other faction is unhappy to see their national captain acting so immaturely.
But amidst all of this, the result of the series has been overshadowed. For Bangladesh, drawing a three-match ODI series against India 1-1 is an incredible achievement, given that before the series Bangladesh had never defeated India in the format. Conversely, it’s a terrible result for the Indian team.
Had Harmanpreet not acted the way she did during and after the match, all attention would be on the defeat. But the Indian captain has successfully made it all about bad umpiring. With that, she has deflected the blame for the defeat from herself and her team and also taken credit away from a tenacious Bangladesh side.
Harmanpreet and her supporters meanwhile are continuously pedaling the ‘biased umpiring’ theory, portraying the Indian women’s team and its captain as victims of injustice.
But maybe, before pointing fingers at others for imaginary grievances against her team, Harmanpreet needs to take a good hard look at the skeletons in Indian cricket’s closet.