Cricketing Rifts 16: India's problems with Steve Bucknor & Mike Denness

When Rahul Dravid walked into bat against Australia in a Test at Sydney, Steve Bucknor (above) rolled his fingers over the ball, looking at Dravid tauntingly and miming the action of licking a lollypop. The insinuation was direct and disgraceful. The team found it unacceptable and took the extreme step of reporting it to match referee Clive Lloyd © Getty Images

The Dhoni-Sehwag rift may have been true or blown out of proportion by the media. However, far from being unique, discords such as this have been commonplace in the history of the game. In this series, Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket. In this episode he looks at the last two decades when Umpires and Match Referees stopped officiating and got into the game.


In this episode, we cover the tales of individuals who could have chosen to remain inconspicuous, efficiently in the background, making their presence felt through self effacing expertise. Instead, they opted to leave their mark on the game in personalised glaring signatures, rendering an unwanted 3rd dimension to a contest between two teams.


With the current mantra about cricket being the collectivism dogma of game over individual, it makes sense to look at the scenarios when Ayn Rand’s fears of resulting totalitarian officials almost came true.

“Slow Death” – quickly put out of misery


With a height of six feet, three3 inches, Steve Bucknor commanded one of the best views over the proceedings. Respected the world over, in spite of frictions with certain teams, namely India, he stood in a record five consecutive World Cup finals.


Nicknamed “Slow Death” for the agonisingly deliberated decisions, he was also a FIFA referee who officiated in the World Cup qualifier match between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles in 1988.


Although from the beginning he was reputed to be an efficient master of ceremonies, his interactions with India got off to a poor start. In the second Test at Johannesburg, 1992-93, he refused to refer to the third umpire, and ruled Jonty Rhodes not out when replays clearly showed that a direct hit had caught him short of his ground. The Indians, who had South Africa on the mat with five wickets down, were not amused as Rhodes went on to score 91 and save the Test match.


Bucknor was one of the on-field umpires when Sachin Tendulkar was ruled run out when he collided with Shoaib Akhtar at a crucial juncture during the Eden Gardens Test in 1998-99. While it was the TV umpire KT Francis who pushed the offending button, much of the ire of the rioting spectators was directed at Bucknor and David Orchard who had referred the decision regardless of the collision that had taken place in front of their eyes.


When India played their inaugural Test match against Bangladesh at Dhaka in 2000, it was Ian Chappell who turned his critical microphone in the direction of the Jamaican umpire. While Bangladesh batted, and Aminul Islam and Habibul Bashar were in the midst of a fruitful partnership, Bucknor kept needling the batsmen about running on to the danger area. It was peculiar to say the least, but even the first two steps down the wicket while taking off for a run proved enough for a censure. Things became almost comical when Aminul played the ball and leapt sideways before scampering down for a run. Chappell remarked, “Umpire Bucknor has done a fairly good job all these years, but with time he is getting too much into the game.”


However, with time, the already sour relationship between the Indians and the West Indian official fast turned acrimonious.


During the 2003-04 tour of Australia, saw a remarkable number of issues – most of them bizarre. In the first Test at The Gabba, Jason Gillespie appealed for a leg before decision against Sachin Tendulkar even as the ball hit the master batsman high up on the thigh pad. After waiting an eternity, Gillespie had started walking back to his bowling mark when Bucknor nodded and raised his finger. It was a sort of record even for the man known as “Slow Death” and left Tendulkar with his jaw hanging in surprise.


In the last Test, where Indians were pushing to win the series, Bucknor turned down plumb leg before appeals – two against Justin Langer and one against Damien Martyn. A fuming Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, severely criticised Bucknor and handed him a very poor rating in his captain’s report to the International Cricket Council (ICC). Apart from the decisions which went against them, Indians were not happy with the way he had admonished wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel for appealing.


Shortly after that, during the three-nation tournament that followed, Bucknor infuriated the Indians once again by mimicking Rahul Dravid. In an earlier game against Zimbabwe at The Gabba, Dravid had been penalised 50 per cent of his match fees by Match Referee Clive Lloyd for changing the condition of the ball by rubbing his half eaten lolly against it. The team had claimed that it was an accident, an innocent mistake. When Dravid walked into bat against Australia at Sydney, Bucknor rolled his fingers over the ball, looking at Dravid tauntingly and miming the action of licking a lollypop. The insinuation was direct and disgraceful. The team found it unacceptable and took the extreme step of reporting it to Lloyd.


The feud continued into 2004-05. While officiating at the Eden Gardens again, Bucknor gave Tendulkar caught behind off Abdul Razzak when there was enough gap between the bat and the ball for an overweight elephant to walk through. If the master had been left with rolled eyes and open mouth at The Gabba, now he walked away fuming and did not attend the function held in the Jamaican’s honour on the evening of the same day.


By this stage of his career, Bucknor was perhaps running on borrowed time, but he refused to accept it. In the World Cup final in Barbados, 2007, he made the Sri Lankans bat on in near darkness in a completely messed up implementation of rules.


Finally, it was the India-Australia Test match at Sydney in 2007, which proved to be the last nail in the coffin that had been sitting out for long.


Andrew Symonds benefitted twice in the first innings, first at 30 off an edge so thick that even the batsman admitted later that he had been out. Next, when he had capitalised on the mistake to take his score to 148, Bucknor rolled the years back by refusing to refer a stumping decision to the third umpire when the replays showed Symonds out of ground.


In the second innings, Symonds was the recipient of Bucknor’s generosity yet again, with a plumb leg before appeal off Anil Kumble turned down before he had scored, and merrily went on to notch up 61. And then the Symonds-Bucknor combination worked for a final time during the Indian second innings when a ball from the Australian all-rounder brushed Dravid’s pad and was snapped up by the ‘ambassador of faiplay’ Adam Gilchrist. The Australians, wicketkeeper included, appealed vociferously and Bucknor nodded his head, raising his finger.


The game saw many more controversies that led skipper Kumble to famously remark – “Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game.”


With most of Bucknor’s decisions going against India, the International Cricket Council (ICC) soon faced the demand from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to replace the erring umpire for the next Test.


Ravi Shastri remarked on television, “Umpire Bucknor has outlived his shelf life.”  Even senior colleague Dickie Bird felt, “he had gone on too long.”


The ICC relented with an alacrity which was in direct contrast to the slow agonising decision making of Bucknor and Billy Bowden was brought in for the next Test at Perth. However, the veteran Jamaican did not take the decision gracefully, blaming Indian financial clout for his ouster.


Just about a year later, the ICC announced that Steve Bucknor had decided to retire from umpiring. He stood for the final time in the Test between South Africa and Australia at Cape Town in March, 2009.


Denness the Menace


On the afternoon of the third day of the second Test match between India and South Africa at Port Elizabeth, 2001-02, Jacques Kallis was building on the huge first innings lead, while at the other end Indians were chipping away at the wickets. It was during this phase of the game that some stirring, although by no means extraordinary, events took place and eventually brought the cricket world on the brink of fragmentation.


First, Kallis defended a ball on the leg and middle from Harbhajan Singh and it was taken on the bounce by Virender Sehwag at the forward short-leg. Believing that the ball had bounced off the boot, the appeal was spontaneous and loud, with Sehwag running towards the umpire in excitement. When the decision was negative, Sehwag, playing the second Test match of his career, uttered that one monosyllable that is acknowledged worldwide as the most common expletive for frustration.


Next, Tendulkar came on to bowl his medium-pacers and started swinging the ball more than anyone else had done so far. When the local television producer instructed his cameramen to zoom in on his hand to check which grip he was using, he was seen to be moving his thumb and forefinger over the seam.


The next day, Mike Denness, the match referee, handed down fines and bans on six Indian players:


Tendulkar for alleged interference with the match ball – one Test match suspended ban.


Sehwag, for showing dissent at the umpire’s decision and charging at the umpire – one Test match immediate ban.


Harbhajan Singh, Deep Dasgupta and Shiv Sunder Das, for excessive appealing – one Test match suspended ban.


Sourav Ganguly, for not being able to control his players – one Test match and two ODI matches suspended ban.


Additionally, all the six were docked 75% of their match fees.


The shell-shocked and infuriated Indian players leaked the news to the media. Immediately there were complains of racial discrimination, along with a huge public outcry, especially given that the national icon of Tendulkar had been accused of cheating. Effigies of Denness were burnt on the Indian streets, and television channels went on overdrive.


Denness made matters worse by turning up at a press conference and refusing to utter a word, leading Ravi Shastri to remark, “If Mike Denness is not going to say anything, why is he here? We all know what he looks like.”


The ICC, chief executive Malcolm Speed in the forefront, decided to back Denness, but that only served in making the Indian press brand the parent body as biased. India board president Jagmohan Dalmiya demanded the removal of Denness from the final Test. Niranjan Shah, honorary secretary of the BCCI, said: “We are unhappy with his inconsistency and the India team have no confidence in him. We feel that all the decisions are against India. The South Africans committed the same excessive appealing.”


Predictably, opinions seemed to be polarised on grounds of skin colour. The English, Australian and New Zealand boards supported the ICC, while most other boards, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sided with the BCCI.


The press was also divided, and there too ethnic fissures were apparent. Scyld Berry described Dalmiya as “the control freak, the player of political games, the man who destabilises and then poses as the saviour of the Indian tour by telling his players to play on”.

Harsha Bhogle, however, pointed out that Dalmiya was “a reflection of the Indian mood”.


The situation threatened to split the cricket world into two. The Indian press went full throttle, with an editorial in The Hinduremarking, Denness’ sense of fairness dates back to the Victorian era when Britannia ruled the waves. In the event, Denness truly believes – in the manner of his forefathers who ruled this land with such cunning for so long – that there are always two sets of rules. Nothing has changed since the days when the sun never set on the British Empire


When Dalmiya threatened to scrap the third Test match leading to possible financial losses, Gerald Majola, the CEO of United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA), declared, “Although the crisis is not of our making, we have received reports of protests at South African embassies in India and our country has been caught up in this issue. South African cricket cannot afford a cancellation of the final Test of a series that is still open.” 


On the eve of the third Test match, Mike Denness observed, “It was easier facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson than waiting to hear whether the third Test is going to take place.”


After discussions, the boards snubbed ICC and Malcolm Speed, and decided to replace Denness with former South African wicket keeper Denis Lindsay. It was further decided that Denness would not be allowed inside the stadium.


A smarting Speed remarked, “No cricket board has the authority to remove Denness … The ICC cannot accede to (such) demands… To remove him under this kind of pressure would be to disregard the rules agreed by all member countries and set an unacceptable precedent. It has been suggested in South Africa that a replacement match could be staged if the Test does not go ahead. If this were to happen it would not be recognised by the ICC as a Test match. It would not be officiated by an ICC referee or umpire and neither the result nor statistics would be included in Test match records.”


The unofficial third Test match was played out with Lindsay officiating, and was easily won by the South Africans. The players did not really treat it as an international match. There were logos on the flannels and batsmen signalled for the third umpire – to mention two striking departures from the decorum of a Test match.


ICC upheld the ban on Sehwag for the subsequent Test match but overturned those on Tendulkar and Ganguly. India’s home series against England immediately after the South African tour, seemed to be under threat when the selectors included the Najafgarh youngster in the squad. Dalmiya started out by standing his ground, but eventually compromised – Sehwag missed the opening Test against England at Mohali.


Denness served as match referee in only two more Tests and three ODIs and was not reappointed by the ICC the following year. “There was a reduction from the part-time referees, of which I was one, to the full-time referees. I wasn’t included in that full-time list, but I don’t think it was anything to do with the Tendulkar thing,” he remarked.


Plans for a hearing of the case in front of the ICC Disputes Resolution Committee in June 2002 were cancelled because Denness had to undergo a heart surgery.


(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)


Cricketing Rifts – 1: The Bradman-centric & religion-fuelled Australian feuds  


Cricketing Rifts – 2: Vizzy, Lala Amarnath & CK Nayudu  


Cricketing Rifts – 3: The intense animosity between Don Bradman & Wally Hammond  


Cricketing Rifts – 4: India in the 1940s Merchant-Hazare and Amarnath-De Mello  


Cricketing Rifts 5 – 1950s – Many mutinies against the skippers  


Cricketing Rifts 6 – Ian-Chappell vs Botham other showdowns 


Cricketing Rifts 7 – Sparks in Indian cricket that lit up a drab 50s & 60s era 


Cricketing Rifts 8: 1960s – Chuckers, cheats and Boycott


Cricketing Rifts 9: Ian Chappell’s nasty duels with Greig, Waugh & across a generation


Cricketing Rifts 10: Sunil Gavaskar versus Bishan Bedi, Kapil Dev & Dilip Vengsarkar


Cricketing Rifts 11 – Multiple issues around Boycott and Botham


Cricketing Rifts 12: Imran vs Miandad; Akram vs Waqar; Asif vs Sarfraz …


Cricketing Rifts 13: Ranatunga vs Warne; Steve Waugh vs Ambrose; Azhar vs Sidhu


Cricketing Rifts 14: When West Indies made Greig’s life miserable for using word ‘grovel’


Cricketing Rifts 15: Vaseline controversies that soured India-England relations