The ICC has its reasons to ban Kagiso Rabada for “deliberately making inappropriate contact with Steve Smith” during the Port Elizabeth Test. Conversely, the many neutrals watching this engrossing South Africa-Australia Test have reasons to call this alleged Level 2 breach of ICC code a ludicrously disproportionate sanction.
The ICC can say they have followed the law; in their righteous tone stress their zero-tolerance policy to keep cricket a non-contact sport and if need be even exhibit the “hot-spot, snickometer” replay of Rabada’s shoulder-brush with Smith to justify their action. No doubt, match-referee Jeff Crowe has gone by the book but his verdict lacks discretion, foresight and, above all, common sense.
The Rabada ban has thrown up the age-old judicial question: Should a match-referee strictly stick to the rules framed at ICC’s Dubai headquarters or should they be open to interpretation, keeping in mind the unwritten principles of natural justice, the on-field realities of an aggressively-contested series and the uniqueness of each dispute? Sporting verdicts can’t be slaves to laws, letters or numbers. The code of conduct can be used as a reference point and not an unquestionable cricketing gospel.
The former chairman of national selectors, Dilip Vengsarkar, once when questioned about his choice of a player who had an inferior batting average than the one who he had dropped, gave a profound line that ended the questioning reporter’s blind trust in statistics. “In that case, why don’t we make Mohandas Menon the chairman of selectors.” India’s most-trusted number-cruncher, Menon, too would agree that Vengsarkar was better suited for the job. It’s exactly the reason seasoned international cricketers, and not retired judges, are named match-referees.
Disappointingly, Crowe’s verdict lacks cricketing rationality. The Kiwi international seemed to have forgotten his playing days and what it takes to face the Aussies.
Had he stepped into Rabada’s shoes, he would have understood the reasons for the pace-bowler’s over-the-top celebrations after getting Steve Smith lbw with an in-coming ball. Here is a batsman who, for the last few years, made a mockery of tearaway quicks. Defying every batting rule, he has planted himself on the off-stump, denying the bowler the view of three sticks, he has dared them to hit his pads. A career average of 62, aggregating over 100 in the last series and No. 1 Test ranking are indicators that point to the fact that few bowlers have hit the target.
Rabada, the fastest bowler of his side and a recent Test No.1, too had a reputation to guard. South Africa had never won a series against Australia at home, this was their chance. Rarely did one wicket mean so much to so many. So “Smith lbw Rabada” wasn’t just another wicket. It’s this backdrop that give perspective to Rabada’s outpour. “Honestly, I didn’t even feel the contact at the moment because I was so pumped up. I didn’t feel any contact at all,” he would later say about the alleged brush with Smith.
A few months ago, during the India-South Africa series his father, Dr Mpho Rabada, had spoken about his son while sitting in the dining area at Centurion. On the field that day was Virat Kohli, not the most popular Indian cricketer among the South Africans. Dr Rabada, though, saw a bit of his son in him. “I was seeing how Kohli enjoys the wickets. I mean some people say why he is celebrating like that, that’s crazy. But I think he needs to, it pegs him on, it lifts the team. He wears the heart on his sleeve. If you see Kagiso, you see that same passion when he gets wickets. It gets him pumped up, he is happy. I see certain similarities between the two,” he had said.
In the days to come, Rabada will have to curb his instincts, even when he gets an Aussie wicket and even if it happens to be Smith. Reading England batsman Jonathan Trott’s autobiography, Unguarded, makes one understand how tough that can be. “The Australians circled me like hyenas round a dying zebra,” writes Trott about the days before his depression-induced retirement.
Rabada says he will celebrate but steer clear of the batsmen, though his father is more philosophical about the episode. A day after the ban, he sent a text that had a Nelson Mandela thought: “I never lose, I either win or learn.”
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