At the turn of the Millenium Australia were the kings of cricket. They had had a few problems with India in 1998, but as the new century dawned a resounding 3-0 success at home had put those Indians who thought that their earlier success on the sub-continent had changed the world order very firmly in their place.
The Indians had another chance to defeat Australia on the sub-continent in early 2001, but by close of play on 12th March were deep in a hole of Australian making. They had lost heavily by 10 wickets in Mumbai, and at Kolkata were 128-8, the Australian first innings of 445 no more than a speck on the horizon, and a second heavy defeat beckoned.
Next day the Indians duly followed on, the small matter of 274 behind, and they stuttered and stumbled second time around as well, until VVS Laxman played the innings for which he will always be remembered, and India became just the third side in history to win a Test match after following on. A momentum having built up they then crept over the line in the decider at Chennai to defeat the world champions.
The wind was taken out of the Indians sails when they could only share a series of two matches in Zimbabwe in June, so it was still 15 years since they had won a series away from home when they rocked up in South Africa in October looking for that elusive victory. Three defeats out of four meetings with their hosts in an inconsequential one day tournament involving Kenya suggested that the Test series was not going to go as well as the Indians had hoped, and so it proved to be.
Looking back the Indian team that took the field for the first Test at Bloemfontein on 3 November 2001 appears hugely impressive. Shiv Sunder Das, 23 Tests with two centuries and an average of 34.89 was never a household name, but the rest of the batting lineup looks as stellar as you get; Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. The bowling was in the hands of Javagal Srinath, Ashish Nehra, Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan, so the nation back home could be forgiven for seeing the ODIs as a blip while their team acclimatised themselves, and still expecting victory.
At the end of the first day India were 372-7 after a poor start had been rescued by Tendulkar and debutant Sehwag both recording fine centuries. Tendulkar's knock is a perfect example of his versatility and was a classic counter-attack after his side had slumped to 68-4. With no other specialist batsmen to come, and the understandable nerves and inexperience of his partner to deal with, he went on the offensive and over the course of 184 deliveries scored 155, including 23 fours and a six. He coaxed Sehwag along in his slipstream and the youngster soon opened up and followed the Little Master's
lead. Writing in Wisden Cricket Monthly
Harsha Bhogle commented that Tendulkar's shots that day will be etched in many minds for many years,
referred to his awesome mastery
Despite Tendulkar and his protege rescuing that opening day the brittle nature of the Indians on their travels was then reflected in the fact that from that position of some strength they then contrived to lose the match by nine wickets, with the South Africans having no need for the fifth day.
For the second Test, which began on 16 November at Port Elizabeth, Ajit Agarkar and Harbajan Singh replaced Nehra and Zaheer. Ganguly won the toss and chose to field a decision which, had it not been for Herschelle Gibbs, might have proved to be a very good one. South Africa ended the day at 237-5 with Gibbs unbeaten on 155. None of the other batsman had got past 29, underlining just what a problem the home side would have had without him.
On the second day Gibbs lost his captain, Shaun Pollock, early on but then at last found some support in 'keeper Mark Boucher, who ended up with an unbeaten 68. Gibbs went serenely on until he was finally dismissed within touching distance of what would have been a thoroughly deserved double century. South Africa eventually totalled 362 and by the end of the day India were well behind the game, precariously placed at 182-8. The follow on had been averted, but despite a fine undefeated 77 from Laxman there was not much comfort on the scorecard for the visitors.
Day three saw India last another half hour, Laxman missing out on a deserved century, and although India made some early inroads the South Africans ended the third day 361 ahead, still with half of their second innings wickets intact. They seemed set fair for another comfortable win but the weather took a hand next day and all Pollock could do was declare after adding another 22 to the lead, which left just long enough for India to get to 28-1. They battled well to earn a draw on the last day, but by then the cricket was of no importance.
The sensational development that the Test is remembered for, and news that should have been released the following day, was leaked that fourth evening. The match referee, former England skipper Mike Denness, had punished as many as six members of the Indian side for breaches of the ICC Code of Conduct. Sehwag, Harbajan, Das and wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta had been punished for excessive appealing and showing dissent to the umpires. This had taken place when Harbajan was bowling and had been orchestrated by him. All save Sehwag were fined 75% of their match fees and given a suspended one match ban. Denness went further with Sehwag who had aggravated his offence by using abusive language, and he picked up an immediate one Test suspension as well as the fine. Ganguly had, perhaps inevitably against that background, been found guilty of not controlling his team or observing the duties captaincy placed on him to ensure his men followed the spirit of cricket.
The umpires had reported these matters to Denness, therefore giving him jurisdiction. They had made no such reports about the behaviour of the South Africans earlier in the match. Many impartial observers felt that, deplorable though the Indians' behaviour was at times, it was no worse than that of their opponents. The uproar in the Indian camp about those punishments was not that they were necessarily unfair or unduly severe in themselves, but that there were double standards being applied. It was a fair point, but it was for the umpires to make a report, not for Denness to do that part of their job for them.
The crowning indignity, and that which stood out most starkly in the wave of publicity that engulfed the incident, was the punishment meted out to Tendulkar. It is worth looking at the strict wording of his offence; For alleged interference with the match ball, thus changing its condition. There was a press conference next morning that Denness appeared at, but having gone along ICC Regulations prevented him saying anything. That was certainly unfair on a thoroughly decent man who picked up a huge amount of criticism for his actions yet could not answer back. Some of the brickbats thrown at him were possibly warranted, but by no means all, and it was certainly not right that his motivation should have ever been questioned.
Denness had interviewed each of the players about the allegations. In essence the allegations against all six were true, and the action taken against those other than Tendulkar might not have gone down so badly had the Indians not believed that the conduct complained of was no different to the conduct of their opponents. As for Tendulkar much as he wanted to he couldn't appeal, because the rules didn't permit it. Denness could say nothing about what had happened, because the rules didn't provide for that, and Tendulkar could not say anything publicly, otherwise he would have breached the Code of Conduct again. So the watching world could only speculate as to what he had done, and the assumption was that he was lifting the seam, ball tampering of a sort that has always been illegal. The rather poor quality image that accompanies this feature is a still from the broadcaster's footage, which would of course have been of a much higher quality, but this at least gives an idea of what the fuss was all about.
Tendulkar is by no means the worst bowler to have played Test cricket, and in the South African first innings had been the man to finally take Gibbs' wicket. In the second he was brought on to bowl his gentle medium pace and immediately began to move the ball considerably. The South African broadcaster's producer not unnaturally called for some close up pictures of Tendulkar's grip, and picked up the pictures that at first blush appeared to show that Tendulkar was doing something to the ball. Denness saw the pictures and took it upon himself to investigate. There was no complaint from the umpires nor any concern expressed from them about the state of the ball. A month later, at an awards ceremony Tendulkar finally confirmed that all he had been doing was cleaning the ball, an account which according to Wisden
Denness later confirmed was one he was content to accept.
Cleaning the ball was still interference with the match ball, thus changing its condition
, because Tendulkar needed the umpire's permission to do it, but in terms of its seriousness it was akin to the difference between taking hold of a man's arm to move him to one side to prevent him obstructing a narrow passageway, and striking him about the head in order to bring about the same end. Both are assaults, but the degree of "criminality" could not be more different.
At the time Malcolm Speed was the CEO of the ICC. In his autobiography he wrote Mike Denness was one of the better and more conscientious match referees of this era
, something which I have no doubt was true. My own sadly limited conversations with Mike Denness, none of which went beyond discussing Dennis Amiss' famous innings in Kingston in 1974, confirm what all who had no axe to grind about the "Tendulkar Incident" have written about him say, that he was, as you would expect from a man who had skippered England in such tricky circumstances in the 1970s, an intelligent and fair-minded man of great personal charm.
I have to concede though that Denness' decisions here are difficult to rationalise. If one starts from the not unreasonable position that the punishments handed out to Sehwag, Harbajan, Das and Dasgupta were justified then why did he deal with Ganguly in the same way given that the captain had, in the previous twelve months, been suspended and/or fined on three separate occasions? In Tendulkar's case why, given his impeccable record, did he not treat him more leniently particularly if he was prepared to accept that his offence was essentially technical? The punishments do not sit comfortably together.
After the announcement there was an outcry in the Indian camp and, back home, throughout the country. Jagmohan Dalmiya, newly elected president of the Indian Board, demanded a review of the decisions and Denness' removal from post for the third Test. When that was refused the third Test went ahead without Denness. The ICC stripped it of its status as an official Test. Sehwag was omitted from the Indian side for that game, in accordance with his punishment, and just two weeks later a further battle line was drawn when, in advance of the first Test to be played in Mohali against England, Dalmiya insisted that Sehwag had served his ban and could play. The ICC stood up to him and the third South African match lacks Test status to this day, and three days before the scheduled start in Mohali on 3 December Dalmiya backed down and it was confirmed that Sehwag would not play.
Following the initial outrage in India, and the ICC playing Mr Dalmiya with the straightest of straight bats, the two sides got bogged down, and public interest waned. Then Denness had to undergo complex heart surgery and the Indians seized on that as a basis to let the matter drop on humanitarian grounds. In truth despite the support of the ICC Denness had suffered most from the episode, and predictably was as unhappy as anyone at the matter ending unresolved. But without enough Indian indignation to drive it the great Tendulkar ball-tampering controversy was consigned to history.
Since 2001 the manner in which Sachin Tendulkar has gone about his business over another dozen years has left his reputation as it was in the first twelve. So what happened in that Port Elizabeth Test? Does the image show the Little Master
picking the seam or cleaning the ball? It isn't clear, and I suspect Mike Denness may well have been so irritated by the general standard of behaviour on show from the Indians that, initially, he failed to recognise that Tendulkar had earned the right to the benefit of being believed. Had his view at the time been the one he later articulated, that he accepted Tendulkar's account, then there was no possible justification for putting his transgression on a par with his teammates. So much as I admire Denness I think he did make an error of judgment on the Tendulkar issue, as of course did the man himself when he cleaned the ball in the way he did. He kept his own counsel afterwards though, and did nothing to fan the flames that Dalmiya lit, and that in itself speaks volumes for the integrity of the man who is, without doubt, the greatest cricketer his country has produced. The game is far, far bigger than any individual, even Sachin Tendulkar, but following his dismissal at Mumbai last week, just short of that fairytale finish that the whole of India would have been willing him towards it will never be quite the same again.