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This was out of Ripley's!

PEOPLE who have not read Ripley's Believe It or Not would understand what that venerable publication is about after watching the video footage of the Australian Cricket Board's press conference where umpire Darrell Hair announced that he had voluntarily decided not to stand in matches involving Sri Lanka this summer.

He was flanked by officials from the ACB who did everything but take an oath on the Bible when they said that Hair had not been pressured by the board into doing this. No, probably in the middle of the night, Hair had apparently seen the light, decided that the release of his book Decision Maker at this time was "inappropriate" and come to the conclusion that he should make amends. He had, to put it in umpiring parlance, made his own ruling. "As a current international umpire, I realise that the timing of my book was inappropriate," he said. "In the best interests of cricket harmony, I've taken this decision."

Now, this is stretching the bounds of credibility a bit. In Wodehousian terms, it is a bit rich. You and I may not have been born yesterday, but apparently we are all expected to believe this after all the reports about the Sri Lanka board's reaction to Hair's statements (shortly after the book came out) that he would not hesitate to call Muthiah Muralitharan for throwing again this summer if he felt that the bowler's action warranted the same.

Don't forget also that we are asked to accept this as an article of faith after Sri Lanka's board complained to the International Cricket Conference (a body which appears to be operating on another planet, so long does it take to react) about Hair's comments. The Lankan stance was that Murali had been cleared by the ICC; who, then, was Hair to question his action? The Pope had spoken, how dare a lay preacher raise doubts?

Thus everything is hunky-dory all over again. Nobody will be annoyed this summer. At times like these, I wish there was some upstart umpire around, one who would act by his conscience and blow all these bureaucrats' up in smoke. One who would challenge the establishment and not give up. Sadly, now that the money is there for umpires too, they cannot be expected to stand up and be counted anymore. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

ACB chairman Denis Rogers was at great pains to emphasise, "We haven't nobbled him." He termed Hair's decision "generous" and "very, very courageous", and reiterated that the burly Hair remained, in the ACB's opinion, Australia's best umpire. But, said Rogers, this did not guarantee Hair immunity from further sanction from the ACB or the ICC. "Darrell understands that," he said.

Curiouser and curiouser, ain't it? Of course, anybody who thinks that this is Rogers's way of reminding Hair that all will be okay if he keeps his big mouth shut in future as well, is merely exercising his imagination too much. The guy who thinks that this is Rogers's way of telling Hair that should he not toe the line, there may be some nasty surprise waiting around a future corner, is merely fantasising. Remember, you didn't read it here!