England's performance in the Test series against South Africa was always going to be a mere sideshow. The main event in this high mid-winter of international cricket activity (largely ignored by the British media) has been taking place in Australia, where Pakistan and India have been playing Test and one-day series.
The Australians confirmed their supremacy by beating both countries 3-0 in the Test series. However, it was events off the field - displaying cricket's special mixture of arrogance and incompetence, global economics and parochial prejudice - that provided the more compelling spectacle.
As so often in the history of the game, international controversy has followed a dispute about fast bowling. Shortly after the Pakistanis arrived in Australia in early November, two umpires submitted a complaint to the Australian Cricket Board about the bowling action of Shoaib Akhtar, the visitors' young speed demon. Their evidence - including a 20-minute videotape - was promptly dismissed by the board, whose chief executive declared the matter closed.
How wrong he was. A month later, following Australia's victory in the third Test, the match referee John Reid (a New Zealander) and the umpires Darrell Hair (Australia) and Peter Willey (England) referred Akhtar's bowling action to the International Cricket Council's Advisory Panel on Illegal Deliveries. In 1995 Hair had been the first umpire to call the Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing. The ruling was later overturned by the ICC, but that didn't stop another Australian, Ross Emerson, calling him again in 1999 when England played Sri Lanka. Since Emerson was one of the two who complained about Akhtar, and since Hair also clashed this winter with the Indian tourists over whether they could use sawdust to cover a slippery area during the Sydney Test, it's hardly surprising that Asian cricket fans think that Australian umpires are waging some sort of vendetta against their cricketers. In the real world, India and Pakistan may be threatening each other with nuclear weapons (see page 23) but, when it comes to cricket (or at least to Australian umpires), their alliance is absolutely solid.
The allegation is that Akhtar occasionally bends his arm, especially when delivering a bouncer or striving for extra pace. Law 24.2 of that antique and often nebulous code known as "The Laws of Cricket" stipulates that "the ball must be bowled, not thrown". But what is a throw? The explanatory footnote is of little help: the ball is thrown if the arm is straightened "during that part of the delivery swing that directly precedes the ball leaving the hand". As a number of eminent fast bowlers have noted, a strict application of this definition would outlaw some of the biggest names in the game, past and present.
Traditionally, worries about "chucking" have been addressed by a quiet word in the ear. The ICC's advisory panel, with its in camera hearings, has in a sense adapted this method. But the problems are the same: decisions appear inconsistent, often unexplained, sometimes inexplicable.
On 30 December the panel voted, after a phone conference, to suspend Akhtar from international cricket pending "remedial coaching". But the Pakistan Cricket Board, which has close links with the government (it, too, is run by military men), lodged an appeal with the ICC, an eventuality for which, the ICC admitted, it had no formal procedure. There's no doubt that the Pakistan regime saw the unassuming Akhtar as a convenient rallying point for nationalist sentiment. Lieutenant General Tauqir Zia, the cricket board chairman, declared Akhtar "our national asset and hero". Another official described the charges against Akhtar as "racially motivated".
At a meeting of captains, coaches and managers held in Australia on the eve of the triangular one-day series, Hair struck back. According to leaked reports in the Australian press, he told the Indians and Pakistanis to "put up or shut up". The next day, the Australian board rebuked Hair and his colleagues for "entering the political arena", but it helpfully offered to provide them with "counselling".
On 8 January, the ICC president and the Calcutta construction tycoon, Jagmohan Dalmiya, rescinded Akhtar's ban for the triangular one-day series, deploying the interesting argument that since the objections to Akhtar's action seemed to apply only to his bouncers, and since bouncers were in any case deemed no-balls in one-day games, he might as well play. It is not clear that Dalmiya had the power to do this, but there it rests, with Dennis Rogers, the chairman of the panel that originally banned Akhtar, confessing that "I do not understand the process of appeal and I am trying to get it explained".
The prolonged conflict is one reason why the one-day matches involving Australia, India and Pakistan will draw a television audience that dwarfs the faithful who tuned in to watch South Africa clobber England. Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan officials are united in their desire to maximise the commercial exploitation of the game's largest fan base. This is the worldly-wise entente behind Dalmiya's ruling.
His action was arbitrary, high-handed and illogical, but little more so than the chain of events that led to it. Once again, cricket has been exposed as bereft of an effective global authority or a global consensus on "fair play". And if Akhtar is unable to fulfil his £100,000 contract with Nottinghamshire next summer (and that's big money in cricket), fans in Britain will take their place among the many losers in the whole affair.
Mike Marqusee's book "Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the sixties" is published by Verso. Hunter Davies is away