Michael Jeh July 19, 2008

To walk or not to walk?

Is 'walking' one of those special things that defy explanation, an exotic beast that should be allowed to retain an air of mystique

Samir’s insightful take on park cricket etiquette and Stephen’s plea on behalf of umpires raises some interesting questions about the duality of morality. Is cricket unique for its double standards and contradictions which are almost impossible to define in black and white terms?

Let's explore the issue of 'walking' then. Most international players prefer to let the umpire make the decision, a perfectly reasonable position if they take the good and bad with equal grace. But, as we see all-too-frequently, this is definitely not the case. It was never more evident than in the ill-tempered Sydney 2008 Test when Ricky Ponting set the tone for a fractious atmosphere when he was given out in the first innings, totally oblivious to the fortunate decision earlier that morning when he tickled one down the leg side. Live by the sword, die by the sword - not for Ponting that day.

Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar on the other hand have consistently maintained their integrity over long careers by accepting umpiring decisions with relatively few histrionics. And to be fair, they've both copped some absolute shockers over the years! Yet, good or bad, they have generally accepted the umpire's verdict with wry smiles and perhaps a slight shake of the head.

Speaking of integrity, no one has done more for cricket in that respect than Adam Gilchrist. By all accounts, his on-field honesty is no pretence. He is genuinely regarded in the highest esteem by anyone who has had much to do with him in all aspects of life. Yet, this has not stopped Gilchrist from appealing for some of the most blatant "not-outs" imaginable. Rahul Dravid in the recent Sydney Test and Lara at the Gabba in 2005 are two examples that readily spring to mind. Is honesty a fickle mistress, swayed by circumstance, seduced by convenience and dancing to a secret tune that only cricketers can interpret?

Can anyone offer a good enough argument to decode this ethical conundrum? Is 'walking' one of those special things that defy explanation, an exotic beast that should be allowed to retain an air of mystique?

Cricket is full of such complex contradictions. Take the bump ball catch for example. Most cricketers, at all levels of the game, would feel honour-bound to admit when they have not taken a clean catch. If the umpire is not sure, the player feels a moral prerogative to honour the spirit of the game.

This is where I get totally confused – what’s the difference then between the non-catch and not walking when you know you’ve nicked it? Why is it acceptable to not help out the umpire in this situation too? Surely, if you feel the need to come clean about a bump ball, how does it differ in morality to not admitting that you edged it to the wicketkeeper? Or why not leave all decisions to the umpire and take the good with the bad?

It’s almost as if there is an invisible hierarchy of right and wrong that is inherent in the very folklore of the game. It’s almost as if some crimes are more honourable than others, a bit like murderous convicts who despise the paedophiles who share their prison cells.

Where do we sit on issues like taking a catch when we know that we’ve touched the boundary rope? Are we morally bound to confess or is that something for the umpire to adjudicate on? Again, I keep coming back to ‘walking’. What’s the difference?

The admirable Gilchrist deserves the last word on this topic. When asked if he would walk if Australia was one run away from victory and one wicket in hand, he allegedly smiled broadly and replied, “if we needed one to win with one wicket left, I wouldn’t nick it!”

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane