March 27, 2014

The white-line crime

Officials spend precious time scrutinising bowlers' foot faults but ignore it when non-strikers gain unfair head starts

Allow third umpires to monitor a non-striker's backing up and punish it by ruling those deliveries dot balls and subtracting runs scored off them from the total © ICC

White-line fever is a term generally used to describe on-field behaviour that would be deemed unacceptable in normal life but sometimes forgiven, often even celebrated, when it happens in play. Bangladesh are currently host to another strain of white-line fever that is much more literal but no less perplexing. Like with the sledging epidemic, the cures are obvious but administrators seem reluctant to administer harsh medicine.

The symptoms can be seen almost every time there is a review of a front-foot no-ball. The side-on camera angle shows the popping crease at the bowler's end. We endure painstaking replays to see if the bowler's foot has transgressed by the smallest of margins. Has the white line been crossed? In fact, the line itself belongs to the umpire so the ramifications of those split-frame replays cannot be underestimated. Clearly the ICC is determined to ensure that the rules are followed strictly when it comes to line calls, sometimes down to mere millimetres. Run-out decisions and boundary decisions are scrutinised in depth too. On Monday the pedants extended it to checking if Quinton de Kock's gloves had taken the ball in front of the stumps when he stumped Brendon McCullum. They are keen to enforce the letter of the law to that infinite margin of error.

And yet, watch the replay of the action at the popping crease and you'll see how the screening for white-line fever fails the integrity test. It is laughable that the non-striker is more often than not way out in front of the popping crease. How ridiculous to see them agonising over multiple replays of a potential no-ball when another "crime" is being blatantly committed and nothing is being done to remedy that illness?

It may be going too far to say that it is deliberate cheating, but the end result is still the same. The same batsman who steals a metre at the start of the "incident" may end up being reprieved in a tight run-out decision decided by a split frame, but nothing is done to punish the original sin. It becomes ridiculous when the footage clearly shows a batsman gaining an unfair head start and the third umpire is not empowered to punish the crime, having to focus instead only on checking the bowler's heel. It's akin to a surveillance camera operator charged with keeping an eye out for shoplifters ignoring footage of a person being molested in a changing room because that was not within his remit. He was merely asked to look out for thieves, not perverts.

Perhaps the only way to change this practice is for the third umpire to monitor it remotely and alert the on-field umpires to it. Declare that ball a dot ball, regardless of how many runs were scored. That will soon fix the problem. You can be assured that those batsmen who claim it is an innocent reflex action will soon find ways to control those impulses! Reflex action, my foot - it's blatant deception in my book.

It is an insult to a true legend of the game that Vinoo Mankad's phenomenal cricketing skills have been reduced to a crass nickname - and for playing by the rules

Another solution could be to legalise (and not demonise) the running out of the non-striker. Cricket has shown itself not averse to dispensing with some other quaint traditions (like accepting the umpire's decision gracefully), so there's no good reason why this practice should continue to be immune from deliberate and cynical efforts by the non-striker. If it's now acceptable to abuse opponents so long as you don't cross the line (whatever that means), surely we should shift our scorn away from the bowler and redirect it to the real culprit, who is seeking an unfair advantage, protected by an antiquated spirit-of-cricket code that seemingly doesn't apply to too many other aspects of the game.

While we're at it, perhaps it is about time that we stopped referring to this practice as a "Mankad". It is an insult to a true legend of the game that Vinoo Mankad's phenomenal cricketing skills have been reduced to a crass nickname - and for merely playing by the rules. How does the victim become the villain? What name shall we use then to describe the practice where batsmen who knowingly edge the ball do not walk? Do we call it a Symonds, a Broad, a Warner, a Kohli? The list is endless. The Mankad legacy deserves more than being forever linked to an incident that ultimately, despite the misdirected scorn, shows that Mankad himself was not the player breaking the rules. Check out his record and put it into context for an Indian cricketer of that era. The man is a colossus of the game.

But I digress; it was farcical to watch Chris Gayle being pinged for a short run in the pool match against India on Sunday night. Presumably, if he had "stolen" a few inches at the start of the transaction, that would have been okay? If he was run out, do they look at where he started from and deduct that from the finishing point at which the bails were broken?

This issue of being pedantic about the white line is one of cricket's great quandaries. Umpires are now using video technology to check the front line after nearly every wicket has been taken, sometimes even when the foot is nowhere near transgressing. Yet, perhaps due to time constraints, they may be missing no-balls that don't result in a dismissal but may be equally crucial to the outcome of the match. Throw in half a dozen extra free hits each game and see what that does to the final result. Lendl Simmons was reprieved when Ravindra Jadeja's heel was deemed to have barely cut the line on the last ball of the 18th over. Andre Russell deposited the free hit for six, and in the 20th over, Simmons himself hit two more sixes off Jadeja. Did the umpires review those deliveries too? As it turned out, India won comfortably, but in a thriller like the South Africa v New Zealand game, a decision like that would almost certainly have seen the Proteas exit the World Cup.

The ICC needs to decide if cricket is a game played to an exacting standard defined by millimetres on slow-motion replays. It has already moved in that direction with Hot Spot technology, Hawk-Eye tracking and audio analysis for faint edges. So why leave such an obvious loophole unguarded? It is either wrong to leave the crease before the bowler has delivered the ball or it isn't. The degree (length) by which this crime is perpetrated is irrelevant. By all means allow batsmen to take a risk if they wish but there should be no censure and talk of the spirit of cricket if the bowler is quick enough to catch a thief in the act. Where is the talk of this ubiquitous "spirit" in the case of the culprit, the batsman who deliberately steals an advantage and then comes over all aggrieved when he is caught with his pants down? To cure this strain of white-line fever, we first need to agree on whether the white line is a line in the sand or a euphemism in a sport that is caught betwixt and between, a dinosaur that needs to live in the modern age of technology whilst shackled by traditions that have long since become extinct.

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