Let's hear it for cricket's capriciousness
For those of us who grew up playing and watching cricket, the game's various eccentricities escape our eyes as they are a part of our normal experience. Something a bit out of the ordinary - living abroad where other sports abound or explaining the game or a controversy in it to a neophyte - throws these eccentricities into sharp relief and forces us to ask ourselves, "Why does it have to be this way?" I would like to explore three such instances.
In the first Test between England and India at Trent Bridge, there occurred a moment which can only be described as bizarre. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami had frustrated the English bowlers to distraction and had already put on over 100 runs for the last wicket. It was well into the second day with no breakthrough in sight that Liam Plunkett lumbered in and induced Bhuvneshwar to snick one to the wicketkeeper. Alastair Cook, fielding close to the bat, went up in an animated appeal - but neither Matt Prior nor Plunkett or any of the others nearby joined him with any conviction.
Honestly, they all looked simply too knackered to bother. The umpire seemed doubtful, and then denied the appeal. To anyone watching, it was obvious that the tepid nature of the appeal strongly influenced his decision. Soon enough, though, Hot Spot and the Snickometer showed a clear edge. The batsman had been reprieved because the appeal had not been convincing enough.
Is there any other sport in which players have to "appeal" to the umpire for a decision? The Laws of Cricket are very clear about this: a batsman cannot be given out by an umpire unless there is an appeal from the fielding side, even if he is very obviously out. When and how did this come about in cricket? Why does a snick that is not appealed for not result in a dismissal? How many times has the appearance of conviction or certainty on the part of a fielding side led an umpire to rule in their favour even if they were wrong?
Conversely, how often have tepid appeals been turned down even if the batsman was out? To compound matters, if a bowler starts celebrating an obvious snick or lbw by not turning around to appeal to the umpire, he is deemed to be out of line. Ian Botham, commetating on Sky, even spoke of umpires on the county circuit who have turned down such obvious outs on the (unspoken) ground that the bowler was being too presumptuous.
The whole thing is nothing short of weird. Other sports abound in fine judgement calls - the strike zone in baseball or off sides and fouls in soccer come to mind straightaway - and yet umpires or referees in those games make the decision entirely on their own. Appealing is too intrinsic to cricket to contemplate any changes at this point, but that ought not to stop one from marvelling at the utter quaintness of the concept itself.
The second episode occurred during the thrilling final over that Sri Lanka batted out to save the Lord's Test earlier this summer. Off the first ball of the final over, Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka's No. 9 snicked one to Prior and walked off. Replays showed that the ball had brushed his glove but that his glove was not in contact with the bat handle at the time. By the laws of the game he was not out, and had Herath appealed the decision to the DRS, which was available in the game, he would have batted on.
Fans will remember that the stunning finish to the second Test in the 2005 Ashes series came down to a similar moment. On that occasion, Michael Kasprowicz was declared out caught behind by a diving Geraint Jones off Steve Harmison; replays later showed that his glove was off the handle as well. That was in the pre-DRS era and a thrilling Test ended with England winning by two runs and levelling the series 1-1.
A legitimate question might be asked: why does the glove/hand have to be in touch with the bat or its handle in order for it to be a snick? The batsman is in the act of playing the ball, his glove is right there, albeit just off the handle, and arguably it should not matter whether or not it is in actual contact with the handle. At minimum it seems unfair to the bowler, who has not only beaten the batsman but forced him (in most of these cases) to take his hand off the handle in self-defence. Unlike the pads or other protective equipment, the batsman's gloves are almost constantly in touch with the bat handle when batting and it's quite sensible to regard them as a part of the bat as long the batsman is still in the act of playing the ball. Such "continuity" rules do apply in adjudicating whether a batsman has hit the ball twice (which is okay so long as the bat is still in one fluid motion as that happens.)
And finally we turn to something else that exposes the caprice of cricketing rules: this whole business of Mankading. It's bad enough that a bowler is expected to warn the non-striker before dismissing him in this fashion when the latter is trying to gain an unfair advantage. What is worse is that almost invariably the umpire offers the fielding captain the option of withdrawing his appeal after the completely legal dismissal has been made. This unfairly makes the bowler the cynosure when all eyes should be on the non-striker, who was clearly in breach of the rule. In this instance, the Laws of the game seem very clear; it's the woolly-headedness of the interpreters that is contributing to the confusion.
I think it's time to stop the humbug about this form of dismissal: either the non-striker stops leaving his crease before the ball has been bowled or he accepts the risk that he might be run out in this manner. At any rate, let's at least call this mode of dismissal something else: it trivialises one of India's greatest allrounders.
As I ponder these recent events, something interesting strikes me. Cook's petulant reaction to Jos Buttler being Mankaded, and the crowd's booing, only fired up the Sri Lankans and made their eventual one-day series and Test victories taste all the sweeter. Herath's "erroneous" dismissal heightened the drama at the end of the Test and treated us to the spectacle of the No. 11, Nuwan Pradeep, blocking the five final deliveries from Broad to save the Test. Had Kasprowicz been "correctly" adjudged not-out and the Aussies scored the two runs they needed, they would have gone 2-0 up and the Ashes retained for all purposes.
That the entirety of that thrilling Ashes series and the charged England-Sri Lanka one-day and Test encounters owed to umpiring mistakes and capricious rules should give pause to all those who clamour for and are enthused by the prospect of a close to 100% error-free process of adjudication: when it comes to cricket, perfection just might be overrated.
Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu