Do the right thing. But what?

Amit Varma

August 24, 2004

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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

3.10pm IST - Adam's walk

So where were you when Adam Gilchrist walked after snicking a ball, during Australia's World Cup semi-final last year? And how did you react? Did you think, "wow, he's walking, what a wonderful piece of sportsmanship"? Or did you go, "what a silly, sentimental thing to do, this could cost his side dearly, and his first loyalty is towards them"?

Gilchrist's walk comes to mind because this is that time of the four-year cycle when the air is filled with talk of the spirit of sport and other such hazy concepts, all inspired by the Olympics - the greatest showcase on earth, some would have it, for sore losers, hi-tech doping and the big bad world of commerce.

Many of these issues are relevant to cricket. If Gilchrist did the right thing, then it must be asked, what is right? Is it playing strictly by the rules of the game and doing whatever is permissable within them to win? Is it following our inner conscience? Is there a moral dimension to cricket distinct from the laws of the game? By what yardstick do we determine what should be our behaviour on a cricket field?

The trolley problem

Consider this thought experiment, one that students of moral philosophy will be familiar with (I quote from an article on wikipedia.org):

1. A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

2. A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

The decision, as posed, has to be taken immediately. Most people, through the years, have instinctively answered 'yes' to the first question and 'no' to the second, even though the end result of both decisions - sacrificing one person's life to save the life of five others - is exactly the same. These are instinctive responses. Why is our brain wired to react thus?

Now to cricket. Mukul Kesavan, in an essay that had appeared in the January 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, had trashed a decision made by Denis Lindsay while officiating in a West Indies-India one-dayer. Lindsay gave a three match suspension to Ridley Jacobs for claiming a stumping after removing the bails with his right hand, "whilst the ball was clearly in Jacobs left hand which was nowhere near the broken wicket" (from a ZCU statement; the match was played in Harare).

So why was Kesavan outraged at this? In his own words:

To answer that, you have to look at the way cricket deals with players who mislead umpires. Every batsman who nicks the ball stands his ground and waits for the umpire to give him out, caught. The batsman knows he is out, yet, I've never heard of a match referee suspending a batsman for not walking.

Morally, there's no difference between a batsman who chooses to stay, knowing that he is out, and a wicketkeeper who appeals against a batsman knowing he isn't. Even those who admire the hard men for standing their ground - arguing that things even out, that every time you're given not out when you are, there's a matching occasion on which you are given out when you aren't - recognise that this is an argument from experience, not principle, and, less charitably, a shabby piece of rationalisation.

The big question here is: when the effective outcome (deception) of both ways of behaving (claiming the stumping; not walking) is the same, then why do we instinctively pardon the batsman who deceives but feel aggrieved at the wicketkeeper who does the same? I thought a psychologist might have an interesting point of view on this, so I duly turned to Mike Brearley. This is what he says in The Art of Captaincy:

Claiming a catch when you know that the ball has bounced strikes me as plain cheating, as there are solid grounds for distinguishing between this practice and staying in, as a batsman, when you know that you were out. The main difference lies in the passivity of the latter. You are, by virtue of the appeal, placed in the dock; you stand accused; it seems reasonable to wait for judgement, and not to give yourself up. It is not the case that the only alternative to a plea of guilty is one of not guilty. By contrast, the quasi-catcher has to initiate the process of indictment by an appeal.

Is passivity, then, the key? (Interestingly, in the incident Kesavan refers to, Jacobs did not actually appeal himself, but he did not recall the batsman either. He was passive.) That might explain the reason why we instinctively forgive the batsman who does not walk - we understand passivity, it confers on us the evolutionary advantage of staying out of trouble, and can thus be instinctive. But by explaining, it does not exculpate. I agree with Kesavan: both forms of deception are equally wrong, and we should not condone one while condemning the other.

There's a wider question here, of course, of whether a moral code that goes beyond cricket (such as one that holds that deception is wrong) has any relevance to the game. Laws evolved to codify and enforce the morals of society; the laws of cricket, therefore, can be said to have been framed to contain within them all the rules by which our behaviour on the field is governed. Is it valid, then, to judge teams on the basis of any other moral code (and other moral codes would also differ subtly, depending on where you're from)?

In the cut-throat world of modern sport, your opponent will most likely do whatever he can to win, and it would be impractical to compromise your play on the basis of an ethical code that is not explicitly contained in the laws of the game. Ricky Ponting had disapproved of Gilchrist's act, and said that he would not encourage his players to walk. In a team sport, if you endanger your team's chances of winning a game, isn't that wrong? Is winning everything, or does something else also matter?

What is that something else?

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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