The Symonds-recall incident February 23, 2004

A fine gesture that will strengthen the game

World cricket woke up stronger on Monday morning

Marvan Atapattu did well to gracefully allow Andy Symonds's recall
© Getty Images

World cricket woke up stronger on Monday morning. Not just because it had witnessed a pulsating game of one-day cricket between Sri Lanka and Australia at Dambulla - a rarity for such a formulaic version of the game - but because an ancient spirit of the game was awoken in the fierce heat of battle. Sportsmanship, an endangered concept in all modern-day sport, blessed international cricket.

Australia had lost a flurry of wickets, slipping from 148 for 1 to 190 for 4. But with Andrew Symonds and Adam Gilchrist at the crease and Michael Bevan, finisher extraordinaire, still padded up and waiting in the wings, Australia were odds-on winners, needing a modest 56 at a run-a-ball with six wickets to spare. Kumar Dharmasena was pinging down his flat offbreaks and Symonds edged an attempted pull onto his pads. Both bowler and wicketkeeper appealed instantaneously and Peter Manuel raised his finger. Sri Lanka had struck a crucial blow.

Symonds was shocked but kept his cool and walked. Gilcrhist, the non-striker, was equally appalled, his reaction tightroping the definition of dissent. Sri Lanka celebrated in a huddle, but they knew really that it was not out. "It was an obvious nick to most of us and it was awkward for a moment," said Marvan Atapattu, Sri Lanka's one-day captain. "I mean ... it was not a bump ball or something like that. We did not really know what to do."

But seconds after he raised his finger, doubt had spread across Manuel's face. He consulted first with Billy Bowden, his eccentric but cool-headed partner, and then turned to Atapattu. "He told me that he believed that he had made a mistake and that he wanted to call Symonds [now over halfway back to the pavilion] back. He asked me whether I would have a problem with that and I said no. It was obvious to us he [Symonds] had hit the ball and this is a game after all - we have to look after its spirit. We were all happy with the decision."

But it was an unprecedented sight within today's cricket. Not just international cricket either - when was the last time you saw a player called back in a competitive game? Pandemonium broke out in the media box. With the match drawing towards a dramatic close, journalists were frantically tapping away under the pressure of looming deadlines. Most missed the incident originally, contenting themselves with a TV replay and then returning to their laptops. "They have sent in Ian Harvey instead of Michael Bevan," shouted out one puzzled journo as a right-hander prepared for the next ball. But there is no mistaking the hulk-like figure of Symonds, and it became clear that he'd been recalled.

As the official scorer reached for his Tipp-Ex, the pressmen tried to unpick the chain of events. Had the third umpire or match referee intervened? But there was no evidence of walkie-talkies being used - and anyway lbw decisions cannot be referred or interfered with by the third umpire. Atapattu was smiling at midwicket, and there was no evidence of disharmony within Sri Lanka's ranks. Clearly, despite the game-changing nature of such a decision at such a crucial juncture, Sri Lanka had agreed that Symonds should be recalled.

Mike Procter, the match referee, was effusive in his praise of both Manuel and Atapattu: "I thought the way it was handled out there was terrific. The umpire thought through his initial decision and realised he had made a mistake - it was a hugely courageous decision to do what he did. You also have to take your hat off to Marvan [Atapattu] and his team for the manner in which they accepted the decision. Symonds is one of those players that can win a game with a few blows and it was a big call from Marvan at that stage of the game."

In the end, the incident did not change the outcome of the match. Symonds smashed a quick 36 not out but, thanks to some brilliant bowling at the death from Chaminda Vaas, Sri Lanka won by a solitary run. The series was level at 1-1, and the teams set off for Colombo with much to play for.

Australia-Sri Lanka relations on the cricket field have frequently been acrimonious, soured as they have been by allegations and insinuations of chucking, racially barbed sledging - from both teams - and verbal jousts and character assassinations, particularly between Shane Warne and Arjuna Ranatunga. We had all expected an explosive series. Ricky Ponting had promised onfield chatter and Hashan Tillakaratne, Sri Lanka's Test captain, suggested Sri Lanka will give as a good as they get when the Test series starts. No-one had expected the first major on-field incident to be an act of gracious sportsmanship.

What goes around comes around, they say, and perhaps it was Gilchrist who sowed the sporting seed when he walked during the 2003 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka, a remarkable decision that was greeted with stony silence upon his return to the dressing-room. Now Atapattu has followed up with a return gesture, which in turn presents us with an intriguing possibility: will the players of both teams now play the rest of the series as graciously and fairly?

The International Cricket Council has been working hard during the past few years to improve the quality of decisions. Umpires are better trained and more professional, new technological gadgets have been tried and tested. The truth, though, is that mistakes will happen and that the easiest way for them to be minimised is for the players to take greater responsibility. It may be hard - and perhaps even unrealistic - when careers are on the line and families are waiting to be fed, but the players must show greater honesty. Only with greater trust between the players and officials can poor decision-making be minimised.

So the actions of Atapattu and Manuel on Sunday do matter. Both the teams and the officials will have drawn closer. One act of sportsmanship may not heal all the rifts from a turbulent past, but a platform for improved relations and behaviour has been laid, and that can only have a positive impact upon the quality of decision-making over the coming weeks.