November 2004 November 11, 2004

On walking

Mukul Kesavan
The recent fashion for batsmen ruling themselves out raises a few interesting questions

The recent fashion for batsmen ruling themselves out raises a few interesting questions

Walking fits well with Adam Gilchrist, but less so with others © Getty Images

`Walking' broke out like dengue during the Chennai Test. Adam Gilchrist walked, then Jason Gillespie, then Michael Kasprowicz. Yuvraj Singh and Parthiv Patel reciprocated reluctantly, coerced by Gilchrist's example. Dean Jones, in the commentary box, said he'd never walked, but carried along by the rising tide of Australian virtue, declared walking was good for the game.

It made me queasy, all this goodness. It was a bit like being car-sick in childhood: the kind of sickness that didn't set in immediately, but took you by surprise after a few sharp turns. When Gilchrist walked, I felt okay. He's always been a walker; walking fits the way he plays. He lays about himself with honest good cheer, mashing up bowling attacks without malice: it's hard to imagine Gilchrist nicking one and dissembling. Gilchrist was walking before Yuvraj, who had taken a falling catch, had hit the ground. Gillespie, who followed suit, hesitated a fraction before acknowledging that he had gloved the ball, by walking away. It was, for Gillespie, a political act, not a spontaneous one. Kasprowicz's self-incrimination was when I felt my gorge rise. Kasprowicz hung around long enough for David Shepherd to give him not out - before succumbing to Gilchrist's example and tearing himself away from the crease, frowning with embarrassment and exasperation at being forced into this brazen show of goodness.

The pragmatic argument against walking was concisely stated by former Australian opening batsman Michael Slater. If you walk every time you're out and are also given out a few times when you aren't (as all batsmen are through a career), things don't even out. So in a competitive team game it is, at the very least, irrational behaviour. Secondarily, there is a strong likelihood that your opponents won't walk, so every time you do, you put yourself or your team at risk.

This isn't, of course, a moral argument; it is a cynical, prudential argument based on experience. The moral argument against this prudential case is simple. The rules of cricket define dismissals and if you know you're out within that definition, you are morally obliged to aid the umpire and walk. The assumption that you're entitled to not walk because others don't, is self-serving: by that logic, everything from tapping the water mains (because your neighbours do it) to cooking the books (because all shopkeepers do it) is justified. Also, the moralists argue that an innings prolonged by dishonesty is a devalued innings, and for cricket lovers this is, or should be, a reasonable argument. The affection that Gundappa Viswanath, Gilchrist and Brian Lara inspire has something to do with the fact that they're walkers who have made their runs strictly within the rules of the game.

If there are good arguments for walking, why is standing your ground an acceptable position - acceptable not just to professional cricketers but even cricket's public? Matthew Hayden declared in a newspaper article that he wouldn't walk and even Gilchrist made it clear that walking was an individual decision, not team policy. Why isn't this tantamount to publicly declaring that the decision to not cheat isn't team policy but a matter of individual preference?

The usual defence invokes the umpire. This is how Allan Border put the non-walker's case: "I believe, as do many others, that umpiring decisions tend to even themselves out over the years. I am of the opinion that just as the batsmen and bowlers have a job, the umpires have a specific job of making decisions, and it is best to leave it to them." For most people this shifts responsibility from the individual competitor to the neutral official. The reason this rhetorical move is so successful is that cricket is deeply embedded in the procedures and metaphors of law.

If umpires are given all the help they need, players won't worry about bad decisions turning their career © Getty Images

Cricket doesn't have rules, it has Laws. A batsman is given out only when the fielding side appeals to the umpire; without an appeal the umpire is under no obligation to make a decision. You don't appeal for a goal in soccer, but you must appeal for a dismissal in cricket. There is, thus, a plaintiff (the fielding side), a defendant (the batsman) and a judge, the umpire. Crucially, there is a judicial process at work. Legal procedure is critical to the way in which the cricketing public responds to behaviour on the field. Not all forms of deception are seen as equally culpable by umpires or by the cricketing public, and this hierarchy of guilt is closely related to procedural distinctions made in law. For example, when a fielder claims a catch that he hasn't taken cleanly, his appeal is seen as sharp practice, liable to punishment. When Ridley Jacobs, the West Indies wicketkeeper, claimed a stumping after breaking the stumps with the glove that wasn't holding the ball, he was punished with a threematch suspension. On the other hand, batsmen routinely stand their ground knowing they have nicked the ball. Such batsmen know they are out but pretend they aren't, hoping to deceive the umpire into giving them not out. Yet nobody has ever seen or heard of a batsman being suspended for not walking, even when video footage offers evidence of his deception.

The reason for this difference in treatment is this. The fielder who enters a false claim for a catch or a stumping is perjuring himself. He thus invites the exemplary punishment that courts of law hand out to perjurors. The batsman who doesn't walk is simply exercising the accused person's time-honoured right to silence, his right to not be forced to incriminate himself.

But with the introduction of all-seeing camera angles and special lenses and magnified slow-motion replays, that distinction is wearing thin. The right to remain silent is based on the presumption of innocence and that presumption is hard to sustain in the presence of cameras. Every time you nick the ball and don't walk, the camera's likely to show you taking advantage of human fallibility. The procedures of law are created in large part to enshrine the benefit of doubt because judges and lawyers know that in a court of law you can't have God as a witness. But today, on a cricket pitch, you can and you do. Modern television provides cricket with an electronic eye that is so close to omniscience as to make no difference.

This omniscience is beginning to create a crisis for the hard men who refuse to walk and Gilchrist, Australia's acting captain, is prescient enough to see the rocks ahead. Australia, despite Gilchrist and because of Steve Waugh, are widely seen as the most hard-nosed of teams, committed to never giving a sucker an even break. It is an image that has begun to damage Australian cricket's standing at home and abroad.

Behaviour once seen as merely tough or hard-bitten, such as not walking, or sledging, becomes harder to gloss over when the camera picks up the nick and the stump microphone captures the obscenities. It's revealing that when Virender Sehwag was given out lbw to Glenn McGrath in Bangalore and the camera clearly showed a huge inner-edge, McGrath didn't attempt the umpire-knows-best defence. Instead, he went to great lengths to emphasise that he appealed because he believed at the time that Sehwag was out. The leeway traditionally granted to certain kinds of cricketing deception is threatened by the television camera's unblinking gaze.

The remedy Gilchrist proposes, walking a matter of individual conscience, is more a gesture than a solution. It's a form of gallantry that should have become redundant or obsolete in this age of televised cricket. When batsmen of an earlier age, like Viswanath, walked, their gesture served a purpose: it disclosed information that no one else was privy to. When Gilchrist (or Kasprowicz or Yuvraj or Lara) walk today, they merely corroborate what the camera is about to show or has already revealed. This is evidence that should be made available to the judges - the umpires - in every case. That it isn't, is a testament to a perverse amateur ethic that sentimentalises human error - I once heard Ian Chappell declare that dealing stoically with bad decisions was one of cricket's tests of character! When livelihoods and careers turn on umpiring decisions, we should make sure that umpires have all the help they need to make the right ones. Once that happens, this unnecessary, re-invented distinction between gents (who walk) and pros (who don't) will disappear: everyone will walk because there won't be enough bad decisions to be evened out.

Mukul Kesavan is an essayist and novelist based in New Delhi.

This article was first published in the November issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. Click here for further details.