July 2, 2008

Whose right of way is it anyway?

Periodic fits of morality do cricket good, and the uproar over the Grant Elliott run-out might well do so, but perhaps not for the reasons that first come to mind



One of the reasons the run was thought viable was the assumption that Sidebottom would be diverted from fielding the ball by the need to yield Elliott space © Getty Images

Paul Collingwood has been rusticated to a county game for Durham this week for England's tardiness in bowling their overs at the Oval, but many see his punishment as morally condign. A two-player pile-up at The Oval was one thing; extracting a one-wicket benefit quite another. Defeat was embraced with a relief perverse even for the English.

At such times everyone vents their pet peeve, cricket's deteriorating politesse being seen as symptomatic of a deeper malaise - can the WAGS and chavs be far behind? Perhaps Collingwood's lucky to only have been sent as far as Leeds; a couple of hundred years ago he would probably have been sentenced to transportation. On the other hand, perhaps he'd fit right in down here. When Andrew Symonds knocked a spectator senseless last summer, one half-expected a testimonial to be organised in his honour.

Some periodic fits of morality do cricket good, and this one might be the same - but not, perhaps, for the first reasons that come to mind. Concentrate on the initial mishap, which it requires considerable rewinding of replays to absorb fully - an advantage, bear in mind, that Collingwood did not have.

New Zealand's Grant Elliott sets off, stops, restarts, then is inhibited from running wider by his on-rushing partner, and pushed perforce into Ryan Sidebottom's path. Cricket, of course, is full of such contraflows, usually negotiated by a protocol that the batsman has right of way. But nobody knows why or on whose authority - it's not in the Laws - and the protocol is subject to unconscious abuse. One of the reasons the run was viable in the first place was the assumption that Sidebottom would be diverted from fielding the ball by the need to yield Elliott space. "Bugger that," Sidebottom said to himself - and it's hard to blame him.

For, in cricket, the batsman can almost run where he damn well pleases. And it's hard to miss that for years batsmen have been abusing this privilege. You're stretching to make your ground; the ball's on its way - what do you do? If you're a "smart cricketer" - and everyone wants to be one of those - you try to accidentally-on-purpose interpose yourself between the throw and the stumps. Do it successfully, in fact, and the commentators will praise your sagacity.

Not surprisingly, this prerogative of the batsman has become increasingly irksome to bowlers and fielding captains. Bowlers, most conspicuously Glenn McGrath, started insisting on the right to hold the line of their follow-through. Fielding captains, most obviously Steve Waugh, started condoning, if not encouraging, searing returns sent within a micron or two of batsmen's heads. Shaun Pollock and Kevin Pietersen going hip-for-hip at last year's Twenty20 world championship was a harbinger of bigger and worse. Cricketers these days spend more time in gyms, putting on muscle, adding stature, and are naturally more confident of their ability to withstand physical contact, especially under the influence of the headrush of adrenalin.

 
 
The pitch, where traffic has never been regulated, has been allowed to become a disputed zone, with batting and fielding sides asserting rights on the basis of expedience and strength. Perhaps "right of way" needs statutory reinforcement; perhaps the batsmen's running area needs cordoning off
 

"The spirit of cricket"? Under these circumstances it starts elasticising. In the incident at The Oval, Collingwood took advantage of an inadvertent collision between wickets. But this came after a protracted period in which batsmen have taken advantage of the latitude for deliberate obstruction, and cricket's commentariat has winked knowingly at them doing so. Which of these is the more offensive violation? There was a time, furthermore, when umpires might have felt confident enough to impose on the action, to have promptly called "dead ball", and been confident of the acceptance of the players and support of their administrators. But who today wants to be a "brave" umpire?

So what does this episode say about cricket's perceived decadence? A bit; perhaps less than has been assumed. Because it's all about Geoff Boycott, the greatest living Yorkshireman immediately had recourse to a similar incident in his debut Test at Trent Bridge 44 years ago, when with Boycott's partner Fred Titmus prone from a mid-pitch impact with hefty Neil Hawke, Australian keeper Wally Grout refrained from removing the bails: a noble act, to be sure. It seems almost a shame to add Hawke's recollection in his biography: "From the covers came a startled cry, 'I thought this was a bloody Test match'." There's always one, eh? Maybe today there are simply more.

What it might be truer to say is that modern cricketers think more like modern athletes, in straight lines, so that ambiguities are problematic. When their on-field deportment was under challenge five years ago, Steve Waugh's Australians didn't sit around reading Lord Cowdrey's lecture to one another: they drafted a document of their own, headed "The Spirit of Cricket" and signed it. A written "spirit" seemed a bit daft at the time, and views will differ about how rigidly Waugh's countrymen have honoured its terms since, but it does say something about the preferences of modern professionals.

Thus the events of last week: because the pitch, where traffic has never been regulated, has been allowed to become a disputed zone, with batting and fielding sides asserting rights on the basis of expedience and strength. Perhaps "right of way" needs statutory reinforcement; perhaps the batsmen's running area needs cordoning off. Whatever the case, the authorities have been slow to act, leaving players to improvise an ethical response; in some respects it is surprising that what occurred last week was not sooner in coming.

Authorities slow to act: who knew? Sometimes, of course, they can be worse than slow. While Paul Collingwood is pelted in the public pillory, Indian cricket's potentates, in order that they might maintain their ICC gerrymander, lend credibility and shovel cash to the ramshackle, politically compromised, scandal-racked cricket administration of one of the world's ghastliest dictatorships. Reconcile that with the "spirit of cricket" if you can.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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