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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gideon on July 3, 2008, 8:39 GMT

    An addendum might be in order, given the extreme protectiveness of some readers towards the poor, defenseless, friendless BCCI! Obviously I don't agree that the last paragraph is irrelevant. Indeed, I think there's an area of obvious comparability. Collingwood's appeal at The Oval has been deplored as an act of cynical and unprincipled self-interest at the expense of the game's long-term welfare; there's an argument that the BCCI's stance on Zimbabwe is exactly that. Certainly if Peter Chingoka had not proven himself a useful stooge at the ICC then there would be no pious bleatings from the always-anonymous 'Indian officials' about cricket and politics must not mix' ­ when everyone knows that they can and do. Cricket and politics mixed the moment teams took the field bearing the names of countries they were from. When Australia' met England' in the first Test match, nobody saw it as merely a game involving two XIs: they were embodiments of their generations, and certainly in Australia a measure of national prowess and progress. The game mattered more for that understanding; had it not been so, cricket would hardly have seized the popular imagination.

    Given the benefits that national boards of control derive from the prestige of choosing a team to represent their country, they cannot in the next breath protest that their organisation is 'above politics' and merely in the business of arranging cricket matches. If you rejoice in the honour, you can't abdicate the accompanying responsibility. I suspect, furthermore, that a bit of politics in cricket occasionally does no harm: it prevents cricket sticking its head in the sand and pretending the rest of the world doesn't exist. The pity of the BCCI's position now is that the sub-continent has much to be proud of where its attitude to apartheid South Africa was concerned. In the 1970s and 1980s, England and Australia back-slid constantly on the issue of South Africa's excommunication from international cricket. In the face of some lamentable apologetics about cricket and politics not mixing, India provided moral leadership sorely lacking elsewhere. Why is the BCCI's attitude so different now?

    There is a lot of resentment in India about the long period in which the foundation members' of ICC maintained their anachronistic and anti-democratic veto ­ and quite right too. Yet what is the BCCI's support of Chingoka but the maintenance of a veto by any other name? The BCCI covets a powerful role in the governance of world cricket. Good luck to it - certainly makes great economic sense. All the more reason, though, that it shouldn't delegitimise itself by relying on what long ago ceased to be a body representative of cricket in Zimbabwe and became an arm of ZANU-PF. Of course, this is all just my opinion, to which you're absolutely entitled to disagree. As you do so, perhaps spare a thought for those in Zimbabwe who by disagreement place their lives in jeopardy.

  • Swami on July 3, 2008, 7:40 GMT

    Cricket is probably the first sport I can think of where majority of revenues come from a developing country. Its an interesting situation. Just like China is being deliberately embarassed before its Olympics by a motivated western media campaign, India is going to face a motivated media campaign. If Mr.Haigh were to really do his job of being a "historian" as he calls himself, he will realise that the rules have always been set by those in power. Mr. Sepp Blatter needs the African votes for his survival as FIFA boss, hence sports and politics dont mix. No western country objects to this as they profit from it. Mr. Jacques Rogge needs African votes for his survival as IOC Chief, hence sports and politics dont mix. The western financial interest in cricket is minority now, hence sports and politics mix. When the financial situation was reverse in cricket, sports and politics also did not mix. No country/culture has a monopoly on moral leadership and its best to not point fingers.

  • Phil on July 3, 2008, 5:49 GMT

    Last night on New Zealand TV former test opener Mark Richardson had no problems with the out decision. Nor do I. If Elliot had run on the left hand side, as we were all taught as youngsters, it would not have happened. Batsmen for years have run in the line of flight between the wickets and the fielder in order to obstruct the throw, all's fair in love, war and cricket. PS - I am from NZ.

  • dinesh on July 3, 2008, 4:08 GMT

    Truth is always hard to consume, and therefore i had read some comments by some people who got hurt due to this excellent article from Gideon. He is unarguably right.

  • James on July 3, 2008, 3:20 GMT

    Collingwood was perfectly entitled to uphold his appeal. Definitely a case of the bowler being impeded by the batsman. As the article almost says, it was a cop-out on the umpires part to make Elliott have to walk.

  • Warrick on July 3, 2008, 1:48 GMT

    3 points.

    1st is that the article was about the Spirit of Cricket, not the Collingwood/Elliott run out which was a starting point.

    2nd the patriotic Indians want to be top shots but don't seem to want to take the constant criticism of being it, or the responsibility of acting like one.

    3rd it is clear the BCCI are propping up Zim's inclusion as a Full Member of the ICC for their own political purposes, not the benefit of (heavens forbid) cricket.

  • Raghavendra on July 2, 2008, 22:33 GMT

    Too much is made out of this incident. The person in subject who commited the mistake (Paul Collingwood)has accepted it and apolozised. Shouldn't we stop it here and move on. For Mr.Gideon Haigh, I wonder how things have gone over the years, A mistake is a mistake no matter under what circumstances it was commited. One can not blame circumstances for it. Mr.Gideon Haigh, You must have the guts to accept it. Win like a man and loose like a man. In Zimbabwe's case, I strongly feel that politics should be kept away from cricket. ICC can not ban Zimbabwe citing political situation there rather they should try to help the ZC to improve the cricket in the country. What have ZC to do with the political situation in the country. Agreed, they are influenced by the president of the country but they can not go against him. Banning will never solve the problem. Mr.Gideon Haigh, I wonder what has India to do in all this? Why are you so jealous about India becoming dominant in cricket?

  • The on July 2, 2008, 19:59 GMT

    So my first comment didn't make the cut... I will give it another try... The last paragraph was completely unnecessary and incendiary. We call this kind of blogger a 'hit and run' blogger, one who sets a fire for publicity or other reasons unrelated to the rest of the article. Lately, I have seen a lot of cricinfo articles unnecessarily take pot-shots at BCCI and Indian cricketers (others have seen this as well). My suggestion to folks here is to ignore Gideon as a rabid rabble rouser who can't accept reality. I suggest cricinfo maintain a neutral tone to their articles and bulletins(which it used to in the good ol' days).

  • Rajesh on July 2, 2008, 19:52 GMT

    I think this is a great article, talking about the gray area between rigid regulations and voluntary behavior demanded by civility or spirit. We face this outside the sports area as well. As the stakes get higher, it is tempting cross the line and stay within regulations and try to get away without following unwritten laws. The simple solution as you pointed out is to draw the lines, and write down some of the unwritten laws. This is a practical problem with practical solution, not one of morality. You would change the current dynamics, and add a new (minor) variable to the game. This is how game evolves. Let it evolve in the right direction.

  • gordon on July 2, 2008, 19:27 GMT

    Can you all remember the furore when back at the beginning of the 70s, John Snow barged Gavaskar in his efforts to pick up a shot from the little man. I think Snow was banned from the next test.

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