Dhoni chooses grace over gamesmanship
By putting the wider interests of the game ahead of his team's, MS Dhoni, a man of many remarkable leadership qualities, has not only underlined that generosity and grace can exist in the highly competitive environment of professional sport, but also lifted the mood of the series, which was in danger of turning ugly and mean-spirited by incidents on and off the field.
Even in the best of times, the spirit of cricket is a fuzzy and obscure thing. India were perfectly entitled to appeal for the run out after Ian Bell decided to call tea himself without bothering to confirm whether the ball was still in play. The umpire had neither signalled a boundary nor called over; even though Praveen Kumar, the fielder who had tumbled near rope, had shown no real intent behind the throw, he had given no indication of it being a four; and most tellingly, Eoin Morgan, Bell's batting partner, had motioned for him to return to his crease.
Bell could cite genuine misapprehension in his favour, but upon reflection, he ought to know it was a school-boy error, and even though the umpires asked the Indian team to reconsider the appeal, he was given out legitimately. There were three former England captains on air, and they had no doubt that England would have done the same in similar circumstances. India needed a wicket desperately at that stage, and even though it wouldn't have felt earned, they were within their right to be opportunistic. In fact, the only commentator who evoked the spirit of cricket at that moment was Shane Warne.
The trouble is that the spirit of cricket is often evoked arbitrarily and conveniently. Certainly, no clear definition exists, and cricket conducts itself with an eccentric moral code. Batsmen are entitled to stand their ground after edging, fielders appeal even when they know it is in vain, and verbal intimidation of an opponent is considered acceptable within a limit. England's fielders wouldn't have been impervious to the huge nick from Harbhajan Singh, who was wrongly adjudged leg-before on the second day, and the replays confirmed it before the batsman had left the playing arena. The withdrawal of the appeal, though, was neither a consideration, nor an expectation. And despite Dhoni's gesture today, such a thing is unlikely to happen in this Test, or this series.
Certainly, there is precedence for batsmen being run out in innocent circumstances. New Zealand chose to stay with their appeal when Muttiah Muralitharan, after completing the single that gave Kumar Sangakkara a hundred in Christchurch in 2006-07, walked down the wicket to congratulate his partner before the ball was dead. And the boot was on the other foot when England, under Paul Collingwood, chose to appeal after Grant Elliot was unable to regain his crease following a mid-pitch collision with Ryan Sidebottom in a one-day match at The Oval in 2008. Guess the identity of the fielder who relayed the ball to Kevin Pietersen, who took off the bails: Ian Bell.
No doubt, there would have been outrage among Indian fans and the media had an Indian top-order batsman been given out in similar circumstances. In 1999, against Pakistan at Eden Gardens, Sachin Tendulkar was run out by a direct hit from the boundary because he lifted his bat after getting into a tangle with the bowler. It was instructive that while there was a great amount of agitation among journalists, and of course the crowd, over the event, the people who remained generally unfussed were the former cricketers.
While in all probability the reprieve for Bell had no implication on the match - India were well and truly pulverised through the day - the real significance lay beyond the field. The way the day ended was in contrast to how it had begun. Words had been exchanged between the players yesterday after the Hot Spot failed detect an edge from VVS Laxman, even though there had been a clear sound. Stuart Broad, by his own admission had "cheekily inspected" Laxman's bat for traces of Vaseline, a substance suspected to obscure the impact; Indian and English commentators had sparred on live television; and Michael Vaughan, who is acquiring the reputation of a stirrer had posed this provocative question on Twitter: "Has Vaseline on the outside edge saved the day for Laxman???"
Vaughan later accused those who were incensed by his post of lacking in humour, but he could only be absolved of malicious intent by being credited of a dubious sense of humour. Public figures, who choose to broadcast their instant opinions and thoughts on public forums, ought to choose their words responsibly. At best, Vaughan's tweet did the job of cleverly planting the seeds of suspicion; at worst, it bluntly questioned the integrity of a cricketer with an unblemished record.
It wasn't his first gaffe on Twitter either. Minutes after the toss confusion at the World Cup final, Vaughan had sensationally accused Sangakkara of claiming the toss even after calling it wrong. Even though the audio was muffled, close inspection of television replays suggested that Sangakarra had called right.
Thirty two years ago, Gundappa Viswanath, who captained India only in two Tests, had recalled another England batsman after he had been given out. Bob Taylor, who gratefully resumed his innings, forged a match-turning seventh wicket partnership with Ian Botham. That was however a case of correcting an umpiring error.
When the England management came knocking at their door, the Indian team were entitled to turn them away. And as Rahul Dravid said later, there was not a nice feeling about it in the dressing room. They have been accused of being prima donnas and bullies, but by choosing statesmanship over gamesmanship, the Indian team has set an example worthy of emulation.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo