August 3, 2011

Spirit of cricket? Surrender of series ...

The current contest ought to have been the best and closest Test series in England since that epoch-defining summer. Instead England are dormie-two at the halfway point
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On Sunday, August 7, 2005, England's cricket writers sat in the press box at Edgbaston, united in their disbelief as they watched the wreckage of yet another Ashes series turn instead into the most nerve-jangling result in a generation. Had Michael Kasprowicz's leg-side flinch off Steve Harmison zipped away to the boundary, or been (rightly) adjudged not out by Billy Bowden, England would not have won an incredible contest by two runs, and instead of a 1-1 scoreline with all to play for, Australia would have finished with a 2-0 cushion and surely closed out the Ashes for the ninth series in a row.

Six years on, there's none of that existential angst in the air - however, for the neutral cricket fan, the sense of deflation that England averted on that occasion is set to play out in the coming two Tests against India. The current contest ought to have been the best and closest Test series in England since that epoch-defining summer. Instead England are dormie-two at the halfway point, with a victory aggregate of 515 runs after a pair of crushingly effective performances at Lord's and Trent Bridge. The tussle for that World No. 1 status keeps the series spark alive for at least another game, but that long-promised humdinger is now unlikely to materialise.

Clearly, none of that need bother England's players or fans in the slightest. Assuming their team does not squander their two-game advantage, England will soon savour that rarefied atmosphere at the summit of the Test game. Besides, as India are being made to realise, maintaining a world-class standard is as tough, if not tougher, than attaining it in the first place. With away series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka looming in the winter, the crown will not be allowed to rest easy if it does indeed end up residing with Andrew Strauss's men.

In the meantime, all manner of reasons have been given for India's inability to compete on equal terms in this series. They've suffered a glut of untimely injuries, with Virender Sehwag missing the original plane, and Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir all going lame mid-contest; they've been stuffed by their own schedulers, with the demands of the IPL draining their squad of fitness and freshness, and the recent tour of the Caribbean offering little insight into England's bowler-friendly conditions.

But, perhaps most critically, they've lacked the desire shown by their English counterparts, and, dare one say it, their best opportunity to ramp up the intensity flew through their grasp at Trent Bridge like an uncontested edge past first slip.

The flashpoint that wasn't was, of course, the stroke-of-tea run-out of Ian Bell on the third afternoon of the match. MS Dhoni's decision to withdraw India's appeal has since been lauded for the manner in which it upheld the spirit of cricket, and it earned him the Test Match Special Champagne Moment, among other less tangible plaudits. However, it was also the precise moment at which India's challenge in the series was extinguished, and in all probability, their hold on that coveted No.1 slot was surrendered.

Was the retraction worth it in the bigger picture? That all depends on how ugly you like your bar brawls, but when England's lower-order butchered 187 runs in the final session of that third day, it was clear their opponents had given up throwing their haymakers

Was the retraction worth it in the bigger picture? That all depends on how ugly you like your bar brawls, but when England's lower-order butchered 187 runs in the final session of that third day, including a first-ball long-hop from Suresh Raina to Eoin Morgan, it was clear their opponents had given up throwing their haymakers.

Sometimes a team has to "create its own intensity". Those were the precise words that Andrew Strauss used to explain England's miraculous victory in Cardiff at the start of this English season, when 922 punters turned up to watch a wash-out against Sri Lanka, but were instead treated to a 25-over rout. Similarly, in an adverse situation at Trent Bridge, India needed something upon which to galvanise their challenge, and Bell's freak dismissal could have been the catalyst they were looking for. At 254 for 4 with the rock of their revival sawn off, England's lead of 187 suddenly looked less formidable.

Consider what might have happened had Dhoni stuck to his guns and insisted that Bell was sent on his way. The chorus of boos that greeted India's return after tea confirmed how drastically the dynamic of the contest would have shifted, but given how listlessly they had performed up to that point, any change would surely have been to their benefit. Besides, as the "naive" and "stupid" Bell himself admitted afterwards, the fault lay entirely with the batsman who effectively walked before the umpire had given his say-so - a direct contradiction of the received wisdom in modern-day international cricket, which states that you stand your ground at all costs.

Praveen Kumar's half-hearted fling from the boundary wasn't a patch on Ryan Sidebottom's body-check on Grant Elliott at The Oval in 2008, one of the recent precedents for a retracted run-out appeal (and one in which England's then-captain, Paul Collingwood, actually stuck to his guns). When you watch the replays of the incident, there does seem to be a moment, as he breaks into a jog mid-pitch, when Bell realises he's wandered into trouble. But, having spent the summer of 2007 working on his "body language", he brazens it out superbly. Never mind his 159 runs, this little passage of play could be the definite proof of his maturity.

Had Dhoni not backed out of his appeal, it's almost certain that the series would have kicked off, big-style - conceivably on a par with the rancorous India-Australia confrontations of recent vintage. Naturally, not every aspect of that would have been welcome, but it's a fallacy to suggest that gentlemanly behaviour is a prerequisite for top-level sport. One of the few exceptions that prove that rule is the summer of 2005, when Australia were extraordinarily matey with an England team that they recognised as worthy adversaries. However, the gloves were off in the return series 18 months later, when England were pummelled in one of the most compelling slaughters in Test history.

Beyond that 2005 example, the game is littered with proof of the value of needle at the highest level. In 1994-95, Australia beat West Indies in the Caribbean to present themselves as the new sheriffs in the world game, but the changing of the guard was epitomised, and personified, by Steve Waugh's eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with a livid Curtly Ambrose. In 1998, when Allan Donald subjected Mike Atherton to one of the most hostile spells of pace bowling of all time, his rage was fuelled by Atherton's refusal to walk for a gloved catch to the keeper.

And even at Lord's last month, when Kumar Sangakkara earned a standing ovation for his MCC Spirit of Cricket address, he cited the influence of that arch-pugilist, Arjuna Ranatunga, as the critical component that turned Sri Lanka into world-beaters - in particular his masterful harnessing of the Muttiah Muralitharan chucking controversy.

And if you want an extreme (and undeniably unhealthy) example of the benefits of bad blood, look at the ill-tempered ODI series between England and Pakistan in the aftermath of the spot-fixing scandal last summer. It finished 3-2 to England after a passioned-fuelled decider at the Rose Bowl, and was arguably the most compelling sporting drama of the season, as two bitter opponents scrapped desperately for the spoils.

Unwittingly or otherwise, India may have pulled off a very shrewd PR coup. Cricket's recent history is littered with references to their "bullying" nature, be it the fiscal power of the BCCI or the player power that hounded umpire Daryl Harper to an early retirement in the Caribbean last month. In that sort of context, a high-profile reminder that cricket is just a game is laudable.

However, when it comes at the crunch moment of the biggest Test series of the year, is it really the place to let nebulous sporting values hold sway? Personally, I'd have taken a scoreline of 1-1 with two to play, Sehwag to return, and blood at boiling point in opposing dressing-rooms. That sort of confrontation really would have been something to behold.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on August 6, 2011, 15:17 GMT

    The Spirit of Cricket dictated to Dhoni that his team did not deserve to be no 1 in Tests with only one competent but always injured bowler( Zaheer) and three all time Indian batting greats. SO, he said to England that they could continue trashing India and gave Bell the reprieve needed. THIS SERIES IS ALREADY DEAD AND BURIED.

  • knowledge_eater on August 4, 2011, 15:56 GMT

    @ strategic_blunder I suggest you asked that query about SRT on the night of 03 WC Indian vs. Pakistan to Great legendary fast bowlers Akram, Shoaib, and Waqar that what went through their mind at that night after SRT's knock and aftermath of Pakistani team. Ever found out M.Hughes told Allan border,what Warne thought about SRT. It's your opinion but don't get carried away with what he could actually done and look at what he had actually done. It's not that simple than it looks outside of 22 yards and we will realize this after 40-50 years that how hard it is to survive and decode bowlers. Nervous old man lost his all good reflexes of young ended up being highest scorer in SA few months ago! India could have lost that series if it wasn't for him or India could have won that series, if it wasn't for Kallis. Watch game with mind open, put yourself there and decide! If game was that simple lot of hot blooded players would have out scored calm batsman and will still be playing cricket!!

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on August 4, 2011, 14:31 GMT

    I have no doubt that Fletcher is taking India down. Isn't he the same guy who was a hapless member of the Zimbabwean team that was maulled by Kapil Dev's positive thinking at Turnbridge Wells? And lo and behold, Fletcher was giving a generous dose of his negative thinking in Windies and supporting that horrible decision at Dominica to the hilt. No wonder this team let off a batsman who was out. The negative thinking and the 'itch' to please all and sundry is clawing back slowly. Spirit of cricket is when the umpire gives a batsman wrongly out and the fielding captain calls the batsman back. Spirit of cricket is a concept that has to be shown on a regular basis for the things that happen commonly (wrong decisions, collisions etc..), not for the rare bizarre dismissals. What is not showing spirit of cricket for not reinstating back a batsman who was out? There are several ways to get dismissed and this was one of them. This was not even bizarre. This was an elementary school kid mistake.

  • popcorn on August 4, 2011, 9:24 GMT

    Had the 2005 Ashes series been played with the DRS, Australia would have won that series, for Michael Kasprowicz was NOT OUT, but declared caught behind by one of the best (?) umpires in World Cricket.Had the DRS been in vogue when Ricky Ponting was denied a century on debut in Sri Lanka declared out lbw when on 96, he would have added another statistic to his already bulging stats. Test history is littered with what would have been had DRS been in vogueTHEN.I think DRS has caused more problems than when it was a "gentleman's game" - the umpire's word was taken. Just as we ae finding fault with technology there could be human errors too - THAT is really the Spirit of Cricket.ACCEPT THE UMPIRE'S DECISION AND MOVE ON.Having experienced raging controversies on the Technology of DRS, why not just go back to the on field umpire's word?

  • aalkool on August 4, 2011, 9:02 GMT

    Andrew- As you have mentioned, desire is critical in a competition and it is this desire that is lacking. And this is the same point Ganguly made earlier. You have a limited number of years to play for India, so you have to make the most of every match, in every situation. But what happens when this desire transcends the rules of the game? While I disagree with Dhoni's decision, I disagree even more with the English team's decision to approach Dhoni in the break. While those actions have resulted to various talking points and the pathetic Andy Flower's hypocritical comments to the media, they may also result in situations where even the rules of cricket lose their rigidity. From an umpire's decision being questioned, to technology being insisted upon and then questioned when proven inconclusive; to rules being interpreted to suit oneself, cricket is on a slippery slope. The potentially new leaders also need to get their act together. Imagine if they were losing.

  • ShravanNagraj on August 4, 2011, 8:19 GMT

    This article is not really worth appreciating. Andrew Miller said the same thing that he daid on switch Hit.

    I agree that the intensity has been lacking in the sereis but hoping for a controversy to bring that in isn't right.

    The spectacular fantasy of 'what could have been' had Bell not been re-instated is more reminicent of scripts from film industry and not the field of sport.

    As far as the spirit of the game above the law is concerned, it rests in the hands of the players and the captain. Whether they uphold that spirit or not is visible in their conduct in the playing arena. I certainly think they did uphold the spirit. The crowd who paid to come and watch is the final judge and I think they pronounced their judgement.

    India have failed to perform competetively as a team (also mentioned on switch hit) and this is really disappointing.

    Hopefully the remainder of the series will be a better contest.

  • Kalran on August 4, 2011, 8:02 GMT

    I don't believe that Dhoni's decision had any impact on the outcome of the Test. In fact I have a sneaky suspicion that the decision to recall Bell might have been a calculated attempt to deflect some of the criticism that they thought will come about after losing the test. The body language by tea on the 3rd day showed that they had already given up on the Test. If they had thought they have a slight chance for a victory, most definetely the recall wouldn't have happened.

  • big_al_81 on August 4, 2011, 6:43 GMT

    A well-written article BUT for all it's imagination I find it doesn't ring at all true with what we've actually seen. Yes, India were thumped in both matches in the end, but the first Test at Lords was terrific and went right to the last afternoon. The 2nd Test involved a brilliant turning of the tables by one side. The fact that England were the victors on both occasions and the scoreline is 2-0 is no reflection on how good the series has been as both games in themselves have been very good spectacles. The Dhoni decision is simply to be admired and to think it made any substantial difference involves a wild flight of fantasy. The Indian players were already demoralised during the afternoon session and the booing and rancour would have been just as likely to inspire England to flay them for 230 runs in the evening session as inspire India to bowl better!

  • Agnihothra on August 4, 2011, 5:26 GMT

    damned if you do and damned if you dont.... i bet my bottom rupee that the very same folk would have been ripping into MSD if he upheld the appeal and mind you that the result of the test did not depend on this decision... they still might have bled 165 runs(187 minus22 that bell made after tea) and then what?!!!!!

  • CharlieAlanJakeHarperFamily on August 4, 2011, 4:25 GMT

    Can't believe this comes from a good old englishman from land of grace,cowdrey,gower (league of extraordinary gentlemen) sledging,not walking,claiming false catches were the basic characterictics of a ponting prototype team and miller expects this from indians who have always followed english way of cricket since times immemorial instead of helping a noble cause of reinstating miller expects bloodshed and let tempers fray by allowing bell to have a cup of tea with runout agreed we are struggling and losingCan't believe this comes from a good old englishman from land of grace,cowdrey,gower (league of extraordinary gentlemen) sledging,not walking,claiming false catches were the basic characterictics of a ponting prototype team and miller expects this from indians who have always followed english way of cricket since times immemorial instead of helping a noble cause of reinstating miller expects bloodshed and let tempers fray by allowing bell to have a cup of tea with runout agreed we are

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