March 8, 2012

Why bring the spirit of the game into it?

When India appealed for run-out against a non-striker who was backing up, and against a batsman who touched the ball with his hand, they were following the laws. How can that be morally wrong?

Many greats of the sport have called "mankading" shameful and petty, yet it continues to happen every now and then, sparking outrage and highlighting a conflict between cricket's laws and its ethical code. The world of cricket seems to be divided on this. The likes of Ian Chappell believe stupidity must be punished and that there should be no moral obligation to make allowances for it whatsoever. Then there are those who insist upon a cricket conscience.

Let's face it - there is no sport without its spirit, and equally there's no sport without its laws. So how does one decide between the two? Should Law 38 of the Laws of Cricket be followed to the letter, or should it be sacrificed on moral grounds?

Let's take the case of R Ashwin running out Lahiru Thirimanne, the most recent such dismissal. Thirimanne was backing up too far, and Ashwin, it is believed, had already cautioned him. Thirimanne didn't pay heed, and therefore chose to act at his own risk in spite of knowing the law. According to the rule, Ashwin could have dismissed Thirimanne immediately, without giving him prior notice, but he complied with the standards of fair play and sportsmanship and warned Thirimanne of his transgression before finally removing the bails. Such a dismissal, which ought to have been a simple umpiring decision, snowballed into a controversy, and worse, a moral debate.

Let's take the onus of safeguarding ethics away from the bowler alone. A batsman who chooses to back up before the ball is bowled is actually attempting to gain an unfair advantage by reducing the length of the pitch for a quick run. Shouldn't he be penalised for flouting the rules and, in fact, cheating?

On the contrary, however, Ashwin's appeal seemed immoral to many. The umpires got together and asked Virender Sehwag, the stand-in captain, to reconsider the appeal, following which the Indians withdrew the it, everyone went home happy, and the team got a pat on the back for honouring the "spirit of the game".

The vexing questions, though, remained unanswered. Shouldn't abiding by the rules be part of the spirit of the game? The lawmakers clearly foresaw batsmen taking unfair advantage repeatedly and so created the law in question. Shouldn't the rulebook be followed to eliminate doubts or biases? In any case, since when did umpires start questioning players' morals, or asking them to abandon a portion of the law in the name of spirit?

When Kapil Dev mankaded Peter Kirsten, he was painted as a villain. Though Kapil had warned Kirsten more than once before he ran him out, it was enough that he was on the wrong side of the "spirit of the game" for him to be crucified. What is baffling is that those who choose to take the moral high ground over mankading hardly ever scrutinise the batsmen involved.

The iniquity attached to such dismissals forced India to overlook Thirimanne's repeated advances up the pitch. And they knew the world would be up in arms had Thirimanne been given out mankaded. This is worrying in itself. Why did India have to worry about moral disapproval? They didn't cheat, fix matches or sledge.

Last summer at Trent Bridge during the England-India series, Ian Bell walked off for tea believing that an Eoin Morgan shot off the final ball of the over had gone for four. However, the ball had actually remained active, and as Bell headed for the pavilion, MS Dhoni removed the bails. Technically Bell was out of his ground and hence could be dismissed. This time it wasn't the umpires but the opposition captain and coach reportedly who requested Dhoni to withdraw his appeal. Bell himself later confessed he had been a bit "stupid". So why call the punishment for a stupid error "bad cricket" or "poor spirit"?

Isn't refusing to walk after nicking the ball, or appealing when you know the batsman isn't out more unethical than mankading? Yet we conveniently treat the former two as a part of today's "cricketing culture", but mankading is considered a crime

In another recent incident, David Hussey, during a tense CB Series match at the SCG, stopped the fielder's incoming throw with an outstretched hand while taking a tight single. The Indians rightly appealed and the on-field umpires referred the matter upstairs. The rulebook says that if a batsman uses his hand to stop the ball from hitting his body, he cannot be given out, but if it is done to prevent the ball from hitting the stumps, the batsman is undoubtedly out. How was the third umpire in this case supposed to judge what Hussey meant to do, considering he was a fair way from the stumps?

Later in that match, when Brett Lee was in the way of Sachin Tendulkar as he tried to complete a run, the batsman lost momentum and a few precious seconds and was run out. The umpires thought Lee had gone towards the ball in order to field it and didn't seem to have purposely blocked Tendulkar's path, so the decision went in the fielding team's favour. Once again, how does one decide what Lee's intentions were? Going by the same moral yardstick as in the Thirimanne run-out, shouldn't Lee have been asked to reconsider his appeal, since it was, after all, not in the "right spirit"?

Who decides what falls within the purview of the spirit of the game, and how are those decisions arrived at? Most importantly, who are we to judge someone's morality based on our own, often warped and somewhat flexible, sense of ethics?

Isn't refusing to walk after nicking the ball, or appealing when you know the batsman isn't out, more unethical than mankading? Yet we conveniently treat the former two as a part of today's "cricketing culture", but mankading is considered a crime.

The roots of these so-called ethics took hold many years ago. Cricket was never a fair or equal sport. Till the 1960s it was played in England between rich "amateurs" and poor "professionals". The amateurs, men of wealth and standing, laid down the rules - to suit themselves, naturally. Amateurs and professionals, though they played for the same teams, didn't share the same dressing rooms. Professionals were mostly brought in to bowl; batting was the amateurs' prerogative.

WG Grace's act of setting the stumps back upright after he was bowled once, and telling the umpire that the crowd had come to watch him bat is now a part of cricketing folklore. It wasn't fair but it was still thought of as cricket.

Laws were introduced later to make the sport more egalitarian, and these have, over the years, made cricket fairer than it ever was. However, we still seem a bit vague on the issues of legality and ethics. Accepting the umpire's decision, no matter what, used to be a sacrosanct rules of cricket. But the advent of DRS allows a player to challenge those decisions too. Isn't that immoral? Against the spirit?

In the past a batsman could request a substitute runner in case he was injured, and usually the request was granted. But the new rules clearly state that regardless of the nature of the injury (including external injury) a batsman will not be given a substitute runner. Obviously somewhere along the line the lawmakers have grown to mistrust players. However, this does not seem to apply in cases like handling the ball and obstructing a batsman, where the umpires are asked to judge players' intentions.

Once Ashwin made that appeal, the umpires had no business to ask Sehwag if he wanted to uphold it, which was well within the law, because by doing so they put him under moral scrutiny. Ashwin was playing by the book by appealing, and everyone, players, umpires, fans, must accept it and move on. Once Hussey's dismissal was referred upstairs, the third umpire should have been asked only to judge the evidence, and not Hussey's intentions. If Hussey wasn't found guilty of obstructing the field, how can a batsman who fends bouncers off with his hand be deemed guilty of handling the ball? (Law 33 allows the batsman to use his hand in self-defence.) What precedent are we setting?

We may want to laud players for their ethics because of our own conditioning and sense of fair play, but let's not make someone a villain if he chooses to do otherwise. Following the rules cannot, by any means, be considered as being against the spirit of the game.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here