It is possible, just, that this World Cup will produce a more cherishable moment than Sachin Tendulkar's decision to walk against West Indies on Sunday. That said, short of Ricky Ponting offering to ghost-write Aleem Dar's autobiography in exchange for a signed copy of the MCC's Spirit of Cricket, it is fiendishly difficult to see how.
Let's be clear about this. Walking is cricket's trickiest ethical dilemma. Always has been, always will be. It marks the intersection of professionalism and honesty, where pragmatism collides with principle. That it should rear its two-faced head again at this tournament is assuredly no coincidence, but more of that later. By way of measuring the delicate nature of this part-time custom, let's rewind to Cape Town, 1965.
On the opening day of the third Test, Eddie Barlow, the bulldog atop South Africa's order, survives a vehement England appeal for a catch at short leg, stands his ground, with the tourists convinced that the umpire has erred, and marches on to a century. Still livid, the fielders refuse, pointedly, to applaud, then over-compensate, equally pointedly, when Barlow's partner, Tony Pithey, reaches 50. Mike Smith's side are castigated for making their dissent so plain; one writer claims they descended "to a deplorable level". Smith duly apologises to Barlow, but the furore is merely warming up.
When England bat, Ken Barrington, on 44, nudges to short leg, on the bounce. Spinning around, the team joker makes as if to walk off, then returns, grinning. The crowd gets the joke. Shortly afterwards, Barrington edges to the keeper, Denis Lindsay. At first it looks as if he is about to walk, but he stays put. Again, the umpire was John Warner. "I knew I was out," Barrington would recall, "but then I remembered all the chat in the papers about leaving decisions to the umpires."
Apparently every bit as confused as Barrington, Warner doesn't flinch. For a few interminable seconds, time and picture freeze, whereupon Barrington walks. "I felt I just couldn't stay there," he later explained. "It was a matter of principle and sportsmanship." Cue applause from fielders and spectators alike, and a fusillade of criticism from journalists - many of them English - who felt Barrington had tarried too long. Unusually, outrage was caused because Barrington did walk.
The Rand Daily Mail wondered whether it was "an ostentatious act which bordered on gamesmanship" and urged Barrington to apologise to Warner for subjecting him to "ridicule and contempt". To the Fleet Street Daily Mail, the action "smacked of 'we chaps know how to play the game even if you lot don't'." Barrington apologised. "I can blame my hesitation only on my own indecision," he would reflect. "I got terribly involved in the rights and wrongs of walking."
DON'T KID YOURSELF that walking is one of those noble practices that only died out with the advent of global professionalism. WG Grace famously stayed put even when his timbers had been shivered. Between the world wars, claimed Gubby Allen, "few batsmen ever walked unless given out".
That period may have accounted for 90% of Wally Hammond's career, but as England's first post-war captain he made Bill Edrich feel so queasy about not walking in an Ashes Test that Edrich promptly surrendered his wicket. Come the 1960s, according to Mike Brearley, non-walkers were considered cheats. In his disarmingly robust diary, Another Day, Another Match, the Gloucestershire seamer Brian Brain confirmed as much: "When I started in county cricket [in 1959], the ones who didn't walk could be counted on the fingers of one hand and they'd be given a huge rocket from their captains if they stood their ground when they knew they were out… [In 1980] I didn't see one batsman walk." All three, though, were referring to county cricket. In Australia it has never been the done thing, the honourable thing, nor even a credible act - hence the disbelief and dressing-room disgruntlement that greeted Adam Gilchrist's celebrated decision to off himself in the 2003 World Cup semi-final.
"If Tendulkar did act out of fear for what this brave new world might do to his reputation, we should not think any the less of him. What we got was the right result, regardless of how it was arrived at. End fully justified means"
Nor, for that matter, was walking admired unreservedly in the shires. After all, reasoned Sir Derek Birley in his seminal myth-frying book The Willow Wand, here was a decidedly dodgy, shamelessly class-based and erratically practised custom instigated by amateur captains, who "set their honour code above the authority of the humble umpires" (and Hammond, note, had to turn amateur to captain his country). Unconstrained by social hierarchies or convention, Australians felt no compunction to follow suit. "[It] can be assumed as more likely to take place when a batsman has just made a century than after he has made three successive ducks," theorised Birley with a certain slyness. "It has, in fact, a slightly unreal 'holier than thou' aura."
It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Nick Knight, the England opener-turned-affable Sky Sports pundit, admit on Sunday to having been "a convenient walker… a selective walker". He walked if average/form permitted. The late Sir Colin Cowdrey was another "selective" walker. While remembered by many, quite properly, with admiration and fondness, bowlers deplored his wayward ethical compass.
Knight's confession came in the wake of Tendulkar's unprompted exit, which went conspicuously un-analysed by the Sky experts (and many others besides). Maybe they were being diplomatic. To question any batsman's motives in such circumstances would fling open a can of worms; to question those of the only active sporting icon with an unstained reputation could lever the lid off a bucket of cobras. The question, nevertheless, is too pressing, too relevant to the game's future, not to be asked.
Let's unpack the loaded context. The din in the MA Chidambaram Stadium was shrill and deafening; umpire Steve Davis would have been hard-pushed to hear any edge, let alone an inside tickle. Nor, even after multiple TV replays, was it clear that Ravi Rampaul's inducker had kissed Tendulkar's bat. Small wonder the appeal triggered a stately shake of the head from Davis, who looks more like the Buddha's younger, fitter brother with each passing match, and seems to have inherited the family wisdom.
One assumes Tendulkar knew he'd nicked it, but when the appeal was rejected he didn't go all Hamlet on us like Barrington; he was decisive, off in a flash. Yet what, one couldn't help but wonder, had sped through his mind during the interregnum separating shot and Davis' slo-mo shake? Was he mulling Ricky Ponting's extraordinary look of innocence after being adjudged caught-behind against Pakistan 24 hours earlier, a decision that my children's cat's grandmother could have made? Did Tendulkar feel Ponting should have walked? Does he believe the game's elders should be setting an example? Why not?
But might he also have been pondering the Decision Review System? Tendulkar has often expressed reservations about this latest contentious innovation (a major factor in the BCCI's distaste towards it, presumably); and now, lo and behold, the damned thing was in a position to put his image on the line. David Gower summed up one of the less-heralded by-products of the DRS with typical succinctness and delicacy after Michael Clarke walked during last November's Brisbane Ashes Test: "There's less incentive to stay." And after Clarke declined to walk in Adelaide, putting struggling team before ego and/or gallantry, he was palpably embarrassed and quick to tweet a public apology. Without the DRS, would he have been so remorseful?
The next question, to some, is the most damning: did Tendulkar act out of pragmatism rather than nobility? Did he weigh up the options? He must have known, had he stood his ground, that a review, even as early as the first over, would have been eminently likely. And what might that have unearthed? That ball had eluded edge? With no HotSpot on tap, why not? Or would it have showed that he, Sachin Tendulkar, the most pandemically respected sportsman of them all, an untouchable idol to billions, had tried, like that rogue Ponting, to get away with it?
This is not meant to decry Tendulkar; anything but. Since when is being human a sin? Like Barrington and Gilchrist, he waited for the umpire's ruling. Perhaps he and Gilchrist (if not Barrington) did so not to buy themselves time but out of respect for the adjudicator's sensitivities. None of this, though, should undermine the underlying message: if the DRS can make umpires look fallible, even incompetent, it can also make players look foolish at best, at worst dishonest. And if Tendulkar did act out of fear for what this brave new world might do to his reputation, we should not think any the less of him. What we got was the right result, regardless of how it was arrived at. End fully justified means.
Soon after Ted Dexter was appointed chairman of the England selectors, in 1989, he claimed that the public, in addition to "heroic deeds", craved "chivalrous conduct". If this was a remarkable and fruitless thing to say then, such romanticism is even harder to come by now. All the same, is a PhD in naivety the only prerequisite for concluding that the DRS is awakening something much more desirable than chivalry - namely honesty?
Unfortunately there may be a sobering epilogue, and a deeply ironic one at that. Sunday's episode might persuade Tendulkar to harden his stance against the DRS, in which case, such is his sway, the game's strongest incentive for honesty could well die a premature death. Let's hope this was his Damascene moment.