In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This time: why Kumar Dharmasena was not at fault in the World Cup final
If unkind memes are the pitchforks of the age, Kumar Dharmasena has spent more than a year being mercilessly winnowed. Not Planet Cricket's favourite umpire even at the best of times, his wrong decision in the final over of the 2019 World Cup final tipped the game in favour of England, and conceivably changed the tournament's outcome. But does he deserve a little sympathy? Is the law he misapplied so impractical as to be kind of stupid?
We remember how the story goes, right? England need nine runs to get off three balls to win the World Cup. Trent Boult bowls a low full toss, and Ben Stokes - batting like a demigod - batters the ball to deep midwicket, where Martin Guptill swoops in, and fires off a rapid throw. (In the semi-final, Guptill's direct hit from the deep to dismiss MS Dhoni had sealed New Zealand's progress to the final.)
The ball comes in low and fast, and although Stokes has been timing it beautifully during this innings, his timing will never be as consequential as it is in this moment. He throws himself and his bat toward the crease, with no other intention than to make his ground before the ball potentially hits the stumps. A kinetic freak event transpires. The thrown ball hits the thrown bat, though neither thrower intended this. The point and angle of impact could not have been more perfect if you were an England fan. The ball's eventual path could not have been more horrifying if you were not. It skims off behind the keeper, where no fielder ever stands. Surely it will slow down before it hits the boundary? It doesn't.
On air, Ian Smith is screaming.
"Is this going to go all the way to the boundary off the bat?
"Can you believe this?
"I do not believe what I've just seen!"
Into this astonishingly charged situation steps our man, Dharmasena. Initially, while fans around the world are still gasping, no one is surprised by his decision to award six. Stokes made his ground long before the ball hit the boundary. So there are two runs, plus the four overthrows. Simple arithmetic. In fact, just moments before, Nasser Hussain had announced as much on the world feed. And Dharmasena has checked with the leg umpire before making the signal.
It is not until the match, and that incredible Super Over, had finished that anybody catches on to Dharmasena's mistake. In the minutes after his nation has won its first World Cup, ESPNcricinfo's UK editor Andrew Miller reaches for the rule book - of all things. He comes across law 19.8. The run in progress only counts if the batsmen had crossed "at the instant of the throw" it says. So in this case, only five should have been awarded. What's more, Adil Rashid - England's No. 10 - should have been on strike for the next delivery, further denting England's chances. Uh oh.
Not helping things is a photo on Dharmasena's social media feeds - a selfie in front of members of the distraught New Zealand team at the presentation. At least one of the players is scowling. Remember that scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker blows up a hospital and walks away gleeful? Same energy. All across the cricketing interwebs, and you suspect in more than a few New Zealand bars, the man is pilloried.
There is no contention in this article that Dharmasena made the right call. He didn't. He has admitted as much. The law is unambiguous, and Stokes and Rashid were not even close to crossing when Guptill released the ball from deep midwicket. But would any umpire have made the correct call? Or is the law so ludicrous that no umpire could possibly apply it correctly?
When batsmen are running, umpires are expected to watch the crease to ensure they ground their bats correctly before they turn for another run. Frequently, as was the case here, the throw is made very shortly after the batsmen turn, meaning the umpire's eyes have to switch from focusing a few metres in front of them to the outfield. They are also then required to make note of each batsman's position at the exact moment of the throw, just on the off chance that overthrows result and this information becomes relevant. This is a rule so demanding, it's virtually impossible to properly adjudicate. As Dharmasena has said, on-field umpires are also not allowed to consult replays before making their decision in this situation.
In the wake of the tied Super Over, the ICC amended the bad rule that handed England the World Cup despite there having been nothing to separate the teams. Perhaps this is another rule worth changing.
What if the run in progress is counted regardless of where the batsmen had been at the point of the throw? And what if, when the ball, thrown by a fielder, hits a batsman or any of his equipment, it becomes dead the moment the ongoing run is completed? Which would mean that in this case Stokes would have been awarded two, and would have stayed on strike. But the four overthrows off his bat would not have counted. Surely unintended deflections should not result in runs when the fielding side has done nothing wrong. Already batsmen frequently refuse to run overthrows when the ball has struck them, believing those to be unfair runs.
Cricket is complex enough without umpires having to watch several unfolding events at once, and without batsmen essentially being required to police themselves. Umpires will perhaps justifiably claim they have one of the most thankless jobs in the sport. They are taken for granted in success, and cut down in public when they fail. Dharmasena has won multiple Umpire of the Year awards, which suggests he has the respect of his peers, but he seems to get it in the neck from fans more than most. This time, unfairly.
Nobody, though, can argue that the year of Dharmasena memes has not been hilarious.
More Come to Think of it
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf