“It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that matters” –Gerry Richards in a postscript to his radio sports show in the 60’s
For the second year in succession, the West Indies Under-19 cricket team at the International Cricket Council’s World Cup competition has been involved in the dismissal of an opposing player that while unarguably within the laws of the game, may nevertheless conflict sharply with what some choose to call the spirit of the game.
It should be recalled that last year in the tournament in Bangladesh, the team ran out the non-striking Zimbabwean number eleven batsman with the match hanging on a razor’s edge; I believe that Zimbabwe needed to score three runs only to win the game. That decisive run-out was effected by way of the “Mankad”; the eponymous dismissal whereby the bowler pauses mid-stride in his run-up to break the stumps and thereby catch the non-striker, who is backing up too far, out of his ground. The spirit of the game, according to some, would have required that the bowler first warn the batsman not to venture out of his crease again otherwise he will suffer the consequences and be run-out.
On this occasion, against South Africa, the South African batsman played forward to a delivery which rolled back dangerously towards the stumps. The youngster, perhaps mindful of the rumoured perils of hitting the ball twice, watched the ball’s progress carefully, without touching it with his bat or hand, until it had come to a complete stop. He then proceeded, as he must have seen a number of his seniors do on countless occasions in Test and other matches, and in a spirit of assistance, to gently lob the ball to the wicketkeeper-captain who immediately proceeded to query the umpires as to whether this did not amount to a dismissal. In fact and in law, it does, and the batsman was accordingly given out for “obstructing the field”.
According to Law 37.1.1
Either batsman is out Obstructing the field if, except in the circumstances of 37.2, and while the ball is in play, he/she wilfully attempts to obstruct or distract the fielding side by word or action.”[Emphasis mine]
Two points bear further observation here. First, it is doubtful whether the impugned action in this instance could be reasonably considered to have been a “wilful attempt to obstruct the fielding side” as is stipulated and, second, had the batsman indeed struck the still moving ball, he could not have been given out as he appeared to believe, on my interpretation of Law 34.3 –
The striker may, solely in order to guard his/her wicket and before the ball has been touched by a fielder, lawfully strike the ball a second or subsequent time with the bat, or with any part of his/her person other than a hand not holding the bat. [Emphasis added]
Cricket might be popularly known as a game of glorious uncertainty. It is also a game of quirky oddities among which the current controversy might well be numbered. Unlike other games, cricket is not satisfied with mere rules; rather describing its regulations as the more lofty “Laws”. Moreover, befitting its appellation of the “gentleman’s game”, there exist a number of conventions that are applied in the course of the game and that, by definition, do not always accord with the letter of the Laws or require their strict enforcement.
For instance, there is nothing to prevent a batsman from taking advantage of a throw at the stumps that strikes his bat and goes away into the outfield to run extra runs as overthrows, but it is just not done. According to another axiom, it is not cricket. And while the “Mankad” form of dismissal may be justified in that the non-striker is availing himself of the advantage of completing a run over a shorter distance, and is thus contributory to his own demise, no similarly unfair or dishonest act was perceived in the most recent incident.
These behaviours are all part of the “playing culture” of the game. In their text, Sports Law (2001), Gardiner et al define playing culture as “informal and rarely defined rules of strategy”. The authors emphasize the negative aspects of this concept, instancing the use of “sledging” in cricket, but they also make reference to the clamant need for fair play generally in modern sport, as is illustrated at a general level by the prosecution of participator violence, the prohibition of drug abuse in sports and the proscription of the exploitation of young athletes.
The Council of Europe in its ministerial document, Code of Sports Ethics: Fair Play- the Winning Way (1992) defines fair play as “much more than playing within the rules. It incorporates the concepts of friendship, respect for others and always playing with the right spirit. Fair play is a way of thinking, not just a way of behaving. It incorporates issues concerned with the elimination of cheating, gamesmanship, doping violence (both physical and verbal) exploitation, unequal opportunities, excessive commercialization and corruption.”
The difficulty of applying these criteria directly to cricket would appear to be derived from the protean nature of the game where it is sought to assess a particular incident for fairness. The laws go in one direction, the playing culture or winning strategy goes in another and the code of ethics in yet a third way. It is this conundrum that makes it so complicated a task to critique the recent appeal of the West Indies captain. He was clearly within the laws; and the strategy of appealing proved effective in that context.
Should it at all matter that he is reported as saying that on reflection, given the identical situation again, he would not have appealed? This might suggest that his conscience is sufficiently pricked as to the ethical nature of his decision, but alas, there are no “do-overs” in this context.
The glorious uncertainty referred to above might appertain to more than the unpredictability of a result.