Laws vs Spirit- Whose Spirit is it Anyway ? – Guest Column by Abhinav Pancholi
Cricket is played as per codified laws. What is written down in black ink on white paper must not leave much scope for interpretation. Yet, cricket always seems to be plagued with controversies, more often than not related to the conventions followed in the sport. The spirit of fair play is invoked far more often in cricket than in other professional sports. This seems to be the side-effect of the original sin related to its English origins, especially as football, tennis, hockey and basketball (with lesser English influence) do not suffer as much. It goes without saying that cricket is a more complicated sport than most others, is a statistician’s delight, and hence asks more uncomfortable questions.
The UK doesn’t have a written constitution. The country is run as per various Acts of Parliament, court judgements and conventions. It is these customs and precedents which play a key role in the functioning of its great parliamentary democracy. The interpretation of various laws not just in the UK, but also various democracies based on the Westminster model like India, Australia and Canada, take into account these British conventions. These in turn arise from Western philosophy, British culture, elite snobbishness and Protestant ethics.
Cricket gradually evolved in England from 17th century onwards. ICC was headquartered at the Lords till 2005, after which Dubai has become the home of cricket. The Gentleman’s Game used to heavily rely on conventions and so-called spirit of fair play until the 1990s, when the floodgates opened and the madness of commercialisation overtook it. There was a time when batsmen were expected to walk if they felt they had nicked, reliance was placed on a fielders’ word on a claimed catch, a non-striker expected to be warned by the bowler if he was backing too far out of the crease , tailenders didn’t expect to be bounced out by opposition’s pacers, and sledging was to be kept confined to light banter. Sadly, those days are long gone.
As technology entered the game via the third umpire, and affordable TV screens took live telecasts and replays to every nook and corner of the world, cricket did not just remain a gentlemanly pursuit. First it became a circus, then it degenerated into war, and eventually settled into being a cut-throat professional sport, played all the year round.
The cross of high pressure is not just for the players’ to bear. Coaches, commentators, selectors, umpires, groundsmen and even administrators – no one can escape audience’s close scrutiny and the accompanying social media wrath. It takes a moment for a ‘walker’ to be considered a ‘loser’, and a youngster to become a superstar. To expect any player to cede an inch ,or give up any chance to further his own and his team’s prospects is a tad too amateurish. Careers are at stake, and more importantly for some, a lot of money and fame as well.
The sport now derives most of its revenues from the Subcontinent, and it is India and Australia who are considered cricket’s true superpowers, although England remains a part of the Big Three. It is but natural that the philosophy of the sport shall also reflect the influence of these cultures. Aussies do not exactly boast of gentlemanly ancestry .They play hard, and play to win.
The Kangaroos have taught the world how to stretch the rules of sports to their very limits, and gain advantage by the use of sledging and even influencing the local press. The world has noted and learnt. Indians are an argumentative people. To resolve our never-ending arguments, we have no recourse but to fall back upon laws. In a developing country where even social conventions are falling rapidly by the wayside, it is too much to expect cricketers (and politicians) to adhere to age-old conventions. When 1.5 billion Indians aspire to be where Ashwin is today, the argument is the one cannot afford to play by British rules of fair play. The governing body has framed rules to conduct the sport.
In 2012 Ravichandran Ashwin had Mankaded a Lankan batsman, but his captain Sehwag withdrew the appeal after discussing the matter with Tendulkar. “If that was soft, that is the way we are ”, Sehwag had said. But Ashwin has since been steadfast in his arguments favouring Mankading on twitter. Ashwin considers the non-strikers’ crease line as his, and its transgression as an excursion. His latest act should be seen as lending practical support to his ideological belief.
Even Bradman did not consider Mankading unsportsmanlike, albeit because Mankad had warned the same batsman three times before the act. There is however a strong case to be made in defence of the bowler here. It does not involve manipulation of rules like giving ‘team orders’, or causing deliberate crashes in Formula 1, or the misuse of injury time in tennis. This is also not quite like faking falls in football in the hope of gaining a penalty or some kind of possessional advantage. Mankading is perhaps more akin to the underarm serve in tennis, frowned upon, but perfectly legal.
The earlier law which allowed the bowler to effect a run out only before entering a delivery stride was reviewed and modified in 2017. Now a bowler is allowed to attempt a run out till the moment they are normally expected to deliver the ball. Whether Ashwin’s appeal was valid or not was for the three umpires at the ground to judge ,but he certainly cannot be called a cheat ,or amoral for attempting it. The MCC is blowing hot and cold on the matter, and Ashwin’s slight pause is being questioned. But it must be noted that while Ashwin’s intent is debatable, and his insistence it was ‘instinctive’ questionable, the fact that Butler aimed to gain advantage by repeatedly venturing out is beyond doubt. One can argue whether Ashwin chose the right stage to gain advantage. This was arguably an unimportant club game, his first of the season, in an arguably worthless T20 tournament. This is the World Cup year. India might have benefitted by running Butler (a habitual offender) out in a crucial Cup game later this year. But therein lies the cause behind Ashwin’s extreme belligerence – India might well have done so, but he would in all likelihood not have been there to execute it.
Ravichandran Ashwin is a difficult man to like, and impossible to sympathise with. He tries a tad too hard to come across as a natural athlete and an intellectual. His professed love for Clive Cussler might seek to establish his credentials as a thinking man , but his seriousness both on and off the field is very off-putting. He wears his educational background on his sleeve, and is quick to explain how his engineering brain helps him in unravelling and understanding the art of spin bowling and provides him an edge in outfoxing batsmen. As if Bedi was at any disadvantage. As if Murali was all at sea. As if Warne is a professor.
Ashwin is that kind of a guy who manages to rub people the wrong way with his sincerity, monkish zeal and intelligence. It cant be helped otherwise. He is what he is. Even at the height of his success in Test cricket, he came across as a truculent fellow, forever aiming to rationalise his performances and justifying the quality of pitches he bagged his hauls on. Now he is facing stiff competition from Kuldeep and Jadeja in Tests, and from the leggies and Jadeja in limited overs. Indeed he finds himself out of favour in the white ball formats. For a proud cricketer like Ashwin, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Resentment has resulted in bitterness. Ashwin is eager to attract attention. He is supercharged. This explains his Mankading of Butler. This also explains his hilarious appeal to the PM to allow IPL players to vote in any city. There is no doubt that his attempt at running Butler out and the subsequent appeal are fair and legal, although the final verdict remains questionable.
Ashwin’s detractors have been peddling moral and ethical arguments. These do not cut any ice, and indeed make mockery of the law which doesn’t mention that a bowler is obliged to warn the non-striker. Indeed, doing so would be tantamount to placing batsmen on a higher pedestal than bowlers. This incident brings to fore the bat versus ball debate. The sport is much too skewed in favour of batsmen. Balls have remained the same, bats now resemble battle axes. Pitches are benign, all sorts of fielding restrictions have been put into place and benefit of doubt, that slimy witch, always favours the one who wields the willow. To be a bowler in these times of T20 and T10, and be denied even lawful rights to appeal in the name of the spirit of cricket begs the question – Who’s spirit is it anyway?
Perhaps, the sport means different things to different people in different cultures in different times. Conventions can’t be uniform, which is why laws are enacted. The question is often asked about whether the spirit is white or coloured, but not in this instance. That said, the cause of cricket is never hurt by such controversies as Mankading.
About the Author Abhinav Pancholi is an Indian. That makes him a highly judgemental, argumentative and exuberant cricket enthusiast. With a lot of time on his hands, and too much cricket being played all year round, some of his outbursts gush out in the form of blogs which no one reads, and hardly anyone agrees with.