From being top of the table on Sunday morning, India went bottom of the table in a matter of about 60 hours. Now India find themselves struggling to reach the final. It will require two clinical performances (something we haven’t seen on this tour so far) from the team to make it to the finals. The good part is that M.S.Dhoni, our best ODI batsman and leader, returns to the side. As Sehwag admitted, the team did miss him against Sri Lanka. A word of caution though; the other batsmen need to get going as well. Sehwag, Rohit, Raina and Sachin are yet to have a decent outing in the tournament so far and every time we can’t rely on Gambhir, Kohli and of course, Dhoni to bail us out. The bowling unit, as a whole, needs to get its act together as lots of runs are being leaked at the death.
With that said, the ugly debate raised its head at the Gabba again. No, I am not talking about the DRS. I know that most debates in cricket today are about DRS, but this one is a much more sensitive issue: The Spirit of Cricket. Cricket, as we all know, is fondly called the Gentleman’s game. A sport, which its custodians feel, must be played in the best of spirits, without animosity and well within the rules. In recent times, with cricket becoming a professional, competitive sport with intense fan and media pressure, it is fair to say that the spirit of cricket has gone for a toss. Sledging, or gamesmanship as it is euphemistically called, is an integral part of the "gentleman's" game now. Honestly, I have nothing against it as it gives a bit of a bite to the contest and if it helps you win a game in international cricket, so be it. It makes the contest even more intriguing. Having said that, it would be really nice to see a contest only between bat and ball, as it should be in the ideal world, but the fact of the matter is we do not live in an ideal world.
Now, in this ever-intense, competitive backdrop, India have been in the face of the storm on two occasions in the last 8 months. The first incident, as I am sure we all remember was the Ian Bell “run-out” saga at in the test match at the Oval. The second, yesterday, was Ashwin running out Thirimanne at the non-striker’s end for backing up too far. Now, as per the laws of cricket (Law 42, point number 15 in particular. Click here to read the law. This law has been modified last year to state that the bowler can run the batsman out at any time before releasing the ball), it was completely legal for Ashwin to do what he did and subsequently appeal for the run out. Though not written anywhere, the spirit of cricket states that the bowler must give the batsman one warning before he tries to do that. Sehwag clarified in the post-match press conference that Ashwin, in fact, had already warned the batsman once. Even after the warning, when the batsman continues to back up too far, the bowler is well within his rights to dislodge the bail and appeal. What beats me though is the fact that once it was done, and plainly clear that Thirimanne was indeed run out, the umpire Paul Reiffel did not give it out. He in fact went on to consult the square leg umpire Billy Bowden. They then got the captain Sehwag involved and which subsequently led to the word from Sachin to Viru, which led to India withdrawing their appeal. This chain of events leads me to believe that the umpire, Paul Reiffel, was ignorant about the laws of the game. If he was aware of what the law states, he need not have consulted Billy and there was no need for them to have a chat with Sehwag. It was a simple run out decision.
|Umpires in discussion with Sehwag and Sachin after the appeal at the Gabba|
What I am trying to get to, is that there are three things here: the spirit of cricket, fair play and the laws of the game. Once made illegal, the non-striker has no right to back up before the bowler releases the ball. If he does it and tries to gain an unfair advantage, it is certainly not fair play. If he is warned once (as he was) but still continues to indulge in unfair play, it becomes appalling. After playing in the right spirit by warning Thirimanne, if Ashwin went by the laws and ran him out, he did the right thing one hundred percent. If anyone there on the field was not playing in the spirit of the game, it was the batsman and not the bowler. He was trying to gain an unfair advantage by doing something that is against the laws of the game. And anyone who goes against the law ought to be punished. On this occasion though, Thirimanne was at the receiving end of India’s fabled generosity. He not only stayed on, he even continued backing up too far in the subsequent overs bowled by Irfan and Vinay and made an absolute mockery of “The Spirit of the Game”. He went on to score 62, pushed the Lankan total to 289 and who knows, maybe those 30 extra runs did make a decisive difference as India lost the match. No discredit to Sri Lanka, they did outplay India completely. But I think, we were soft in letting him off. Have you ever seen a game of football, where a defender tackles a forward in the penalty area and instead of taking the ball, hits the legs of the forward and commits a foul? Plenty of times, I bet. But how many times have you actually seen the forward get up and say, “Oh boy, you were trying to go for the ball. I don’t blame you. I don’t see it as a foul and won’t take the penalty.” I am sure, Never! This was one of those inexplicable occasions. It was a foul and it deserved a penalty, simple as that. The spirit of the game should never meddle with the laws of the game. On this occasion, they did. The man, who did not follow the laws of the game, was let off scot-free. The team which deserved the reward did not get it, in the name of “The Spirit of the Game”.
I think India were not ruthless enough. I absolutely do not see any other team or player like a Ponting, Clarke, Sangakarra or any other fiercely competitive cricketer letting his team withdraw the appeal. I probably see no reason why they should. It is a competitive, high-stakes, international game, and winning should be the priority. I salute the spirit of the game, but it must not meddle with the laws of the game. Someone who is indulging in unfair play must not be let off the hook just because it does not look good. A part of the blame must be taken by the media as well, as Viru pointed out, they did not want to stir up any unnecessary controversy. It is no secret that our media would have created a huge ruckus out of it and would have interviewed every ex-cricketer and cricket "guru" as to why India did not uphold the “Spirit of the Game”. I support this view from Sehwag, may be it does make sense. But the fact remains that the umpires acted ignorant, when the decision should have been made in a matter of seconds. The incident was unnecessarily dragged. And the way Thirimanne continued to back up, even after the incident, was inexcusable.
M.S.Dhoni and Team India won the ICC Spirit of Cricket Award 2011 for the Ian Bell incident. Viru and his team might win it in 2012. But the fact remains, both Bell and Thirimanne went on to cause further damage in the respective games, and the Indian team lost both those matches. The Spirit of Cricket awards might look got on the mantelpiece, but the result was not favorable. Silverware that comes from winning games and tournaments would surely look a lot better on the shelf and would be better appreciated by the fans as well. After all, it’s a professional sport. After all, it’s a result business.