A spectre is haunting cricket, the spectre of its holy spirit. Its most recent victims are Eoin Morgan, England’s white ball captain, and his supporters, chief amongst them Tim Southee, Shane Warne and Jimmy Neesham. In a recent IPL match, Ravichandran Ashwin called for a run when the ball deflected off Rishabh Pant’s bat. Morgan, the skipper of the Kolkata Knight Riders, felt that Ashwin had goosed the SpiritofCricket. Ashwin and Morgan had words. Morgan apparently thought Ashwin was a disgrace. So did Warne. New Zealand’s Neesham rallied behind Morgan, channelling the SpiritofCricket like a planchette veteran.
Morgan & Co. aren’t, of course, responsible for the wounding things they say or do while possessed. It’s a dangerous business, this summoning of ghosts, as anyone old enough to have seen The Exorcist knows. I remember how that demonic bhoot made Linda Blair’s head rotate 180° till she was facing back-to-front, and the volley of green vomit that followed. Morgan and his backers have been decorous in comparison. Still, as members of the great fraternity of cricket, we owe them, if not an explanation, an exorcism.
Ashwin’s position, laid out in a series of tweets, is rooted in rationalist thinking, appropriate in a cricketer from the land of Periyar. Like cynics who don’t believe in Santa or God, Ashwin doesn’t think that the SoC exists. It’s not, in his view, a thing. A yard gained by a non-striker, a run declined as an offering to the SoC, could mean a game lost. It’s better, in his view, to play within the Laws of Cricket, which are published and systematically enforced, instead of surrendering to this invisible miasma that has Morgan, Southee, Neesham and Warne in its mystical thrall.
The trouble with SoC is not that it’s a ghost, it is that it’s a shape-shifting ghost. Time was when nicking a catch and not ‘walking’ was anti-SoC, as was bouncing tailenders. SoC-ers like Viswanath routinely walked when they thought they had edged the ball. Nor did desi teams in the old days ever work the opposition’s tailenders over. It’s another matter that they couldn’t, given that they sometimes opened their bowling with opening batsmen, but it was a little galling that the hard men from the older cricketing nations, like Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Chappell, flaunted their commitment to never walking and blithely battered India’s tailenders into submission.
The SoC is no longer invoked for not walking or for bouncing bowlers. In the day-night Test against Australia, Punam Raut walked after she was given not out because she thought she had nicked it, leaving the bowler bug-eyed with disbelief. Right on cue, Beth Mooney, a mic-ed up Australian fielder, declared that she would never walk, because the Laws of Cricket make it clear that the final word on dismissals belongs to the umpire. Helmets have killed off the the fast-bowlers club, though Jimmy Anderson probably didn’t get the memo, given how much he whinged about Bumrah’s bouncers.
SoC arguments against standing your ground or bouncing tailenders have been made obsolete by advances in camera technology and protective equipment. They used to have a rationale because in the absence of an omniscient camera and protective helmets, egregiously unjust decisions and mortal injuries were more likely.
What seems to have happened is that the SoC, which used to be a large flapping ghost, the size of a double-bedsheet, has now shrunk to a smallish handkerchief that’s used to police not the meat-and-potatoes action of the game – faint edges, tailender bouncers – but rare, exotic events like the bowler running out the non-striker stealing ground, or, as in this recent case, the batter running for a deflection.
The players who call these out as SoC violations are objecting to actions expressly permitted by the Laws of Cricket that have no adverse consequences. No injury is caused by a batter running for a deflection, nor any mistaken dismissal. There has been some back-and-forth about Morgan’s piousness given that England won the last World Cup on the back of a deflected four. Morgan’s defence is that once the ball crossed the boundary line, the Laws automatically kicked in, that there is no hypocrisy here because no volition was exercised there. The English didn’t want the four runs, but they had to have them.
It’s worth unpacking the incoherence of this reasoning. The reason the umpires allowed the boundary was because they were satisfied that the deflection wasn’t deliberate. Had it been deliberate, the batter could have been given out for obstructing the fielder. The Laws allow all runs from an accidental deflection to accrue to the batter because the ball is not dead. Morgan’s argument seems to be that a deflected boundary is unfortunate but must count because the chivalric batter cannot affect the outcome, but deflected singles, twos and threes are forms of wilful gamesmanship because they’re all run. This is exactly like saying that an inside edge that crosses the boundary counts for four, but taking a single or two off that deflection, as it trickles down to fine leg, is a form of sharp practice.
It’s bonkers. If there really is a SoC consensus that runs from deflections are shady, the right way of stopping them would be to change the Laws to declare the ball dead the moment it strikes the batter or the bat in the course of a run being taken. Had this been done, England wouldn’t have won the World Cup and Ashwin’s run would have been disallowed without controversy. The reason the Laws haven’t been changed is that such a change would encourage fielders to target running batters all the time to achieve a dead ball and pre-empt runs. Maram pitti, or tag with a hard red ball, would be an exciting contact sport but, to steal a line from the SoC-wallahs, it wouldn’t be cricket.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘Homeless on Google Earth’ (Permanent Black, 2013).
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