In the distance between the Laws of the game and the Spirit of Cricket lie many of the greatest controversies. One such happened yesterday on the stroke of tea and the outcome of it, when India’s captain was persuaded to withdraw his appeal against Ian Bell after a request from his opposite number, could well decide the outcome of the match and the series.
The situation was this: Eoin Morgan clipped the last ball before tea from Ishant Sharma to the square-leg boundary where Praveen Kumar, who always looks like he has bowled fifty overs in scorching heat, gave laboured chase. He collared the ball before it reached there whereupon his own momentum took him, but not the ball, over the boundary rope.
Kumar then picked himself up and threw the ball in. Bell, meanwhile had assumed that the ball had gone for four, and wandered up the pitch to congratulate Morgan on getting to tea undefeated and both batsmen began to walk off towards the pavilion.
Dhoni collected Kumar’s throw, under-armed the ball to Abhinav Mukund at the stumps, who then broke the bails. The appeal, initially, was upheld and Bell, who by this stage had been prevented from leaving the field by the fourth umpire, Tim Robinson, was given out.
The Laws of the game are clear: the ball was live, the batsman was out of his ground, the umpire did not call over until after the bails had been broken, and so the umpires were right to give Bell out. This is where the Spirit of Cricket intervened: Marais Erasmus, firstly, asked Dhoni whether he wanted to withdraw his appeal to which the Indian captain said ‘no’. Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower then asked the same thing of Dhoni during the tea interval, after which Dhoni consulted with his team and withdrew his appeal.
The initial consequence of all this was comical, since nobody in the ground- commentators or spectators- had a clue what had happened. When they came out after tea, both the umpires and the Indian team XX did so to a cacophony of boos; only when Bell came out shortly afterwards, with the England team applauding on the balcony, did those boos turn to cheers. Dhoni had gone from villain to hero in the space of a few seconds.
Dhoni will certainly by hailed as a great sportsman for his actions and there is no doubt that by withdrawing his appeal he rescued what has so far been a hard-fought but good-spirited contest. Things may have deteriorated had he not done so. Which is not to say that he was right to do so: Bell was guilty of doziness and of forgetting the first rule that any young batsman is taught; that is to say, you don’t leave your crease whilst the ball is still live.
There are those who will contrast Dhoni’s actions with Paul Collingwood’s, as England’s one-day captain, when he refused to withdraw an appeal against Grant Elliott, the New Zealand batsman during a one-day international at the Oval. Elliott had collided with Ryan Sidebottom, and (ironically) Bell was the fielder who had thrown the ball in to run Elliott out. Elliott was given out and Collingwood, under pressure to withdraw his appeal, refused to do so.
This seemed to be exactly the kind of situation for which the Spirit of Cricket was designed. Elliott, through no fault of his own, had been prevented from making his run and had been given out. By the purest interpretation of the Laws of the game he should had been given out. This would have been patently wrong, and Collingwood was rightly castigated for his intransigence.
Bell’s situation was different, in that he was entirely at fault. Morgan, at the non-striker’s end, knew of the dangers, because he tried to send Bell back, and, when Bell advanced towards him instead, he then made sure that his own bat was grounded. India’s fielders knew the ball was live, as did the umpire Asad Rauf. In this instance some spurious notion of the Spirit of the Game has actually subverted the Laws of the game, and, therefore, the natural progression of the game. Dhoni will be congratulated for his sportsmanship, and it was certainly a magnanimous gesture, and one that took the sting out of the situation… but he would have been well within his rights not to have withdrawn his appeal regardless of the unpopularity and possible ramifications that would have inevitably followed.
Surely, at the heart of the Spirit of the Game is respect for the umpires and the decisions that they make. Through doziness or naivite, Bell took it upon himself to act as the umpire. He decided the ball had gone to the boundary; he decided that the ball was dead; he decided that the over had been bowled and that tea was at hand. That is not the batsman’s job; it is the umpire’s job. It was Bell, not India who made a mistake yesterday, and Dhoni should not have been castigated for initially upholding the appeal. It had nothing to do with the spirit of cricket.