Rudraneil Sengupta on the absurdity of the “cricketing spirit”
Nothing can justify bending the law in sport. The futile Mankading debate only proves that there is no exception to this rule
First things first, congratulations to Deepti Sharma for having the alertness, game-awareness and presence of mind to run out England’s Charlie Dean and wrap up a historic series win for India in England. Like Ravichandran Ashwin, I cannot wrap my head around the morality play of the so-called “Mankading” being against the “spirit of the game”. Only in a racist / supremacist view of the game can something that’s perfectly legal, codified in a sub-clause within the laws, be said to go “against the spirit” of cricket.
If it is true anywhere, it is true in sport, that if you don’t follow the rules, nothing makes sense. Any game is essentially meaningless unless a set of rules or laws invests it with meaning. If the law says something, the “spirit” cannot possibly contradict it.
In fact, the first line of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s “Spirit of Cricket” preamble to the Laws states: “The laws of cricket clearly explain the expectations of how participants will behave on the field…”
When a batter was dismissed in this fashion for the first time, by Vinoo Mankad in Australia in 1947 (hence the term Mankading), the Australian press took Mankad apart, even though the dismissal had the support of the Australia team captain, Don Bradman: “For the life of me, I can’t understand why (the press) questioned his sportsmanship,” Bradman said. “The laws of cricket make it quite clear that the non-striker must keep within his ground until the ball has been delivered. If not, why is the provision there which enables the bowler to run him out? By backing up too far or too early, the non-striker is very obviously gaining an unfair advantage.”
The debate should have ended there. There really isn’t much else to say.
Is it legal? Yes. Does the batter who is leaving the crease early gain an unfair advantage? Yes. So is this pretty much like a wicket-keeper stumping someone? Absolutely. Is the bowler penalised for outstepping the crease even by a fraction of a millimetre? Yes, and there’s excellent technology now to ensure that not a single such infringement is missed.
So, what’s the problem?
This is not informal street cricket with flexible rules, or my favourite “antigame”, Calvinball, where you can make up the rules as you go along.
There are only two interesting facets to this story. One, a wonderful analysis by American cricket enthusiast Peter Della Penna, who replayed every delivery faced by Dean during that match to gather some revealing data. Like, Dean left her crease early 73 times during her innings (including the run-out), accounting for more than 85% of all balls where she was at the non-striker’s end. (To her credit, Dean’s only response to the dismissal has been a post on her social media saying “Well, I guess I’ll stay on my crease then”.)
More data from Penna: When Dean batted with Amy Jones, she took an average 4 inches of a head start. When batting with England’s No 10 and 11 bats, where Dean would rather take the strike, she was at least a foot out of her crease. In fact, during Jhulan Goswami’s over just before Sharma came on to bowl, Dean was out of the crease early for every ball, by nearly 2 ft. Sharma, fielding at sillyish mid-off, was watching. No judgement on Dean, or anyone who does this. But just as a batter on strike knows and accepts the risks of stepping out of the crease to play, the non-striker must do the same.
The second interesting thing is the origin of the “spirit of cricket” mumbo-jumbo. In the 18th century, when cricket was invented, it was to give English “gentlemen” a chance to play a sport on which they could also gamble. My favourite account of these early days comes from a work of fiction, Flashman’s Lady (George MacDonald Fraser; 1977). Soon, the gambling had become so rampant that it needed purging. Enter muscular Christianity and Victorian moralising. And the origin, in the 19th century, of the idea of the “spirit of the game”, something that can be so vague and arbitrary that there was a time when leg side play was considered “against the spirit” and English batters would routinely pat balls on that side back to the bowler.