‘Spirit’ of cricket: On the great class divide in the gentleman’s game

For far too long, bowlers have been at the receiving end of criticism and condescension.

Published : Mar 17, 2023 17:30 IST - 12 MINS READ

R. Ashwin running out Jos Buttler has sparked a debate.

R. Ashwin running out Jos Buttler has sparked a debate. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The “gentleman’s game”, as cricket is often called, is one of the few sports to carry such a tag and arguably the only one to have had an ingrained class divide when the sport originated. To date, the sport perhaps still carries the subliminal message of the class divide through its laws.

Invented during Saxon or Norman times, the first reference to cricket can be traced back to 1611. In 1744 the laws were formally laid down and subsequently revised in 1774, and they are largely followed to date with some amendments shaped by the changing needs and tastes of fans.

The formation of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s earmarked 1787 as a remarkable year in cricket’s history as MCC became the custodian of the rules and laws of the gentleman’s game.

One of the prolific English writers of Indian origin and keen observer of the British empire, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in his book A Passage to England, remarked that to the Englishman abroad, literature was his wife and sport his mistress.

The deep love for the sport made the Englishman of yore introduce the game to the Commonwealth colonies. The first mention of cricket in India can be traced back to 1721 when English sailors in merriment played cricket in the port of Cambay. It has been observed that the nature of cricket in terms of skill demarcation has helped in its rapid but seamless emergence as a professional sport during the Victorian era.

Victorian approach

The Victorians considered batting an elegant art form that suited the sensibilities of a Victorian gentleman, whereas bowling was treated as skilled manual labour that required hard work and diligent practice.

In its original and strict sense, Britannica and the Merriam-Webster dictionary define gentleman as denoting a man of good family, deriving from the Latin word gentilis and invariably translated in English-Latin documents as generosus. No wonder that cricket had a seamless transition as a professional sport, as the class divide could be observed both on and off the field.

Arguably the most successful captain in county cricket history, Lord Hawke, who captained Yorkshire for 28 consecutive seasons starting in 1883, personally rewarded players from the working class for their match performances but they also cleaned his boots and served as personal net bowlers.

The class divide planted during the early years of cricket continues to influence the mindset of the flag-bearers of the sport. It can be observed that except for Bob Willis and Gubby Allen, no mainstream bowler has captained England for a significant amount of time.

Historically, it has been seen among the major cricketing nations that a bowler is hardly considered for captaining the team unless under trying circumstances. No wonder then that the rules of the game favour the so-called artists of cricket, the batters.

Over the years, cricket has evolved like no other. From multiple formats to changes in the rules, the attempt  has always been to transform it to increase viewership as much as possible.

While the introduction of shorter boundaries, bigger bats, the use of two balls in a single one-day international, and relatively flatter pitches were all aimed at increasing footfalls in stadiums and boost TV ratings, it is the bowlers who have been at the receiving end.

Ajay Jadeja once claimed in an interview with Gaurav Kapur that 99 per cent of all children who want to play cricket start out as fast bowlers. “Bowling is the action of the sport.” Somewhere down the line, however, that desire changes as the ability to hit the ball all over the ground garners more awe than the sight of a cartwheeling stump.

Cricket has a lot of laws. Irrespective of what the spectators want, at least the laws should view batters and bowlers equally. While most rules treat both as equal, some rules treat batters as more equal than the bowlers.

Controversial law

One of the most controversial laws is running a non-striker out for leaving the crease before the bowler releases the ball. Law 41.16.1 of the Marylebone Cricket Club Laws of Cricket code states: “If the non-striker is out of his/her ground at any time from the moment the ball comes into play until the instant when the bowler would normally have been expected to release the ball, the non-striker is liable to be Run out. In these circumstances, the non-striker will be out Run out if he/she is out of his/her ground when his/her wicket is put down by the bowler throwing the ball at the stumps or by the bowler’s hand holding the ball, whether or not the ball is subsequently delivered.”

This mode of dismissal, often referred to as Mankading, was named after Vinoo Mankad, who, in the 1947/48 on India’s tour of Australia, ran out Bill Brown at the non-striker’s end in the second Test. Mankad paused during the delivery stride of his bowling run-up and broke the wicket while Brown was out of his crease, backing up too far.

Funnily enough, that was not the first instance of a bowler dismissing a batter in a similar fashion. And yet somehow, the mode of dismissal was given the name of an Indian cricketer. One half of the cricketing world (it is not difficult to guess which half) considers this mode of dismissal as being contrary to the spirit of the game. Why shouldn’t they? The batters are more equal than the bowlers!

Recently, during one such closely fought women’s cricket ODI series between India and England, Deepti Sharma ran out Charlie Dean for backing up too far at the non-striker’s end. The incident, however, resulted in a huge outcry over the mode of dismissal and also the stage of the match at which the dismissal was effected.

While there were supporters on either side, probably, with the lone exception of Peter Della Penna, Charlie Dean and England hardly faced the kind of scrutiny reserved for Deepti Sharma and the Indian women’s cricket team. Penna counts 73 instances (including the run out) where Dean left the non-striker’s crease before the ball was delivered. These headstarts gradually became larger and larger when the striker was a tail-ender.

The real question that nobody seems to have a valid acceptable response to is: “Why is it not in the spirit of the game to run out a batter at the non-striker’s end if the batter leaves the crease before the ball is delivered?”

A bowler has every right to dismiss the non-striker for backing up too far, primarily because the law states so, and moreover, the batter gains an undue advantage by doing so. While leaving the non-striker’s crease does not amount to cheating in the same way as leaving the striker’s crease, there have to be consequences. There are examples in other sports as well. For example, you are allowed to steal a run in baseball, but there are consequences and the batters accept them and steal a run at their own risk.

Deepti Sharma is not the only cricketer to have done so. Ravichandran Ashwin has more than once resorted to this mode of dismissing a batter and Jos Butler despite getting sufficient warnings from different bowling sides seems to be a regular offender at the receiving end. Every time Ashwin ran someone out for backing up too far, there has been a huge backlash on social media. The most vociferous opposition came from some of the so-called self-declared custodians of the spirit of the game who claim to always be on the right side of the line so long as they get to decide where to draw the line.

Ironically, it was some of the same custodians who came up with the term “Mankading”, which is very offensive. Of all modes of dismissals in cricket, Mankading is the only dismissal named after a cricketer. And it was definitely not named in his honour. Unlike terms like Natmeg and Dilscoop, named respectively after Natalie Sciver-Brunt and Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mankading lacks reverence and borders more on condescension.

Every time a non-striker is found backing up too far and ran out, someone or the other ends up suggesting that “a line has been crossed”. The bowler is always painted as the villain.

Recent instances

In the recently concluded ODI series between India and Sri Lanka, Mohammed Shami ran out Sri Lankan captain Dasun Shanaka for backing up too far. Shanaka would have missed out on a well-deserved century but for Indian captain Rohit Sharma’s withdrawal of the appeal.

 While the question remains whether India would have gone with a similar approach had the match been precariously close, Sharma’s action inadvertently questions the bowler’s integrity and probably sends a signal to all the bowlers that such an action is looked down upon despite being legal.

West Indies entered the 2016 Under-19 World Cup quarter-final on the back of a similar dismissal by Keemo Paul. The reactions that followed made him sob in his hotel room and he decided never to do that again, not because he felt he was wrong but because he had lost the will to face the attacks.

A bowler overstepping even by one millimetre is a no-ball but a batter getting a head start by almost half a yard is in the spirit of the game. Numerous similar other instances seem to favour batters over bowlers/fielders. A batter can move across the stumps to disturb a bowler’s line and length, whereas a fielder cannot move laterally unless the ball is in play. A fieldsman may only move forward or backward.

Reverse sweep

The reverse sweep has been in play for a long time. But the switch hit, the invention of which is usually attributed to Kevin Pietersen, was hailed to be an innovative cricketing shot. It requires talent to pull that shot off. After a long debate, the switch hit was officially declared a legitimate shot by the ICC. But the reality is that it is unfair to the bowler and the fielding side. The bowler must inform the umpire, not only the side of the wicket from which he/she will bowl, but also the arm with which he/she bowls.

While it is very rare for a bowler to be as ambidextrous as a batter, it is not something totally unheard of. The match that saw Sir Garfield Sobers score 365 runs also saw Hanif Mohammed bowling left-armers for a change. Graham Gooch too had the uncanny ability of bowling with both arms but he displayed the skill only in matches with foregone conclusions. Hashan Tillakaratne bowled both right-arm and left-arm in the last over of the Kenyan innings during the 1996 World Cup. An under-19 World Cup match between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan saw Kamindu Mendis bowl quite effectively with both arms.

In the Indian domestic circuit too, Vidarbha left-arm spinner Akshay Karnewar has been seen bowling with both arms. However, none of these bowlers could do so without explicitly notifying the umpire. They had to.

Until the introduction of the DRS, the benefit of doubt was in favour of the batter. This is not to deny the numerous occasions when batters have been at the receiving end. But a majority of them were umpiring howlers. As a rule, umpires needed conclusive evidence to rule a batter out. In judiciary parlance, it is similar to an accused being considered innocent until proven otherwise. In judiciary it makes sense since the idea is to ensure that no innocent is punished for a crime he/she did not commit. It is an individual that stands trial and it could be a matter of life or death.

Cricket, on the other hand, is a sport, and a team sport for that matter. Some cricket lovers may argue that the batter will not get another chance if declared out, whereas a bowler gets six chances in an over and a few overs to have a go at the batter. Technically there are 10 other players in the team who bat for the team and can still win the match for the team.

There have been numerous instances where a batter was given a life due to poor umpiring and would have made the most of it making a winning contribution to the team. For a fair game, it is always important to ensure that correct decisions are made as often as possible. However, favouring one set of players is anything but fair.

In a Test match between India and England, Indian captain M.S. Dhoni withdrew the appeal against Ian Bell despite being technically run out. The Indian team walked off the ground for lunch break to a booing English crowd. Arguably, Dhoni might have withdrawn the appeal due to the pressure exerted by the crowd and the umpires. But the umpires are there to uphold the laws of the game. They should not be asking the fielding team to withdraw the appeal.

Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan walked off and waited at the boundary despite being asked to wait by the umpires. Yet, nobody brought in the question of the spirit of the game. The spirit of the game for some is to accommodate the carelessness and the arrogance of the batters.

We believe Kane Williamson and his team’s gesture of graciously accepting the result of the 2019 ODI World Cup final captures the spirit of the game far more than any other incident in cricket. They were disappointed but nonchalantly walked off the Lord’s Cricket Ground with their heads held high, never showing their anger at losing the final to luck and an equally idiotic rule determining the result of a tied match on boundary count. Ironically, they were the bowling side and at the receiving end.

Prashant Premkumar is Assistant Professor, Decision Sciences, IIM Visakhapatnam. (prashantpn@iimv.ac.in), Jimut Bahan Chakrabarty is Assistant Professor, Operations Management, IIM Sambalpur (jimutc@iimsambalpur.ac.in), and R. Sai Shiva Jayanth is Assistant Professor of Practice, Jindal School of Banking & Finance (saisr.jayanth@jgu.edu.in).

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