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No ambivalence here — all is fair in love and T20 cricket

R. Ashwin running out Jos Buttler in a IPL match. File   | Photo Credit: Courtesy IPL

We no longer use the racially offensive term ‘chinaman’ in cricket. Instead we say ‘left-arm wrist-spinner’. Perhaps it is time we found another term for ‘mankading’, the act of a bowler running out a non-striker who backs up too far and thus gains time and space. For long, the act has been considered disreputable.

After Vinoo Mankad, the great Indian all-rounder, ran out Australia’s Bill Brown thus, Don Bradman defended him. So did the batsman himself. Sunil Gavaskar has suggested that a batsman dismissed in this perfectly legal manner should be said to be ‘browned’; after all, the onus is on him to ensure he does not gain an unfair advantage.

And yet. And yet.

Spirit of the game

Every season, someone somewhere does a ‘mankad’ or a ‘brown’ (depending on your preference), and old debates are given a fresh airing. What is legal, however, need not necessarily be moral. There is something called the ‘spirit’ of the game — somewhat ambiguous and undefined, but clearly recognisable when one sees it being breached on the field.

“Giving houseroom to our ambivalence is part of our human complexity,” writes the sage of the game, Mike Brearley in his new book, Spirit of Cricket. The spirit, he says, is usually spoken of in a patronising tone: “I felt it had been enlisted by snobbery.”

When the MCC World Cricket Committee discussed the issue of ‘mankading’, sympathy was almost entirely with the fielding side.

All the arguments in support of the bowler are valid, of course. Legally, that is. After all, bowlers, up against flat wickets, powerful bats, and shortened boundaries often struggle, despite the rule-makers’ attempts to right the balance now and then. The batsman does not need extra help.

One of the charms of cricket is that it is a game played on parallel lines — within the laws and within the spirit. If everything were written out, every situation anticipated, something of its soul would be lost. Should a batsman walk when he knows he has snicked the ball or wait for the umpire’s call? Should a catch be claimed when a fielder knows the ball has touched the ground? Cricket is a team game with significant individual moments; the overall ethics a team displays might be different from an individual’s personal ethics.

The Decision Review System (DRS) has taken some of the individual’s decisions out of his hands, yet players show us who they are and what they stand for in the manner in which they react when faced with a choice between being right and being ethical.

Following instructions

When R. Ashwin decided not to ‘mankad’ Aaron Finch in the IPL, was he following his coach Ricky Ponting’s advice? Ponting had told the bowler before the start of the tournament to desist. Had the team lost the match thanks to a big score from Finch, how would bowler and coach have reconciled ethics with pragmatism?

Last year, when Ashwin ran out Jos Buttler in similar fashion, there was an element of entrapment, and that put off even supporters of the ‘it’s legal, after all’ school. Ashwin paused in his bowling action — the law doesn’t focus just on the batsman backing up, but also on ‘the instant when the bowler would normally have been expected to release the ball..’ That is sometimes a close call.

Brearley admits in his book after discussing many cases: “I had changed my mind. I was no longer inclined to view (‘mankading’) as unethical or against the spirit of cricket.” That pronouncement has as much authority as anything Bradman said.

But it is not a stand I find easy to take. Perhaps it is because I have played just enough cricket to be starry-eyed but not enough to be sensible! When I see a bowler ‘mankading’ a batsman, I feel bad. Maybe it’s the snobbery Brearley talks about, a cousin of the kind of condescension that leads to a feeling of superiority.

But there is a bridge that can be thrown across the two points of view. It stems from the conviction that T20 is not a shorter form of First Class or Test cricket, but a sport that despite being created from a rib of the longer game, is quite different.

Shift in perceptions

Approaches are different, techniques are different, ‘success’ means different things to the individual batsman or bowler.

Morals can be different too. What is looked down upon in the longer formats need not be so in T20. Thus ‘mankading’, which might be against the spirit in a First Class match, would be not just welcome, but actually necessary in a T20 game.

But what of the term ‘mankading’? As Brearley writes, “Perhaps there is something subliminally racist (in it): named after an Indian, the action was felt to be un-Christian.” Let us run it out of the lexicon.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 1:51:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/no-ambivalence-here-all-is-fair-in-love-and-t20-cricket/article32785954.ece

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