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Ambiguities are cracks through which the spirit of the game shines

April 13, 2022 12:32 am | Updated 01:10 am IST

R. Ashwin

R. Ashwin

The essential difference between what we shall call ‘classical’ cricket and the IPL is that unwritten rules are sometimes more important than the written laws of the game in the former. The term ‘spirit of the game’, however, is now seen as antiquated despite its inclusion in the preamble to the laws. In the modern game, as exemplified by the IPL, ‘spirit of the game’ is almost a term of abuse.

Running out the non-striker backing up (an act formerly known as ‘mankading’) has been removed from Law 41 on ‘unfair play’ and moved to Law 38 on run outs. When huge sums of money are involved and personal fortunes are at stake, ambiguities in the laws — the cracks through which the spirit of the game shines — can cause heartburn.

The ‘mankading’ effected by Ravichandran Ashwin in IPL’s past probably hastened the change in the emphasis (the new code is effective from October). It is assumed that his walking off ‘retired out’ to allow a specialist hitter to come in for the last few deliveries for Rajasthan Royals against Lucknow Super Giants will lead to a similar change.

But that law — on batsman retiring — has been around for decades. To ‘retire out’ is a legitimate option and neither Ashwin nor the IPL invented it.

As early as in the 1944-45 home season, Vijay Merchant ‘retired’ on getting to a double century against the Services (thus voluntarily ending a 382-run stand with Vijay Hazare who remained unbeaten on 200).

Nearly three years later, the law was tweaked so a batsman who did not resume his innings was declared ‘out’ for the purposes of calculating averages. Law 2.9 is clear on this.

Standard practice

Touring teams who play just one or two First Class matches ahead of a Test series often recall batsmen who have scored runs to give others a chance. This is standard practice.

The only real surprise in the Ashwin move was that it took so long in the coming. The first IPL match was played 14 years ago. It took a combination of Ashwin and Royals’ head coach Kumar Sangakkara — two men with a combined cricketing IQ higher than any other twosome — to start the process by which ‘retired out’ becomes commonplace.

Why don’t bowlers and fielders get the same privilege? The answer is simple. Bowlers can be taken off anyway after six expensive deliveries and ‘retired’ to a fielding position for the rest of the innings where they can contemplate the havoc they might have wrought.

As for fielders, with fitness levels where they are now, there is hardly any need. But in the past, teams have brought in top-class fielders as substitutes for terrible ones and got away with this act of gamesmanship. I remember a series in India against the West Indies when the great Eknath Solkar, then twelfth man, fielded for one or the other of the poor fielders in the side.

One of the advantages of having three formats of the game is that all the experimentation may be limited to, or initiated by one while the ‘classical’ remains untouched. What Rajasthan Royals have done is raise the possibility of the rolling substitute in the format, as in basketball.

Static batsmen may be recalled and then sent back (or not) depending on the team position. After all, it would be foolish to recall struggling batsmen and then discover you have no one left to bat out the 20 overs.

A retired batsman can now return with the permission of the opposing captain, but it is unlikely captains will be generous unless forced by law — so it is best to take that decision out of their hands with a further tweak.

The ’spirit of the game’ is about generosity and sympathy, two qualities that, having no bearing on the prize money, are mostly ignored.

In ‘classical’ cricket, it was not important whether you won or lost; what mattered was how you played the game. That seems archaic and laughable now. It was one of the conceits of the game that a well-made forty was superior to a scratchy century peppered with dropped catches. Archaic and laughable. But such irrationality added to the romance of the game.

Continuous process

The process of removing that romance layer by layer has been a continuous one but T20 and the IPL have hastened it. Some will see this as ridding the game of its hypocrisies, others as jettisoning something that makes it unique.

Here’s the actor and cricket fan John Cleese quoted in Mike Brearley’s Spirit of Cricket: “Can you imagine Napoleon addressing his troops just before Waterloo? ‘Remember chaps it’s only a battle. The important thing is — I want everyone to enjoy himself. May the best team win.’”

We know which side — classicists or modernists — endorses the implication.

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