The other day I did something unforgiveable; an act so distressing that it’s tantamount to treason to even write about it. But here goes: I watched the IPL. I know, I’m going straight to hell. I feel like I’ve committed cricketing adultery. Anyway, I settled down on the sofa to watch a bit of this commercialised slog-fest, a rather drab encounter between the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Pune Warriors India, and this one incident made my heart sink. Jacques Kallis of KKR bowled a ball to Pune’s Robin Uthappa who drove the ball back down the ground. Kallis flicked out a boot to try and stop the ball, flicked the ball (very faintly) onto the stumps at the non-striker’s end, and ran out Aaron Finch. Kallis wheeled away in celebration, convinced that he had dismissed the Australian, and the umpire called for the television replay. Finch was clearly short of his ground and therefore should have been on his bike pronto. Except, the 3rd umpire proceeded to spend at least four minutes determining whether Kallis had actually touched the ball which would validate the dismissal. Television replay proved to be inconclusive (it looked like Kallis had got at least a stud to the ball) and Finch was given not out. A visibly irate Kallis then remonstrated forcefully with the umpire and you could see him on TV saying ‘are you calling me a cheat?’
Now, what should have happened is Finch should have asked Kallis if he had touched the ball before it cannoned into the stumps. If Kallis replies in the affirmative, Finch should then walk off the field, satisfied that he has the bowler’s/fielder’s word. Instead the above farcial situation occurred where actually nobody was at fault. If the on-field umpire is unsure about an aspect of the dismissal, he is correct to refer the decision to the television replay. The problem occurs when the television replay cannot concretely prove that the batsman is out. In these cases, the decision invariably goes against the fielding side. Now Jacques Kallis is an extremely experienced international cricketer of some integrity. If he says he touched the ball, he touched the ball and the batsman walks off, end of story. Kallis started playing cricket when, if you edged the ball to the wicket-keeper, you walked off without even waiting for the umpire’s decision, something that simply doesn’t occur in modern-day cricket, especially in the international arena. This is why, when his integrity was called into question, he reacted with such incredulity.
This is one example of a wider problem in the game of cricket. Yes TV replays have improved the game no end and yes, 99% of the time they provide the correct decision, but often, particularly in the case of disputed catches, they cannot provide 100% certainty. Until 15 years ago, the status quo was, in the case of a disputed catch, to ask the fielder whether he had caught the ball. If the reply was yes, you accepted his word and walked off the field. No need to get the umpires involved. It is a worryingly recent trend for a batsmen to stand their ground, even when clean catches have been taken, hoping the decision will be referred to the third umpire who often can’t decide whether a ball has bounced before the catch has been taken because the television replays prove ‘inconclusive’. Batsmen think they can get away with it even when they know deep down that they’re out. It creates unnecessary hostility, resentment and ultimately, the game of cricket loses out because fewer and fewer players are inclined to be honest, especially in the younger generation who have grown up with TV referrals as the norm, watching the often dubious behaviour of modern-day cricketers.
In days gone by, batsmen would walk if they knew they had edged the ball behind the wicket. The last international player to do this on a regular basis was Adam Gilchrist of Australia who would, as recently as the 2006/07 Ashes series, be off towards the pavilion with his bat tucked under his arm before the umpire could even move his finger. Refreshingly, this honesty still occurs in county cricket. At a sun drenched Oval on Bank Holiday Monday, I watched Hampshire’s Michael Carberry walk after a thin edge off a Jade Dernbach delivery in the third over. The bowler knew it was out, the batsman knew he’d nicked it, the catch had been cleanly taken by Steven Davies behind the stumps; no fuss at all. The umpire didn’t have to get involved. As one Geoffrey Boycott would say: ‘proper cricket’. On the international stage however, this behaviour is as rare as a Monty Panesar century. The stakes are higher and there is more pressure to win at all costs. There is a sense of ‘it is the umpire’s job to give me out’.
It all started with the Australian cricket team of the early 1990’s. They were one of the most successful cricket teams of all time because they had a ruthless winning mentality. If this meant eroding the spirit of the game then so be it. Other teams followed suit and now cricket is in a situation where a player’s word counts for nothing. A few players, notably India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara are the exceptions that prove the rule. Tendulkar was famously instrumental in recalling the England batsman Ian Bell after he had been controversially run out in the 2rd test at Nottingham of India’s tour of England in 2011. Bell had mistakenly believed his partner, Eoin Morgan, had hit the final ball before tea for four and started walking off the field. The fielder, Abhinav Mukund, dived to stop the ball and behaved as if the ball had gone for four. He then threw the ball back to the wicket-keeper MS Dhoni who removed the bails and appealed to the umpire for a run-out. The appeal was originally upheld until the Indian team were asked to withdraw their appeal by the England management. Tendulkar was the man who told his team-mates that they should withdraw the appeal. The Little Master is a man who values the traditions of the game and is widely believed to be an influential figure in India’s continued refusal to use the DRS system. It is Tendulkar’s belief that the umpire’s decision is final – that is how he has always played the game and in the Bell run out case, the spirit of cricket should prevail over technicalities and misunderstandings.
I realise that in writing this I might sound like a bit of an old whinger. Believe me, I enjoy nothing more than a hard, competitive game of cricket where both teams are trying their utmost to win. This is when cricket is at its most compelling and for me what makes it the greatest sport in the world. Unfortunately the days when honesty, integrity, fair-play, spirit and gentlemanly conduct were second nature are gone. In an ideal world, captains and coaches would instil this culture into their teams but that is just a fanciful dream. Instead we can look forward to over-commercialised, sponsor-riddled T20 bonanzas where the TV replay becomes overly prevalent and the player’s honesty becomes but a distant memory.