He watched as Krum and Lynch dived again in slow motion. Wronski Defensive Feint — Dangerous Seeker Diversion read the shining purple lettering across his lenses. He saw Krum’s face contorted with concentration as he pulled out of the dive just in time, while Lynch was flattened, and he understood — Krum hadn’t seen the Snitch at all, he was just making Lynch copy him.
-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
JK Rowling in the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, described a smart, cheeky, audacious, even dangerous, but perfectly legal sporting move. And, fictional. But unlike most of Rowling’s magical universe, it is also real.
Think football. After making an offensive sortie that ends with the ball in the goalkeepers hands, a single striker hides behind the goalpost, or hilariously, behind the goalkeeper himself (like the last goal in this collection). With the ‘keeper unawares, the striker rushes out just as the ‘keeper puts the ball on the ground, steals it, and slots it into the unprotected goal.
Think badminton. The player serving draws her racket arm all the way back, accelerates in her upswing, only to hold back when she makes contact with the shuttle. Her opponent, moving for the high serve to the back of the court, is caught unawares as the shuttle lands just across the service line.
You get the picture. Yes, sport is about athleticism. Citius, altius, fortius. Who can run faster, throw further, hit harder. But it is also as much about deception. Deliberate, intelligent, deception.
What has changed?
Among the excellent changes to the rules the ICC has made this month, like allowing ‘Umpire's Call’ reviews to be reused, comes this perplexing sentence: "It is unfair for any fielder willfully to attempt, by word or action, to distract, deceive or obstruct either batsman after the striker has received the ball."
What this means is that MS Dhoni’s trademark maneuver of back flicking a ball onto the stumps, while giving the impression that he has no intention of running the batsman out, will cost India a five-run penalty. It means that Suresh Raina’s habit of sliding even though he is nowhere near the ball, just to give the batsmen pause while another fielder collects it, will cost India five runs. And poor Marcus Labuschagne –whose surname cricket journalists all around the world have been double checking— has earned some momentary fame for becoming the first cricketer to be penalized by the new law, in a domestic game in Australia.
The ICC had a perfectly good new-rules party going, and then played a song that didn’t fit.
Penalisng fake fielding is as good as penalising a slower ball. Both have the same objective: to ‘willfully attempt to deceive’ the batsman, in an attempt to cause confusion, resulting in his dismissal. How many times have we heard commentators talk about a spinner ‘deceiving’ a batsman with flight and dip and having him stumped? And what about reverse swing? A keen eyed batsman spots where the bowler is holding the shiny side of the ball, and sets himself up to conventional swing, only for the ball to reverse, typically inwards, crushing his toes.
Cricket’s laws are already heavily weighted in favour of the batsmen. The restrictions on bat sizes have come about three years too late, which means that most bats currently allowed, in the hands of the modern uber-fit athlete, will still see mishits going for six. The definition of a good pitch is increasingly becoming one on which 700 runs are scored in a day. In such a climate, feint fielding –which I prefer to fake fielding— is an evolutionary survival tactic, an attempt to claw back some lost ground, much like the emergence of the slower bouncer.
The hypocrisy of the whole situation is best exposed by the ICC’s continued tolerance of switch hits: while the bowler must declare which side she will bowl from, the batsman can switch her stance at any point, essentially rendering the starting stance, fake. If ‘fake batting’ is applauded as a supreme display of hand-eye coordination, why not say the same for the other two disciplines?
The first bit of advice given to a batsman when he starts cricket, is “watch the ball”. This applies not just while batting, but also while running between the wickets. It is therefore up to the batsman to determine if the fielder actually has the ball, or is just faking it, just as it is up to the batsman to determine whether the bowler is bowling a leg spinner or a googly.
While the ICC took a decided step away from the ‘Spirit of the Game’ defense that most purists hide behind by legitimising ‘Mankading’, penalising feint fielding with a five-run penalty takes us one step back towards the stiff upper lip attitude makes cricket more of a batsman's game. The irony of it all is that the ICC Cricket Committee, that approved these changes, was headed by Anil Kumble, a bowler.
Okay, I’ve heard enough. Anything else?
Yes. While there is a healthy dose of common sense in the new laws, one critical component is yet to be made watertight: Safety.
The use of tethered bails in international matches has been allowed by the ICC, but they have not made it mandatory. Mark Boucher would prefer to be known as the holder of the record for most Test dismissals, but most people remember him for the horrible injury that ended his career, when a bail hit his eye. If that moment was the reason that tethered bails were invented, are we waiting for the next Mark Boucher to apply a technology that is available? Even with a helmet, the risk of a bail slipping through the eye slit is very real.
A cricket equipment manufacturer said that the old bails could be phased out in a season or two. “It's not going to be very difficult for manufacturers to make this adjustment”, said Paras Anand, Marketing director of SG, one of the largest cricket product companies in India. “The cost difference too will be insignificant.”
Which bring us to the helmet itself. Remember how Hardik Pandya was hit flush in the face by the ball in the 2nd India-Australia ODI ? Pandya was standing at the non-strikers end when Bhuvaneshwar Kumar hit a straight drive right at him. Pandya tried to evade it and block it with his hand, but the ball was too fast and crunched into his helmet.
Fortunately, Pandya was wearing one and was unhurt. But there are a number of players in international cricket who prefer to bat without a helmet when the spinners are in operation, most notably Dhoni and David Warner. Players of this generation hit the ball harder than ever before, thanks to developments in strength training and bat quality. What is to stop a Pandya-like incident happening to a player without a helmet?
“Now the quality of the bats has improved by far”, said AV Jayaprakash, former Test umpire. “Slowly it will come (helmets becoming mandatory), because more and more it (accidents) happens on the field. Players safety is the first thing that we have to see.”
In one of my first articles here, I had implored the BCCI to make helmets mandatory in India, even starting an online petition. I shared my own experiences of being hit on the head, as well as those of my fellow cricketers. Some of those closest to the action, like umpires like John Ward (who wears a helmet after being hit on the head) and Bruce Oxenford (who uses a shield) have already recognised the danger. Before another accident mars or takes a life, the ICC need to ensure our game is made safer.