37.4 “Either batsman is out Obstructing the field if, at any time while the ball is in play and, without the consent of a fielder, he uses the bat or any part of his person to return the ball to any fielder.”
It’s crept up on us quietly this one, like a rust that spreads inside of the engine, and one fine day, a vital organ falls off with a clang, bringing the vehicle to a spectacular halt. The above lines were added to the Obstructing the Field section of the Laws of the Game by the MCC, and subsequently adopted by the ICC in 2013, but only on Wednesday when Jiveshan Pillay was given out in Tauranga, has the law come to the forefront of world cricket.
I’ll admit, with considerable shame, I didn’t know the letter of this law myself, despite being an active cricketer in 2013, and being paid to comment on cricket since 2015. Pillay clearly didn’t know about it either, when he seemed to try to help out the fielding side by passing the ball back. West Indies captain and wicket-keeper Emmanuel Stewart clearly did, when he raised a soft appeal, which the umpires then took to its natural course. Windies teams seem to be making a habit of effecting unusual dismissals in ICC tournaments, just as South Africa have a habit of losing out thanks to a fuddled knowledge of the facts.
There was a key difference between the last incident involving the Windies and this one though. In the 2016 Under-19 World Cup, when Keemo Paul took Zimbabwe’s last wicket by running out the non-striker before the ball is bowled (or the artistry formerly known as Mankad) with Zimbabwe three short of victory, he was rightly penalising the batter for unfairly trying to gain an advantage. On Wednesday, South Africa were penalised despite no intent to gain an unfair advantage.
I have no issues with the appeal or dismissal itself; if it’s in the laws of the game, the Windies were within their right to appeal, and that’s exactly what they did. In my understanding, the law has been written to make what used to be called ‘handling the ball’ watertight. What if some batter picks up the ball just before it comes to a complete stop and passes it back? Can a fielding side argue that the ball could possibly have gone on to hit the stumps? Can an umpire be certain that it would or would not have? So to remove the ambiguity, picking up the ball without the fielders consent was ruled out altogether, making life simpler for everybody. Only nobody seems to have noticed, and by their own admission, top cricketers keep doing something that is against the law.
This is a absolute joke...not in the spirit of the game .I have done this almost a 100 times. https://t.co/nX0KUJ9PI4
— Faf Du Plessis (@faf1307) January 17, 2018
But my real issue is with that often invoked and rarely useful ghost, the Spirit of the Game. When the Windies captain Stewart spoke to the media after the game, he cut a sorry figure. Leave aside the fact that the defending champions had been knocked out of the World Cup race. Stewart looked contrite and defeated, as he said, “On reflection, I thought our appeal wasn’t in the spirit of the game. Moving forward, if I’m in such a situation, I’d withdraw the decision to go upstairs. On reflection, it wasn’t the best thing to do.” Although the Proteas Under-19 coach said that the decision was within the rules and they accept it, skipper, Raynard van Tonder too questioned the appeal. “That is a rule, but there is Spirit of Cricket. Some instances where a captain can step in and say well, I don't think that's a good call. And we've seen it before, and I think that was a great opportunity for their captain to just step in and say maybe that wasn't right.”
But cricket is a cruel sport if it attacks its young leaders for following the rules, questioning their integrity at the altar of ‘Spirit of Cricket’. When asked what his understanding of the Spirit of Cricket was, van Tonder was less certain. “Well that’s a tough question,” he said. “There's instances that happen; people talk about gentleman's game. We want to play hard on the field but we still want to be friends off the field. Also, in the games you don't want to do silly things that aren't part of the game.”
Except what the Windies did was very much a part of the game, so no reason why the teams should harbour any ill will towards each other.
As for the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, it states:
It is against the Spirit of the Game:
To dispute an umpire's decision by word, action or gesture
To direct abusive language towards an opponent or umpire
To indulge in cheating or any sharp practice, for instance:
(a) to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out
(b) to advance towards an umpire in an aggressive manner when appealing
(c) to seek to distract an opponent either verbally or by harassment with persistent clapping or unnecessary noise under the guise of enthusiasm and motivation of one's own side
The Windies did none of these, and yet many are all but accusing them of skullduggery. Which raises the question, what good has the Spirit of Cricket done anyway, besides promoting a sense of self righteousness and moral superiority?
The Spirit of Cricket has been reduced to a branding exercise to try and show how cricket stands out. Every time players show anything other than hard-nosed competitiveness, the hashtag appears. When Grant Elliott showed empathy for his opponents in the 2015 World Cup semifinal, or when Anya Shrubsole consoled Marizanne Kapp in the recent Women’s World Cup semis, it was hailed as the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. Except that such instances occur in all sport, and in fact, in all conflicts. Sorry Roger, saying you would have been happy to draw the Australian Open 2017 final with Rafa doesn’t count, you weren’t wearing whites. And PV Sindhu having the heart to walk across the court and congratulate Carolina Marin in 2016 Rio Olympic Games doesn’t match up unless she was holding a bat and wearing spikes.
Then there is the infuriating inconsistency of it. Not claiming a catch that you know has touched the ground is considered ‘Spirit of Cricket’. And yet it is absolutely fine for a batter to stand her ground and defer to the umpire’s decision even if she knows she has nicked it. In some places, it is crystal clear: The umpires are authorised to intervene in cases of: Time wasting; Damaging the pitch; Dangerous or unfair bowling; Tampering with the ball; Any other action that they consider to be unfair. Yet much of these points are covered in great detail in the actual laws. The document goes on to say that The Spirit of the Game involves RESPECT for, among others, The game's traditional values, yet it fails to elucidate what these values are.
Clearly abuse of the opponent and send-offs are an acceptable part of these values, judging by the leniency with which they have been treated in recent years. But apparently, appealing for a dismissal that is within the rules, and taking advantage of your opponent’s lack of application of these rules, is criminal within this constitution.
In all, the Preamble to the Laws, as the Spirit of Cricket is enshrined by the MCC, is probably the most confusing part of an otherwise lucid document. If there is anger building at the dismissal of Pillay, it should be directed towards the rule itself, and perhaps the ICC will be prompted into examining it.
Too much harm and little good has come from making this unwritten code almost sacrosanct. Think of the criticism accorded to practitioners of the ‘Mankad’ for one. And it is worth noting here that the ‘Spirit of the Game’ or ‘Spirit of Cricket’ is a construct of the MCC, the organisation whose ‘traditional values’ meant that women were not allowed to become members for more than 200 years. The Under-19 World Cup though, is an ICC tournament, and the ‘Sprirt of the Game’ appears nowhere in the playing conditions.
So I call upon the ICC to officially distance itself from the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, instead enshrining the laws with the same zest. It will certainly make life easier for cricketers and all involved if they had one code to live by, not two, and the second unwritten at that. It’s time we consign the spirit of cricket to the place where spirits belong: The afterlife. Instead, let the rules do what they are meant to: Rule.