On March 25, Ravichandran Ashwin's unconventional run-out of Jos Buttler in the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) reignited possibly cricket's most unnecessary debate. Rajasthan Royals batsman Buttler made the mistake (a charitable characterisation) of wandering out of the non-striker's crease before Kings XI Punjab skipper Ravichandran Ashwin delivered the ball. Now, as per cricket's laws the ball is live once the bowler begins his run-up, and Ashwin, seeing his prey out of his crease whipped off the bails in his delivery stride and ran the batsman out.
This mode of dismissal is colloquially referred to as the 'Mankad', after one of India's greatest cricketers Vinoo Mankad, who was the first to effect the mode of dismissal on Bill Brown at the SCG in 1947.
Cricket's rules are extensive and they are revered by the game's stakeholders as not rules, but Law. However, as old as the laws are the Marylebone Cricket Club's (MCC's) Spirit of Cricket. In 2000, when the current code of laws was introduced, it contained a preamble on the Spirit of Cricket: " Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself".
It is using this spirit as a crutch that detractors have taken the cane to Ashwin. The likes of Shane Warne and Michael Vaughan -- not quite saints during their playing days -- tweeted outrage in the aftermath of the incident. Some said that since he had stopped in his delivery stride, the umpire should have called it a 'dead ball', which is a ludicrous suggestion given that the ball is live when the bowler begins his run-up and that Buttler left his crease to make the potential run a shorter one.
Initially, the MCC -- the custodians of the game's laws -- seemed to rule the court of public opinion in Ashwin's favour. "The crux of the issue is when the non-striker can safely leave his/her ground, and what the bowler can do to effect this form of dismissal without courting controversy. To clarify, it has never been in the laws that a warning should be given to the non-striker and nor is it against the spirit of cricket to run out a non-striker who is seeking to gain an advantage by leaving his/her ground early."
A day later, however, the MCC flip-flopped. "Having extensively reviewed the incident again, and after further reflection, we don't think it was within the spirit of the game," MCC laws manager Fraser Stewart said.
Today, we see cricket as a game dominated by teams from the Asian subcontinent, and in particular India. That is the result of a very recent shift in power caused by the exploding cricketing markets of India, and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh. But cricket's arrival to Asia was completely a result of British Imperialism. And while the spirit of the 'gentleman's game' is often romanticised, perhaps it is time to think about what the game's original function was in the minds of the colonisers.
According to J.A. Mangan writing in 'Britain's chief spiritual export: Imperial Sport as Moral Metaphor, Political Symbol and Cultural Bond' it was cricket that emerged as 'the symbol Sport in Society par excellence of imperial solidarity and superiority epitomizing a set of consolidatory moral imperatives that both exemplified and explained imperial ambition and achievement'.
There has always been a disconnect between the need to adhere to a 'spirit' when cricket's laws are nearly as comprehensive as the constitutions of many nations. Could it be that it is a hangover of cricket's colonising intentions?
To take the point further, if we examine the effect that the mythical spirit of cricket has had over the years, it has mostly favoured the batsmen over bowlers. Batsmen are already the preferred citizens of the game, because as every cricket follower knows 'the benefit of doubt always goes to the batsman'. It is very much within the spirit of cricket for a batsman to walk when he has edged the ball and been caught behind, but no one bats an eyelid when he instead waits for the umpire's decision -- his right according to the laws of the game.
Yet when a fielder claims a catch that television replays show to have bounced just in front, the agency to be forthright -- and failing that the consequent blame -- falls on the fielder; the umpire's responsibility is conveniently overlooked. It cannot be denied that both -- perhaps the batsman more than the fielder -- know that their claim is not an honest one.
In the 21st century when cricket experts exalt the spirit of the game over its enshrined laws, it has to be asked whether they are aware that when the British dreamed up this great game, they were the preeminent superpower and much of the world was theirs to subjugate. It was a sport that both 'exemplified and explained' imperial ambition and achievement. It may now be the sport of the masses in former colonies that have happily claimed the sport as their own. But would it be an argument too far to say that the batsman's superiority over the fielding team was a conditioning tool that paved the way for the acceptance of the imperialists' superiority, however unfair?
Because, how can this be fair? A bowler cannot overstep the popping crease by a millimetre lest the ball be ruled a no-ball and he perhaps be denied a wicket, but the batsman can steal a yard before the ball is bowled, effectively having to run a yard short to complete a run. All within the spirit of the game, it seems, and if not adhered to Vaughan and Warne -- verbal abuser of batsmen par extraordinaire -- will be at the ready to question your integrity.
This preferential treatment of batsmen is not just limited to Mankading. In July 2011 on the third day of the second Test in Trent Bridge between India and England, Ian Bell -- already well past a century -- played the last ball before lunch down to third man and completed a second run. However, the England right-hander left his crease before the umpire had called 'over' or signalled for lunch and the incoming throw hit the stumps at the striker's end. The Indians appealed for a run out, which was upheld. There was much hand-wringing from the English contingent and, over the course of the break, India skipper MS Dhoni did the 'gentlemanly' thing and called Bell back to the crease.
Dhoni was feted as a sportsman, but Bell's irresponsibility in failing to protect his precious wicket while the ball was still in play was forgotten. Or perhaps it was the batsman's entitlement, which perhaps drew from his forebears -- both spiritual and, in this case, national.
It should be said that no less a figure than Sir Donald Bradman -- Bill Brown's captain during the original Mankad, by Vinoo Mankad -- defended Mankad in his book Farewell to Cricket. "For the life of me I cannot understand why the laws of cricket make it quite clear that the non-striker must keep within his ground until the ball has been delivered. If not, why is the provision there which enables the bowler to run him out?"
It is also worth noting that some of the most notable instances of Mankading -- Kapil Dev against Peter Kirsten in 1992, Ravichandran Ashwin against Lahiru Thirimanne in 2012 (later withdrawn), Sachithra Senanayake against Buttler in 2014 -- have all been by subcontinental teams. Take from that what you will.
Sport does imitate life, so perhaps it is high time that this hangover of colonialism named the 'spirit of cricket' -- which time and again has weakened rather than strengthened the sport's integrity -- be consigned to history's dustbin.