Cricket’s continuing engagement with moral issues took another turn recently when the Australian Matthew Wade, clearly out obstructing the field in the T20I against England, was allowed to bat on because the fielding side chose not to appeal.
Was England skipper Jos Buttler being excessively sporting — he said later he was in no mood to get into controversies so early on a long tour — and was Wade simply wrong? Yes and yes.
You can watch the sequence on YouTube. With Australia needing 40 in four overs, Wade top-edges Mark Wood. The bowler seeing a catch runs forward only to be stopped by the batter putting out his hand. It is a violation of Law 37, but the England skipper chooses silence and diplomacy over an appeal and dismissal.
Breaching the law
The three rare forms of dismissal in cricket — obstructing the field, handled the ball and hitting the ball twice — call for two conditions to be met. There should be an appeal from the fielding side, and the umpire should be convinced the act was ‘willful’.
In Wade’s case, a Law had been breached. The umpires knew it, the player knew it and those watching knew it. Still it is one of the idiosyncrasies of the game that no one could do anything about it. There was one way for Wade to make amends — if he threw his wicket away next ball. Such a show of contrition would be both sporting and appropriate — but the modern player is not there to win moral battles. His aim is more concrete and immediate.
This is where the third umpire could come into play, taking suo moto notice of the incident like the Supreme Court. There has been an infraction, the evidence is in the television replay, and why should a method used to judge boundaries and stumpings not be used here? Maybe the umpires on the field themselves could be given the power to make the judgement.
While the England great Len Hutton remains the only batter to be dismissed obstructing the field in Test cricket, the ODI list includes Mohinder Amarnath, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Ben Stokes. The only other batter dismissed in T20I is the Englishman Jason Roy. So it is a rare mode of dismissal, and unlike ‘mankading’ which, despite the recent ruling, has an ethical component, there isn’t any attached to an appeal for obstructing the field.
In assuming there is, and that it needs to be observed, Buttler was overegging the pudding as it were, trying too hard. His reason suggests that had this happened in the middle of their stay in Australia or towards the end of it, he would have appealed. That might sound pragmatic, but makes no cricketing sense. England won in the end, so it didn’t matter.
To his credit, there is a reluctance in the game to appeal for dismissals where the bowler has not earned the wicket. Hence the cloud over the three forms mentioned above, as well as in ‘mankading’. But somehow it is only the last-named which has wrapped itself in moral clothing, leaving the others with no particular stigma attached. One of those peculiarities sport is known for.
Raising the tone and reputation
It is unfair to expect the batter to make amends for the sporting or pragmatic decision of the opposition captain that hamstrings the umpire. But a gesture would have raised the tone of the game and the reputation of the player had one been made.
At a recent gathering where the badminton ace Prakash Padukone was present, one of the guests recalled how decades ago, the umpire gave a wrong calling in the Indian’s favour in an international. “I will never forget,” the guest said, “how Prakash deliberately hit the next point out and the service changed hands (this was the old scoring system).” Would you have regretted it had you lost, I asked Prakash, and his answer was, “No. It was the right thing to do.”
Gundappa Vishwanath feels the same way about his recalling Bob Taylor in the Jubilee Test all those years ago, an act that led to India losing. “I would do the same today,” he says simply.
If sport cannot be sporting, then what can?