It’s been awhile since I wrote about cricket. The Sri Lankan cricket team is touring England right now and on June 3, 2014, during the deciding game in the five-match series of one-day games that Sri Lanka won 3-2), there occurred something that has caused a huge controversy. Americans will be mystified as to why there was even a fuss about this when I explain what happened using an analogy from baseball.
We know that players ‘on base’ will, as the pitcher winds up to throw, edge away from the base in order to get a head start to the next base if the batter should hit the ball. Pitchers have to keep note of this and will sometimes throw directly to a teammate at the base and, if the runner cannot get back to it in time, get the batter out. There are some restrictions on the pitcher as to when he can change from throwing to the batter to throwing to the fielder at the base but it is all pretty straightforward and part of the game. Players on base get out like this all the time.
In cricket, there is a parallel situation in that the batter at the bowler’s end (the non-striker) will also try to get a head start in case the batsman hits the ball. There too the rules allow the bowler, if he notes the non-striker getting too early a start, to at the last minute (again subject to some straightforward restrictions) not deliver the ball towards the striker but instead to use it to get the non-striker out by breaking the wicket at the non-striker’s end, analogous to throwing to the base fielder.
Here is what happened with the cricket match.
This action by the bowler has caused a huge fuss, with the bowler and the Sri Lankan team accused of being unsportsmanlike and violating ‘the spirit of the game’. This was even though the bowler had warned the non-striker just a short while before that he was getting too early a start and risking this result if he persisted, something the bowler was not obliged to do but did so as a courtesy. Those being critical say that the non-striker was not trying to get a head start but I find that to be a specious argument. Apart from it implying that we can read his mind, the fact remains that whether he intended to or not, his early start did give him an advantage for successfully completing the run.
This action by the bowler is called ‘mankading’, named after the Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad who did this in a test match when touring Australia in 1947/1948. At that time, he too was accused of unsportsmanlike behavior but Australian Donald Bradman, arguably the best batsman ever to play the game, defended Mankad saying (quite correctly, in my opinion):
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why [the press] questioned his sportsmanship. The laws of cricket make it quite clear that the nonstriker 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? By backing up too far or too early, the nonstriker is very obviously gaining an unfair advantage.”
I too cannot see what the fuss is about. The player was out according to a straightforward application of the rules of the game. He had even been warned just a short time before. Why have a rule and then say it should not be applied?
I am a firm believer in the desirability of sportsmanlike behavior. But the ‘spirit of the game’ applies when players try to take unfair advantage of ambiguities, like ‘accidentally’ blocking an opposing player, or ‘accidentally’ running onto the pitch and damaging it. But this is not one of those situations. In fact, I would go further and say that the non-striker need not even have been warned and the bowler was perfectly justified in getting him out the first time he wandered down the pitch.