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December 26, 2001

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Spirit of the game: Handle with care

Daniel Laidlaw

It seems that Indian cricketers just cannot stop acting against the spirit of the game. Whether it be intimidating the umpires, tampering with the ball or, alas, cheating Michael Vaughan of his wicket by legitimately appealing for a dismissal that England captain Nasser Hussain deems "against the spirit of the game", Indian cricketers are finding ways to bring the game into disrepute.

Michael Vaughan The logical conclusion to be drawn from the Vaughan dismissal in the third Test -- that it is wrong to appeal when you know a batsman is not fairly dismissed and then, should the umpire uphold the appeal, not recall him -- is that India are not alone in failing to respect the spirit of cricket, the so-called gentlemanís game. They are joined by England, Australia, Sri Lanka -- everybody.

I canít recall the last time any team showed genuine respect for the spirit of the game, which is now enshrined in the ICCís laws. It is commonplace to see players appeal for decisions which patently should not be given out by any umpire who is not vision or hearing-impaired, on the off chance that the man in white will err in their favour. It is claimed that this practice is part of the game, that some decisions will inevitably go against you and some will go for you, and in the meantime everyone should accept the umpireís verdict and get on with it, while still exerting as much pressure on him as possible.

Yet Hussain and Vaughan did not accept the incident which went against England and threatened to derail their first innings of the third Test. Yes, Vaughan walked as he had to, but to hold the belief and then intimate publicly that you thought it was against the spirit of the game is not the definition of "getting on with it".

The surprising aspect of the England camp's reaction, though, was that to the impartial eye the appeal was actually not only legitimate, but also still within the spirit of the game as it somewhat ambiguously pertains to handled-the-ball protocol. The ball was not "dead" -- it had not become lodged in Vaughan's pads for the batsman to pluck out and toss to a fielder. Instead, it deflected from Vaughan's person and was bouncing in front of the stumps before he smothered it by hand, in a reflexive though unnecessary protection of his wicket, and tossed it to short leg. Despite the fact it would not have hit the stumps, Vaughan's reaction was that of a batsman knocking away a live ball in the vicinity of his wicket. It is highly unlike there is any team which would not have appealed under the same circumstances.

It certainly should have been one of the less controversial of the seven handled the ball dismissals in Test history. Certainly it was nothing like a non-striker throwing the ball back to the bowler, as Andrew Hilditch reportedly did, or even a batsman tossing it to a fielder once it has clearly become dead and under his control. Although still justifiable under the laws, you can easily make a case for an appeal under those circumstances being totally against the spirit of the game. The appeal for Vaughanís dismissal, though not blatantly protecting his wicket in the manner of Waugh and Gooch before him, was not.

Ironically, this contentious dismissal was later juxtaposed by dubious tactics from England which, while also legitimate, were still not exactly within the gameís spirit.

Watching Ashley Giles consistently bowl a negative line outside leg stump to Sachin Tendulkar on days two and three of the third Test brought to mind a quote from Ian Chappell. Chappell, for whom England is not his fondest team, once said: "The last positive thing England did for the game was invent it."

A harsh comment, but one for which there was little motivation to challenge watching Hussain's cynical employment of his left-arm finger spinner.

Nasser Hussain The ironical part of that defensive strategy was that it was beholden upon England, as the team trailing 1-0, to take the initiative by playing positive cricket. India, although they did not do so, could have been quite happy to sit back and claim the series victory from a drawn match if England were not prepared to engage them on sporting terms.

Intriguingly, Hussain later defended himself by insisting that the ends justified the means, and that if his tactics were negative, then it did not matter since they achieved the desired result, as India were bowled out for 238. Using that logic, did not the end, the dismissal of Michael Vaughan, justify the means, an appeal for a wicket that in Hussainís opinion was against the gameís spirit? Both achieved the desired result for the teams concerned.

In defence of Hussain, it is true that he was forced to utilise an under-strength attack and even if he did have first-choice bowlers available, conventional bowling to Tendulkar in particular and India at home generally might not have sufficed. When the Indian batting performs poorly, it is heavily criticised for its ineptitude, but in reality it only needs a slight weakening of the bowling teamís resolve for those same lambasted batsmen to dominate. Can anyone ever forget India's revival against Australia at the start of the year? A touring team needs a strategy to cling to and Hussain did what he thought necessary with the resources at his disposal.

Also, a commonsense umpiring approach could have helped discourage Giles's negative line. For deliveries which spin back or are padded away nothing can be done, but balls intentionally pitched well wide of leg which pass untouched and show no sign of turning in to the batsman should be called wide.

Such deliberately negative bowling is designed to wear down the patience of a batsman and dismiss him through frustration, and while that in itself is a worthy goal, the method by which it is attained is not, as it kills spectator appeal. If the umpires were empowered to act with commonsense and discretion, it could easily be prevented.

England's strategy was obviously designed primarily with restricting Tendulkar in mind and thus maintaining control over the gameís momentum. Fortunately, Tendulkar is a sufficiently humble batsman not to let his ego and attacking instincts overcome him, though his patience only seems to extend so far. He appears to wait until he passes fifty before giving his instincts a freer rein, where only the loss of wickets at the other end should really prevent him from doing so before passing 150.

Just as Bradman had to contend with Bodyline, Tendulkar must also be prepared to face and overcome all manner of tactics, as teams quite reasonably seek new methods to curb his brilliance. This might require more circumspection before cutting loose, but then again the true batting greats play the game on their terms, not those of the bowlers.

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