England’s wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow ducked under a bouncer in the last ball of the over, tapped his bat within the crease, and set off to chat with his non-striker partner, without bothering to look behind. Bairstow’s Australian counterpart Alex Carey flicked the ball back and stumped the careless Englishman.
That was a decisive moment in England losing the second Test by 43 runs to go 0-2 down in the ongoing Ashes series on Sunday. Under Law 20.1.2 of cricket, there was no ambiguity in Bairstow’s dismissal. But England skipper Ben Stokes said in a post-match conference that he would not have wanted to win a game in this manner.
When a journalist pointed out that Bairstow had himself attempted to run out David Warner of Australia in a similar manner, Stokes wanted to know if that was in the last ball of the over. When the journalist countered by asking if it mattered which ball of the over such an attempt was made, Stokes maintained that it made all the difference because it’s customary to leave the crease after an over to walk across for a chat with the non-striker.
The fundamental problem with this position is of Stokes assuming a moral high ground as a self-appointed arbiter of what is in the “spirit of cricket” and what is not. To many others, Bairstow trying to catch a batsman unawares when he steps out of the crease in the middle of an over is no different from Carey making Bairstow pay for presuming the over has ended and ball is dead.
Invoking a moral high ground when it’s convenient is a refuge of losers and hypocrites. It’s not the first time Stokes has been put in a position where he feels compelled to defend a teammate crying foul. In the 2019 season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Kings XI Punjab bowler Ravichandran Ashwin ran out Rajasthan Royals batsman Jos Buttler at the non-striker’s end, when the latter was unfairly setting off for a run before the ball had been delivered.
Ashwin copped plenty of flak and derision from current and former cricketers in both England and Australia at that time, including Buttler’s IPL teammate Stokes. However, it should have been Buttler in the dock for attempting to steal a vital yard in what could have been a tight run.
This form of dismissal became known as “Mankading” after India’s Vinoo Mankad became the first to use it against Australian batsman Bill Brown at the Sydney cricket ground in the 1947-48 series Down Under. To this day, any bowler Mankading a batsman is derided, although in the related sport of baseball, it’s customary for a pitcher to run out a player trying to steal a base. A non-striker in cricket getting a few yards’ start is not exactly the same, but it’s similar in “spirit”.
Last year, the International Cricket Council (ICC) formally clarified the regulations to enshrine this as one of the ways for a batsman to be run out. However, “Mankading” was already a legitimate form of dismissal in the Laws of Cricket of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which has maintained the code since 1788. The ICC follows this code and works closely with the MCC in alterations.
With such a long history of evolution and acceptance of the rules of the game, there should really be no need for ambiguity over something as straightforward as a run out effected before the umpire has officially called an end to the over. Bairstow overlooked a simple rule and got punished. It should have ended at that.
But cricket is full of hypocrisies and the matter escalated to the extent that the Australian players were abused while walking past MCC members in the ‘long room’ at Lord’s, a venerated tradition that now becomes questionable. Players are protected from irate spectators in every other ground, so it’s hard to justify their exposure to such abuse or possible violence at Lord’s any more.
Ironically, verbal abuse of players to distract or intimidate them is commonplace on the cricket ground. That is a true violation of any “spirit of cricket” rather than unorthodox but legitimate forms of dismissal. For too long, Aussie sledging was tolerated on the ground, and the team under Steve Waugh made it a part of their strategy to “mentally disintegrate” their opponents. Tennis made strict rules to stamp out such behaviour long ago. The practice has decreased in cricket, but players still get away with impunity.
“I don’t really care how it was perceived—it’s the Ashes, it’s professional sport, if you can’t handle that, what can you handle?” retorted England pace bowler Ollie Robinson, when asked about his sweary send-off to Australian opener Usman Khawaja in the first Test.
He’s absolutely right that the Ashes is professional cricket at the highest level, which is all the more reason there should be zero tolerance of any form of abuse. Rules and penalties should be tightened around this and strictly enforced by umpires. That would uphold the “spirit of cricket” much better than allowing the likes of Bairstow and Buttler to get away with carelessly or willfully taking advantage of niceties.
The third Ashes Test starting Thursday, 6 July at Leeds will be the next stage for this intriguing and hard-fought series. Lost in all the brouhaha of this hypocritical controversy was the brilliance of Stokes’ magnificent 155 at Lord’s that brought England tantalisingly close to victory. It’s time for England to stop whining and start winning.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.