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The Spirit of Cricket - Of Laws, Morals and Shades of Grey

1.21K   //    14 Sep 2015, 23:37 IST
Ben Stokes reacts while on the ground during the ‘obstructing the field’ incident

In the field of Social Psychology, Moral disengagement is a term for the process by which an individual convinces oneself that ethical standards does not apply to them in certain contexts, by separating their morality from inhumane conduct by disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation. The Spirit of Cricket says hello.

The Spirit of Cricket is probably one of the most humane things about Cricket. Though it claims itself to be White, it is always hovering around the esoteric grey zone. Subjective, and tweakable as per the whims and fancies of the players and stakeholders. Vows and oaths aplenty are taken prior to major series, Captains of teams pledge to walk the line drawn by Spirit of Cricket with the discipline of a horse on Blinkers. But once we get down to the field of play, when a win matters the most, when emotions cloud morals, when a place in the team is in jeopardy, does the Spirit have much significance? The answer would be no, a significantly bigger number of times.

The debate of Spirit of Cricket was lying dormant for quite some time, and was given an impolite awakening in the recently concluded ODI slice of the Ashes. Ben Stokes was declared out, Obstructing the field, only the 6th player in ODI history to be so. Stokes responded to Starc’s fling at the stumps by sticking out his glove, deviating the ball from its intended path. Wade and Steve Smith appealed as others joined in. After much deliberation, Stokes was given out by the third umpire, much to the dismay of Eoin Morgan and the crowd.

Is the debate uncalled for?

This is what the Law has to say about the incident. Law 37 (Obstructing the Field) : "Either batsman is out Obstructing the field if he wilfully attempts to obstruct or distract the fielding side by word or action. In particular, but not solely, it shall be regarded as obstruction and either batsman will be out Obstructing the field if while the ball is in play and after the striker has completed the act of playing the ball, as defined in Law 33.1, he wilfully strikes the ball with (i) a hand not holding the bat, unless this is in order to avoid injury. See also Law 33.2 (Not out Handled the ball). (ii) any other part of his person or with his bat. See also Law 34 (Hit the ball twice).”

Firstly, there being a law that “Obstructing the field” is a legal form of dismissal, the sheer amount of debate it invokes seems to be uncalled-for. Secondly, the law gives the batsmen a bit of a grey zone to work under. The bolded clause, “unless this is in order to avoid injury”, of the law gives the batting side a distinctive advantage to come across as the good guy in the “Spirit of Cricket” debate, by playing the “Intent” card. Let’s analyse the Ben Stokes dismissal a bit – 

  • Was Ben Stokes out of his crease, hence there being a real chance of a run-out dismissal? – Yes
  • Was the throw from Stokes headed towards the stumps? – Yes
  • Was Stokes in between the ball’s path and the Stumps? – No
  • Did Stokes’ action (regardless of the Intent) prevent Australia from a potential run-out dismissal? – Yes
  • Clearly, the law suggests that Stokes was legitimately out. Barring the point on intent to avoid injury, which can’t be conclusively proven, Australia and Smith were well within their rights to appeal, withheld their appeal, and celebrate the wicket.  England were well within their rights to be distraught about the wicket leading to a loss, but not for being a victim of Australia not respecting the unsaid rules of the Spirit of Cricket.
  • ‘Spirit of Cricket’ and human vice of selective morality

This is where the law could be tweaked a bit. The grey portions could be done away with to protect players from being persecuted by the media and fellow cricketers, as was Steve Smith in this case. If a batsmen is in direct path of the ball, and in genuine danger of being hurt by the actions of a fielder or bowler’s throw, in an “Obstructing the field” situation, one can / should expect the fielding captain to withdraw / not appeal at all. That would be a classic Spirit of the Game situation, but not what we saw with Stokes’ dismissal.

The English cricket team embodies Moral disengagement to the core. Whenever they have been in a “Spirit of Cricket” situation, they have always attempted to come across as the good guy / beneficiary. The Ryan Sidebottom – Grant Elliot episode, Ian Bell run-out against India, Stuart Broad not walking, Jonathan Trott claiming Kohli’s catch which was clearly a bump ball, to the Ben Stokes episode. England have done it all, from requesting for a decision to be overturned for the sake of Spirit of Cricket to seeking refuge in the laws.

Lawmakers could probably relook the laws and tweak them around to minimize such situations, and give all teams a fair playing field, physically and psychologically. A few teams choose to play by the rulebook to the T, a few others let the Spirit of Cricket be their bible, whilst a few others tweak their preferences and seek to be the beneficiary at all times. A rulebook with clear shades of Black and White, eliminating the grey, might help in reducing such instances. The debates shall never be eliminated though, perhaps only reduced. After all, what is a human without the vice of selective, dual morality?