Vinoo Mankad was an Indian cricketer who is best remembered not for his talent as an all-rounder but as the first exponent of a controversial method of dismissing a batsman. Mankad was the first recorded bowler to run out a batsman who was backing up – in other words, leaving his crease – as the ball was about to be bowled. To do this, the bowler has to stop his act of delivery, keep hold of the ball and remove the bails. If the batsman has strayed out of his ground, he is technically run out. Mankad ran out Bill Brown in this way in the 1947/8 Test series against Australia and was widely criticised for unsportsmanlike conduct.
It does not happen very often, but it did happen in the opening game of the 2019 Indian Premier League when Ravi Ashwin, captain of the Kings XI Punjab, ‘Mankaded’ Jos Buttler of the Rajasthan Royals. The Royals, comfortably on course to win the game until the run out of their star batsman, eventually lost, sharpening the focus on Ashwin’s behaviour. Ashwin, condemned by players, commentators and fans alike for infringing the spirit of cricket, said that he was acting within the laws of the game and, technically, he was right. But players in any sport stray into the grey area between the written law and the spirit of the law at their peril as Ashwin has undoubtedly discovered over the past few days. Had Ashwin warned Buttler that he needed to be careful, few would have argued with the outcome. But he didn’t.
I am hugely wary of professional athletes who talk about the spirit of the game, particularly in cricket which regards itself as the most moral of sports. It’s like newspapers which invoke the national interest in defence of a particularly lurid story or politicians pretending to be working for the good of the country when they are protecting their own party. In 2003, the Australian cricket team signed up to a document called ‘the spirit of Australian cricket’ which stated that ‘pressure, body language and banter between opponents and ourselves (are viewed) as legitimate tactics and an integral part of the competitive nature of cricket.’ But the team did not ‘condone or engage in sledging or any other conduct that constitutes personal abuse.’
This gem of hypocrisy was drawn up by members of one of the most vocal, aggressive and, on their grumpy days, abusive teams in the history of the game, a team led by Steve Waugh whose combative style of leadership set the tone for a particularly bad-tempered era in the sport. No one, least of all the umpires, fully established when ‘banter’ (OK) became ‘personal abuse’ (not OK) but the Australians didn’t care anyway. They set and interpreted the rules to suit themselves. The spirit of cricket? Pull the other one.
Ashwin did a far more damaging thing than betray the spirit of cricket; he betrayed the unwritten bond between professionals. Professional athletes are paid to play sport, but they are also paid to win. As a general rule, the more you win, the more you will be paid. But they are all trying to earn a living, to support their families and survive in the game, at whatever level. If a player cries ‘neck, neck, neck’ at the bottom of scrum in rugby union, the players on both sides will instinctively stop pushing because there is a danger of serious injury – and it could be their turn next time. When two players clash heads in football, the ball will be kicked out of play to allow the players to be treated.
Footballers cheat in many different ways, by diving, by trying to influence the referee, by claiming yards when taking a throw-in, but there are limits and deliberately trying to injure an opponent is well beyond the limit. A baseball pitcher could hurl a 100mph fast ball at a batter’s head every time. He doesn’t not because the rules forbid it but because he could hurt a fellow professional, who is just trying to do the same job as he is. Games of combat are controlled by a set of rules, yes, but mostly by common sense and a sense of communal responsibility, for the game being played and for the welfare of the people playing it.
Ravi Ashwin did not put anyone’s livelihood at risk in a physical or financial sense. He just infringed the rule of professional consideration and, somewhere down the line, he will pay for it. It’s the way that society works and it’s the way that sport works. Ashwin will be marked down now by his peers as an outsider, someone who is prepared to betray a fellow professional in the name of victory. It would be a sad epitaph for a top class spin bowler and a popular cricketer if ‘Ashwinned’ became part of the language of the game, but it might be the most suitable punishment.
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