Jos Buttler, Ravi Ashwin, Mankad and the ever spurious 'Spirit of Cricket'

The irony is that Vinoo Mankad was not just a very decent cricketer, but back in the 1940s and 1950s, an icon of the game in his own right. Hair slicked back, shirt unbuttoned to the chest, the Bombay all-rounder epitomised the dash and the courage of a young nation still making its way in the Test game. “For some years,” Wisden wrote on his death in 1978, “he was undoubtedly the best bowler of his type in the world,” referring to his clever slow-left-arm variations that, had he been born 80 years later, would surely have made him a star of the Indian Premier League rather than a unwanted footnote.

He would, perhaps, have been a rival to Ravi Ashwin, which makes it doubly ironic that it was Ashwin who achieved a certain infamy on Monday evening by enacting the form of dismissal that - rather unfairly - has taken Mankad’s name. Cutting short his delivery stride as Jos Buttler shuffled out of his crease, the Kings XI Punjab captain paused for a moment as Buttler sized up what was happening, before whipping off the bails to run him out.

As ever, this made lots of people extremely angry, not least Buttler himself, whose own explosive fury had barely dissipated by the end of the game - a game his team lost - when he barely shook Ashwin’s hand. Indeed, it was rather striking to see how many people the world over had suddenly developed a touching and urgent concern for the fortunes of the Rajasthan Royals in their opening game of the IPL season. Perhaps the potential fanbase out there for franchise cricket is even bigger than we realised.

Or perhaps, by contrast, the central concern here was over something far broader. Something more deep-seated than a heartfelt belief in the rectitude of Law 41.16.1 of the Laws of Cricket. The idea is that when a bowler deliberately runs out a batsman without first giving them the benefit of a warning, he or she is violating something important and intrinsic: that they are, in their own small way, debasing one of the fundamental principles of the game. The problem is that nobody can really agree what that principle is.

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“I think we’ll leave it up to the IPL fans to decide if that’s the kind of thing they want to see,” Rajasthan coach Paddy Upton said afterwards. “Terrible example to set for young kids coming through,” England captain Eoin Morgan tweeted. And yet for those not steeped and stews in the values and mores of cricket, this can all seem faintly baffling: the adherence to some invisible moral credo that only its practitioners can truly grasp.

Cricket has always been a batsman’s game, of course, which is why the deliberate act of a batsman stealing a couple of yards is encoded into the technical framework of the game as “backing-up”, while the act of a bowler preventing them is regarded as beyond the pale. Empty buzz-phrases like “not cricket” have probably outlived their usefulness these days, but the sentiment lives on, in the idea that Ashwin’s crime had been not against the rules but against something greater.

Which is: what exactly? In order to answer this question, you need to delve into the self-mythology of cricket, a game invented in imperial Britain but disseminated around the world in the cloaks of enlightenment. Cricket, it was held, was more than a simple game of runs and wickets. Simply playing it coated you in virtue. It was a life lesson, a moral code, and never mind the fact that its original popularity in England was founded largely on its opportunities for gambling and occasionally even fixing.

Subsequent decades may have seen a loosening of England’s grip on the game’s reins, but many of these original ideals endure still: not least in the entirely spurious Spirit of Cricket, incorporated as a preamble to the 2000 Laws of the Game, and introduced by two former England cricketers: Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey. Returning to it now, you could make the droll case that the only person who broke it was Buttler, in refusing to properly congratulate his opponent after the game.

The point to be made here is that rules and conventions are never neutral or objective. They reflect the priorities of the people who made them and the culture that nurtured them. Flimsy concepts like the Spirit of Cricket are deliberately flimsy: a form of soft power, a means not simply of policing everyday behaviour, but of enforcing a value system.

Buttler is currently playing in the IPL (Getty Images)
Buttler is currently playing in the IPL (Getty Images)

There’s a reason Ashwin’s ‘crime’ is being so roundly condemned but so poorly defined: in the vacuum between ‘fair play’ and ‘spirit’ and ‘setting a good example for the next generation’ is a sort of constructive ambiguity that almost always benefits the game’s traditional gatekeepers. Who gets to decide what the spirit of the game is, and what it isn’t? Very often, it’s the people who get to decide everything else.

Clearly, cricket could legislate against the Mankad overnight. It could decree that a batsman can no longer be run out when a bowler begins the rotation of the arm. Or it could decree that a batsman can be run out at any time until the ball is released. Who, then, benefits from the ambiguity? Why do we continue to believe that cricket is subject to some sort of unspoken morality that supersedes what can be legislated for? Given that cricket has very clear rules about ball-tampering, player violence and racist abuse, you might be tempted to posit that the rules simply aren’t trying hard enough in this case.

This is probably what Ashwin was getting at when he argued after the game that his actions were within the rules. “It is there in the rules of the game,” he said. “I don’t know where the understanding of the spirit of the game comes from, because quite naturally if it’s there in the rules, it’s there. So probably the rules need to go back and be sorted.”

In the meantime, Ashwin’s actions will have given the entire sport pause for thought. The convention that batsmen are given one warning - as Mankad did to Australia’s Bill Brown 70 years ago, not that it helped him much - or that they can start backing up as soon as the bowler is in their delivery stride, has been swept away almost overnight. You may get a few copycat attempts. A short period of disruption. Lots more wagging of fingers. And then, eventually, batsmen will learn to stay in their crease. This is how sport evolves and adapts: a small period of disruption, a whole lot of wailing, and then, imperceptibly, it carries on almost exactly as it did before.