Caught Stealing

In Baseball, the batter gets a hit and gets on base. While on base, he is allowed to get a lead off the base as the pitcher winds up and makes a pitch at the batter on home plate. The base runner on first base (or second or third) attempts to get to the subsequent base without having the need of the batter at home plate to get a hit or make a ground out to advance to the next base. When the base runner attempts to advance or lead off from one base to another without the ball being batted and then is tagged out by a fielder while making the attempt, he is declared out “caught stealing”.

There are a couple of reasons why a base runner might attempt to steal a base. If the base runner can advance from first base to the second without a hit from the batter at home plate, he has put himself in a scoring position and can come home on a hit that goes out of the infield. Hits are hard to come by as Baseball is predicated on the fact the batters fail more often than not, to get a hit. Roughly, a batter that gets a hit every third time he steps to the home plate is considered to be performing superbly. Another reason is that it breaks the rhythm of the pitcher on the mound. Just by even pretending to steal, the base runner will ensure the pitcher pays him attention by throwing to the first baseman.

Caught Stealing

A pitcher will make throws to the first baseman occasionally (or as often as is required) to make sure the base runner does not get a big lead off the base. The pitcher is allowed to “pick off” the base runner or if the base runner had already made his move towards the second base, the pitcher can throw to the second baseman (or first baseman) and get the runner in a “run down”. These are allowed as long as the pitcher has not made a move decidedly towards the home plate, with the intention of delivering the pitch. If he has, then, if the catcher catches the ball, can throw to second base and get the runner out, “caught stealing”, provided the batter at home plate has not made contact with the ball.

When the base runner is tagged at second base, the umpire calls the runner out and the runner makes his way to the dug out. It is one of the ways of “making an out” or if you will, “mode of dismissal”. It is in the rules of the game. The umpires do not ask the fielding team’s captain whether he wants to persist with the appeal. There is no emotional guilt, perceived or otherwise, associated with it. A player is out according to the rules of the game and hence has to make his way out of the field.

Similarly, in Cricket, Law 42(15)* states “The bowler is permitted, before entering his delivery stride, to attempt to run out the non-striker.” This law is in place to prevent unfair play by the non-striker. There was a time when this law was banished but was brought back in to the sport during the ICC Conference in Hong Kong, in 2011.  Once the fielder has appealed, after effecting the run out, it is the job of the umpire to enforce the law of the sport. The umpire need not and more importantly should not, put the burden of emotional guilt on the fielding team’s captain by asking him whether he really wants to appeal.

This exactly was what transpired at Brisbane during Match 9 of the Commonwealth Bank Series between India and Sri Lanka. The incident can be seen in the video below. As R Ashwin ran out the over eager Thirimanne, backing up too far, he appealed to the Umpire (Paul Reiffel) and walked away towards his captain (Sehwag). Umpire Reiffel instead of declaring the batsman out (according to the law), had a discussion with the other on-field umpire Billy Bowden, who then had a discussion with Sehwag. In the mean time, Sachin Tendulkar seemed to give his input to Sehwag and they withdrew the appeal.

This is ridiculous on many levels. The non-striker Thirimanne was trying to gain an advantage by unfairly backing up. However, as soon as Ashwin had taken the bails off and appealed to the umpire, the umpire needed to enforce the laws of the game. Once Thirimanne had indulged in an unfair practice, in my point of view, he does not deserve a second chance. If his excuse was, if anything, he did not know of the change in the law, I do not see why ignorance should be rewarded. Secondly, Umpire Reiffel needed to adjudicate based on the events that unfolded right in front of his eyes, rather than get in a discussion with Umpire Bowden. Was there any doubt in Umpire Reiffel’s mind as to what had transpired in front of him? It was all very plain to see. I do not see any reason why Reiffel would have had any doubts, which would have led him to discuss it with Bowden. If indeed Reiffel had doubts of what he had to do, that actually makes him an incompetent umpire. To top it all off, Sehwag’s reasoning as to why he withdrew the appeal, as he mentioned it in the post-match press conference was, “because if we appealed and umpire gave him out, then somebody will criticise that, you know, that was not spirit of the game.”

How is then, what Thirimanne was doing in the spirit of the game? Sehwag has actually gone on and rewarded a player who was shortchanging the opponent by playing unfairly, while pussyfooting around the situation. Just so you know, Thirimanne continued to back up after this incident for bowlers other than Ashwin.

Michael Jeh, writing on ESPNCricinfo commends the gesture, “cool-headed wisdom [of Sehwag and Tendulkar], coupled with sensible umpiring, avoided creating an incident that would inevitably have polarised two close neighbours and would almost certainly have led to bad blood that would have lingered on for some time.” Really Michael? How long did the bad blood from when Randiv bowled a no ball to prevent Sehwag from getting a century last?

If the “Spirit of Cricket” is going to be invoked as and when it is convenient, why even bother to have laws of the game for specific situations? Why bother having officials who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing the laws of the game? It has become acceptable for players to appeal for catches even when they know for a fact the batsman has not edged it. Bowlers appeal for LBWs when it is plain to see the batsman has got an inside edge. How can these practices be reconciled with the Spirit of Cricket? Sachin Tendulkar, who played the mediator here and convinced Sehwag to withdraw the appeal, almost never walks.

Baseball has this vagueness and the gray area of morality covered pretty well. The umpires do their jobs with out forcing the players to make decisions based on supposed guilt, and the players do theirs. It is about time Cricket sheds its cloak of morality. It is just a convenient place for those that are playing the game unfairly to hide in.
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* – Update: The MCC Law 42(15) has been replaced by ICC’s Standard One Day International Match Playing Conditions 42(11) (Page 29 of the document) which is shown below.

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13 Responses to Caught Stealing

  1. Peter Della Penna says:

    Having just watched the replay for the first time, I find that the reactions of the commentators who were on air at the time point to cricket’s bizarre identity crisis regarding sportsmanship. “Oh dear… Oh dear… Well…” says Alan Wilkins. “Well this is a shame. It really is a grave shame,” says Tom Moody.

    The two of them then rambled on aimlessly about “the spirit of the game” with Moody only briefly saying that Thirimanne’s act – wandering a yard out of the crease before the ball was bowled – was foolish before changing tack again, saying, “The right thing has happened here and thankfully common sense has prevailed.”

    Then, after seeing Thirimanne repeatedly leave his crease before the ball has been bowled, the two of them reverse course, with Moody saying that Thirimanne “is disrespecting the rules of the game and his opponent.”

    In one breath, they’re saying that India are in the wrong, the next they’re saying that Thirimanne is a filthy cheat. This is a sport where people howl if a full toss whizzes by a batsman’s ear, but applaud if bodily harm is induced to a batsmen as long as the ball is bounced into the pitch first. What gives?

    As bad as the officiating may be in some sports in the US professional leagues, at least we know that the rules are rules and it’s not often that things are open to interpretation. When there is a grey area, the officials act decisively and don’t rely on some nebulous notion of “spirit.” I may be stretching things, but this whole episode might tangentially support an argument for the use of DRS. It’s clear that some umpires can’t be trusted in situations like this. Bowden and Reiffel effectively took the laws into their own hands and rewrote them while out in the middle. In a sense, they took off their red umpiring shirts and put on purple Sri Lanka shirts during this sequence. If you can’t be dispassionate and take emotion out of the equation, how can you properly act as a judge out in the middle? I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of cricket needing to shed its cloak of morality.

    One of my favorite plays ever in the NFL was in a game the early 90s when Dan Marino duped the Jets by acting like he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock late in the 4th quarter, but instead dropped back and threw a TD to beat the Jets. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZfzr9tB4oo This play is universally hailed as a stroke of genius by Marino. It’s the fault of the Jets D that they got suckered.

    Lastly, Sehwag and Dhoni need their heads examined after Ian Bell and now Thirimanne were invited to keep batting after surrendering their wickets.

    • Peter, Thanks for the comment. It was disgusting that the first finger is pointed at the bowler who apparently has broken this unwritten code of conduct also known as Spirit of Cricket, while completely turning a blind eye to the unfair play by the non-striker. WTF do they mean by common sense has prevailed??? That India wimped out of a tough decision and lacked the cajones to back what is actually right, and instead took the easy way out that causes no controversy?? Bull Shit.
      RE: DRS — that in itself is a violation of the spirit of cricket, isn’t it? But let’s say we do have DRS — I am not opposed to the whole of it, but I can get behind it more if they independently verify the veracity of the decisions the technology makes, and make us aware of the limitations. In the ODI prior to this, Reiffel who was the 3rd umpire pressed the wrong button apparently, while the stumping decision of Mussey went upstairs. Even with a flawless technology, if they are going to have such morons running the show, it is still bound to fail.
      I have seen the Dan Marino play you are talking about, many many times. It is brilliant work. It is not Marino’s responsibility if his opponents snoozed on play. By the same token, Ashwin should have been congratulated for making an alert play. As we saw later, Thirimanne continued to take advantage off Vinay and Irfan, but not off Ashwin. Instead, Ashwin is now confused as to what he should do next time a non-striker backs up too much.

      • Mahek says:

        Lemme tell ya what this comes down to, Couch. Who wants it more? All this spirit of cricket is just bullshit. Thirimanne clearly wanted it more than the Indian team and he continued to get away with leaving his crease. The umpires are a buncha dicks and ya can’t count on ’em to do the right thing.

        • Coach Ditka, I hear you. I am left wondering what Ashwin is to make of all this. Are his teammates a bunch of softies that won’t stand up for what is right when it is absolutely certain that it is the other guy that is being unfair? Ridunculous.

  2. Russ says:

    There is an interesting moral subplot in the development of the law regarding Mankadding. Consider this fascinating piece on knavish cricket tricks from 1913: “is a bowler justified in pretending to deliver the ball in order to runout a batsman who backs up prematurely?” The knavish part of the act is not the runout itself, but the “pretending” to bowl. The change in the law to limit those runouts to before the delivery stride was enacted to prevent such pretending; the partial reversal to include the stride, but not the delivery swing tries to limit the batsman in the other direction.

    In essence, the morality of Ashwin’s action hinges on whether he has “tricked” Thirimanne into leaving his crease; to which my answer would be that did not – he left the crease before he even began his delivery stride – and therefore the appeal was right both morally and technically. Conversely, had Ashwin landed his front foot, begun to bowl then stopped as Thirimanne left the crease, the moral rightness would again be blurry.

    Personally I prefer the law as defined by the MCC. The actual advantage to the batsman for those few milliseconds were pretty minimal, and it was much clearer. Clarity in law is always preferable.

    • Russ, Thanks for the comment. I want the umpires to at least take a stand and enforce the rules in situations that are as stark as night and day. Yet they continue to screw the pooch.

      • Russ says:

        Agreed, but what do you expect? When umpires (and referees) have enforced the law as written in morally ambiguous situations (and I’m thinking particularly of Darrell Hair here) they’ve been widely criticised, had no ICC support, and lost their jobs.

        The Bell incident, for what it’s worth, I’d have signalled dead ball on the basis that the fieldsman and batsman weren’t playing the ball. But I’d also have no issue with either decision, provided the umpire makes a clear one. By being wishy-washy in both cases the umpires seriously aggravated the situation. It’s not as if players are going to be less likely to argue cases and bend rules if they think the laws are negotiable.

        I have a simple solution in this case though. If player “balks” by attempting to runout a player after completing their delivery swing the umpire should signal no ball. By introducing a penalty for unfair play, the moral ambiguity of a fair runout is is removed.

  3. Craig Burley says:

    Right on Subash. And Russ has it correct.

    In baseball, the pitcher cannot feint his delivery to the plate. Once he begins his delivery, he must complete it. Otherwise he has “balked” and the runners will all be awarded another base. This is fair on all participants. Similarly for cricket: once the bowler has begun his delivery stride, the non-striker should be allowed to back up without fear of being run out.

    • Craig, Thanks for the comment. Yes, I do understand how a “balk” works and I think it is a fair rule. The problem I have is not with the rule itself, it is that the umpires chose not to enforce it and leave it up to the fielding captain to decide if he wants to persist with an appeal that had already been made. By not immediately adjudicating and dragging it along while transferring the burden of supposed guilt to Sehwag, Umpires have failed in their job.

  4. I totally agree. I read KD’s post on the same as well but felt that saying ‘it didn’t feel right’ or getting in the ‘spirit of the game’ is not done. If there is a rule, then it must be followed regardless of the captain’s view. In fact, on both the Bell incident as well as this one, I was disappointed with what India did.

    However, I do not agree with what Mahek said. I do not take it as a case of who wanted it more. The Indians let it go on moral grounds and it was a choice they made. But the rules clearly show that there was absolutely no need for them to be given a choice. As soon as Ashwin took off the bails, a decision should have been made.

    • Mahek says:

      Well ofcourse it was a choice they made and they’re entitled to it. Would they have done it if they valued a win over the outrage such an incident would cause? The captain himself has said they’re soft, do you really need any more evidence? They can play this way forever if they want but then don’t blame the umpires and other teams for screwing them for it. I have absolutely no sympathy for this team after it has repeatedly shied away from trying its best to win. The only reason I root for them is I’m Indian. There, I said it.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. Good write-up. (See I do read :p)

  6. Sujith Vicky says:

    What next? Should Malinga warn the batsman that he’s going to bowl one of his toe-crushing, bottom-of-the-stump-landing yorker before hand so in the spirit of not getting him out or *gasp* injuring his little toes? Should Dilshan or Dhoni warn the bowler about their premeditated “dilscoop” or “copter” shot ? It’s only being polite, isn’t it? They can all have a group hug after every game.

    Sick of this already. Taking this “Gentleman’s game” or the “spirit of the game” thing a little too far. If it’s within the rules, STICK to it. If the rules are ambiguous (Law 42(15) + balking ) , the ICC should grow a pair and quickly rectify it .

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