Cricket Conversations: On Spirit of Cricket with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

I’m starting a new initiative at the Cricket Couch, which is to have conversations on a variety of topics with bloggers, writers, fans and journalists, however, over email. The idea is to have the space to think through the subject unlike on a video/audio chat show, which do not always allow that luxury. There are no limits to the length of responses, topics will tend to be generally tangential and not time sensitive, and in the end, the email back-and-forth will be compiled, edited (for spelling and grammar mostly) and will be published. Links to news stories, websites, scorecards and YouTube clips will also be added where relevant.

As with Couch Talk, the “Cricket Conversations” begins with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan.

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Subash: Sid, I want to tell you about an incident that happened on a cricket field I was involved in, that still gnaws at me. I was ashamed of myself when it happened and I still am.

It was one of those not-so-consequential games of weekend 40-overs a side league cricket matches that I have been playing in the Washington D.C. area for the last 9 years. My team had set a target of around 160-odd (I don’t remember the exact details as this happened in 2007 or 2008). I was brought in as first change and there was a small partnership developing for the 2nd wicket. I got one delivery to swing in from the off stump line. The batsman was half-forward and got rapped on the pads. Instinctively, I went up in appeal, as did everyone around the bat. It’s possible that even the square leg fielder also appealed even though he would have been in absolutely no position to judge what had happened! Typical. The umpire raised his finger. Only I knew that the ball had taken a healthy inside edge on to the pad. After the appeal was upheld, I turned around and saw it in the batsman’s eyes that he knew he had hit it too. He briefly held his position as if to remonstrate with the umpire but slowly started his walk back.

I knew the umpire had made a mistake. I knew the batsman was not out. I didn’t have the moral fortitude to tell my captain that we should withdraw the appeal, or withdraw it myself. All I did was jog up to the batsman and patted him on the back to say “Bad luck”. That was very cowardly of me.

Has there been an incident that you were part of, or were witness to, on the cricket field that put you in a similar moral pickle?

***

SidVee: Interesting at various levels.

First: cricket’s whole code of honor springs from the social conventions in pre-Victorian England. The amateur beginnings of cricket put the Gentlemen (Lords, Dukes etc) above the Players (the professionals) and the umpires. Which meant that many of the early patrons of the game (all Amateurs) were unlikely to be given out by the umpires (who were from the lower classes). Tales abound of WG Grace, an amateur, refusing to leave the field when given out (“They’ve come to see me bat, sir not you umpire”) and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the greatest cricket of his (and probably all) time was high on gamesmanship (aka borderline cheating).

The professionals, meanwhile, who were from the lower classes, were expected to uphold the codes of cricket, strive for a higher moral ideal, and were subjected to the ‘It’s not cricket’ test for many years (and continue to be even today when the game is largely rid of its class structure and awash with money at the highest level).

Australians, on the other hand, didn’t have so much baggage with these class codes. The game took root without many of these conventions, which is one of the reasons why they have historically left decisions to the umpire and (barring exceptions) not given two hoots about “walking”.

Which brings me to your case. Here is a league game in the US. Neither of the teams was getting paid for this, I assume. There was no class structure at play. Yet there was something in your roots (via an English colonial hand-down and an Indian upbringing) that has made you think about your split-second moral choice and to then mull over it for the next 5-6 years.

Second: One of the things that irritate me in these ‘morality’ debates is that people only look at an event (an appeal or nick) in isolation. While there is plenty of pontification about whether a batsman should have “walked” or whether a bowler should have “appealed” or whether a bowler should have told the captain to “withdraw the appeal”, there is not much thought given to the consistency of players’ behavior in these matters.

I am more interested in these questions: Does the batsman always (irrespective of the match situation) walk? Does the same batsman walk sometimes and then appeal for a caught behind when he clearly knows there is no edge? Does the bowler always not appeal when there is a clear inside edge? Does the bowler have more than one instance of withdrawing an appeal?

The reason I find these questions more fascinating is because they reveal how consistent players are with their moral codes. It’s convenient to walk when you’ve scored 150, less so when you’re on 3 and your place is on the line. It’s convenient to hold back an appeal when your team is walloping the other, yet really hard to stay restrained when the match is on the knife-edge. I wish there was some Statsguru-ish record of these instances – so that one can somewhat sift the phonies out. Honestly, I have, over the years, thought there were instances of Gilchrist (the keeper) appealing for a nick when there was none – yet the mention of Gilchrist and morality seems to invoke little but his 2003 WC semi-final walk [Video]. In my opinion, Lara “walked” far more consistently (and with games at more precarious situations) than Gilchrist but unfortunately there is no one seminal Lara moment on which we can pin this habit.

Now to your case: (I hope I don’t sound like an agony uncle, but here goes) how did you view these appeals (inside-edge-lbw) until that point? Had you always never appealed? Had you waffled based on the match situation? Had you ever withdrawn an appeal before? All that matters. It explains the foundations of your decision. And then it helps us understand why you are so conflicted about it for so long.

Third: I clearly remember the India v SA Kolkata Test in December 1996 (Lance Klusener’s debut, Azharuddin’s manic hundred [Video] etc) when Venkatesh Prasad rapped Daryll Cullinan on the pads, appealed for a split second and then went ‘ooooh’ (as if to say ‘How close was that!’). He had initially thought it was out, went up, and then quickly realized there was an inside-edge and turned his appeal into an anguished expression. The umpire, though, gave it out – his finger went up just as Prasad was going ‘oooooh’.

It was quite funny to see that. You knew Prasad had figured there was an edge, Cullinan obviously knew there was an edge. The keeper [Mongia] probably knew (though he didn’t stop appealing). The umpire probably realized (but didn’t take back his decision). The score at that point was 363 for 5 (SA had gone from 236 for 0 to 363 for 6 and there was a chance of them being bowled out for less than 400). This was the second day of the Test and India led the series 1-0.

So pretty much around the mid-way point of the series, you have an umpire make this gaffe. It could have (potentially) been the critical moment when the whole series swung around. The decision eventually didn’t cost SA. They went on to win big. But imagine if this had happened in the final innings with SA needing 15 to win with one wicket left. Would Prasad have held back his appeal? Would Cullinan have walked back tamely? Would the umpire have withdrawn his decision?

It’s interesting how people can behave in drastically different ways in various stages of the match and series. And how context (and the prize at stake) decides how you react at each point. The ones who stay consistent to their moral codes (irrespective of the match/series situation) are those who we need to celebrate.

***

Subash: Interesting that you opened with “Spirit of Cricket” (SoC) and its history in response. I wanted to build up towards that. My question was going to be: “Is there any cricketer worthy of giving the annual “MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture“? For example, Sangakkara whose SoC lecture was praised all around, if I recall correctly, appeals almost every time the ball passes the bat! Perhaps they should just call it “MCC Cowdrey Lecture” and not cheapen the ideal of “Spirit of Cricket”.

Iain O’Brien, the former NZ bowler, on one of the Huddle shows he was doing for ESPN Cricinfo, said that (I’m paraphrasing him here as there are so many shows that I just can’t go back to digging out exactly when and what he said), he wished he had played during his international career the way he is approaching the game as a club cricketer now, that he had not appealed for things that he knew were not out. This is what got me thinking about this whole situation.

As to me personally, when I was captain of my team, I told my players that it is up to them if they wanted to “walk”. I was never a walker myself. The Sachin Tendulkar explanation of “Well, if the umpire gives me out wrongly, I still have to leave the field. So, if he gives me wrongly in, I’m not going to correct him. I’ll let him do his job” was what I had adopted. If it’s good for Tendulkar, it was good for me. I think that answers your questions regarding my behavior up to the incident I mentioned. But there is life outside cricket where you are wrestling with this situation without an adjudicator (umpire) present. So, the light bulb going off in my head was more due to how I tried to be outside a cricket field than on it.

So, I do not feel the same way as I did pre-2008 any more. Call it growing up. Call it the self-realization that two wrongs don’t make a right. With time, and a bit of maturity, I have realized that mistakes do happen on the field of play by an umpire – who is trying to the best he can without any bias – and as a player I should not compound it but alleviate it. With honesty.

Luckily, I had not been in a situation where the match was on the line and I needed my moral compass to be in full working condition, yet. But in the last 5 years, (almost) every time I have played in a competitive match, I try to remind myself that I should do the right thing. You see, it hadn’t been a natural disposition for me and so I had to learn it that it is more important for me to be honest with myself, do good by others and more importantly the game, and so I had to keep reminding myself. I’d say over all, I’ve done a decent job of it since that day.

Let us pick up one of the points you raised which is how consistently players embrace the spirit of cricket, and how consistently they would walk, pressure situation or not. My question is: Can we judge on a continuum? Is one player more along the SoC lines than another? Or is it a binary judgment – either one is or isn’t. No shades of grey. If we were to consider the latter, then, probably there isn’t a professional cricketer alive who would be worthy of the honor of delivering the Spirit of Cricket Lecture, is there?

***

SidVee: Now I’m smirking. I specifically left out the term ‘Spirit of cricket’ in my previous email and stuck to ‘moral code’ and ‘honor system’. But since you bring it up…

I don’t really like the way people throw the term ‘Spirit of cricket’ at any given opportunity. It’s almost becoming this go-to phrase when in doubt and (more irritatingly) has turned into a catchy slogan for the marketing men. SoC Speech, SoC Award etc. *Cringe*

The spirit of cricket, in my opinion, is a wide-ranging ideal. It’s not some run-of-the-mill Yes Bank Maximum. It’s something that ennobles the game and acts as a benchmark for cricketers to aspire to. It’s not part of the rules, yet it hovers at a comfortable distance. It’s like holding the door for someone behind you, or leaving a certain minimum tip, or acknowledging a fellow driver’s yield with a friendly wave. These are not things you have to do; yet it makes someone else’s life a bit easier. It sends a message. It elevates your pursuit into something marginally more purposeful. That’s how I think of it, anyway.

It’s hard to pin down a definition, really. I think Muttiah Muralitharan showed some fine spirit in the aftermath of the tsunami in 2006. Sure, his actions were outside the field but that too (in my mind) falls under the ambit of SoC. People like Bishan Bedi think Murali has done large damage to the spirit of cricket and will never invite him to any speech (let alone one related to SoC). So I am not too comfortable with the phrase. I wish they would just rename the lecture.

As for player behavior: I agree that there are several areas of grey. And one can’t slot players as ‘those who follow a moral code’ and ‘those who do not’. That’s unfair. But I am saying that the comments and analysis of individual instances must not ignore the continuum. You can’t applaud a player if he walks one day and then let him get away if he appeals for something that is blatantly not out. That’s inconsistent and sends out a wrong message.

***

Subash: You got me. I guess I was so intent on making the Spirit of Cricket connection that even with you just mentioning “moral code” got me going on it. Score one to you.

I agree with you that if the spirit of cricket is going to be invoked, it has to be done consistently. When a player appeals for decisions that are obviously not out, he/she loses credibility, and also agree with the shades of grey in terms of player behavior, which means, a player can be viewed to be more towards the higher ideal that we all should aspire than another. But then, the people making that claim are looking through their own moral values prism to derive this conclusion. And that’s where this seems to break down, doesn’t it? Because, the core values – at least in terms of behavior on the field – seems to be a by product of the environs where you learned your game, your upbringing, your neighborhood kids, your seniors in the team, so on and so forth.

You had mentioned about the Aussie attitude towards the Victorian values. But then, the image of Michael Slater berating Rahul Dravid [Video] comes to mind. The various times Ricky Ponting raising his finger to indicate that he has taken the catch clean comes to mind.

Which also bring me to another point on Spirit of Cricket – There is a feeling that players from certain countries behave as if they somehow have ownership of it, more than others, anyway. We have seen that in terms of the on air discussions as well as the post-match pressers and how certain incidents are being interpreted by match referees. There is very much an old school versus new school sort of split when it comes to this (The old guard being England (and at times Australia)).

I’ll let you have the last word on this.  As to my initial thought that got me going on this topic: “Is there any player worthy of the “Spirit of Cricket” ideal that he/she could deliver a lecture under that banner?” In my opinion, no.

There is a place for Spirit of Cricket in our lives. There’s a place for it in junior levels and first class cricket, where the umpires do not have the aid of all the technological tools and they could use the players “holding the door” for them. There is place for it even in the international arena, which is the pinnacle of professional cricket, but I’m not going to judge a player as good or bad based on whether he walks or appeals for an obvious not out, and definitely not use Spirit of Cricket as a tool to claim my moral superiority over someone else.

***

SidVee: Two points:

1) Yes, everyone is going to be making judgments through their own moral prism. That’s not something we have a control over. Which is why it’s impossible to have a universal moral code. You bring up the Slater and Ponting examples. I remember being in Sydney in 2008 and Ponting really went mad when questioned about the catch he took (which, as replays showed, had grazed the turf) [Video]. He went on a tirade about ‘integrity’ and behaved as if he had done everything possible to uphold the good side of the game. At some point I wondered how he was so adamant about his claim (despite all video evidence to suggest otherwise). And that’s when it struck me that maybe he had reached a point where he was convinced that he was playing the game exactly as it should be and that nobody dare tell him he wasn’t. A state of hubris where you genuinely believe you can do no wrong.

2) In an ideal world, spirit of cricket will largely be a preserve of the junior cricketers and first-class cricketers (arenas were umpires don’t have access to technology). But junior cricketers are unlikely to take this on if international cricketers don’t set an example. I have always believed that the kind of cricket you play in your impressionable years defines your approach to the game. It’s the age where you develop your stance, your bowling action, your catching style, and your throwing technique. And each one of these is heavily influenced by what you watch on TV. Unlike in the earlier days – when radio and print required you to imagine things and set about forming your style from first principles – TV has brought things much closer to home.

So if every major international cricketer decides to let the umpire take a call, and if every international cricketer appeals for anything that strikes the pad … junior cricketers are likely to do the same. Which is why I am happy when a batsman walks or when a captain withdraws an appeal for a blatantly wrong decision. It’s something that many young people will watch and remember. And maybe, at some point later in their lives, do the same.

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5 Responses to Cricket Conversations: On Spirit of Cricket with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

  1. Swaroop says:

    Nice discussion. Perhaps you could have also gone outside and wondered why cricket seems to be still stuck wrt this ‘spirit’. Notional at best. People in other team sports are heralded as superstars even after diving/biting. And perhaps what exactly is the scope for individual ‘sportsmanship’ in a team sport. And whether it’s even ‘fair’ for the team to lose because of one guy who decides to ‘own up’. If his act, in some way, makes his team lose. Surely, he should be right to cop some blame for that? Why have a problem when he’s not overstepping the rules in trying to make his team win? After all, isn’t that his ultimate aim.

    • sidvee says:

      Hey Swaroop,

      I love how you say cricket is ‘stuck’ with this spirit.

      Two points:

      1 Cricket is a team sport by definition but the construct of the sport often turns it into a battle between individuals. Essentially it can be (at many times) viewed as a discrete collection of individual battles. So when a Steyn bowls to Sachin, we are watching not only one member of the SA team bowl to one member of an Indian team but we’re also seeing a great bowler getting at a great batsman. The rest of the 20 players (for a brief while at least) take a backseat in this battle.

      So that’s one of the reasons why it allows for individuals to reveal their character (http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/634481.html) more than other sports do. So individuals are automatically led to situations like ‘walking’, ‘appealing’, ‘withdrawing appeals’ etc.

      2 This team-individual toggling is also one of cricket’s great strengths. It creates drama at two levels. The narrative can proceed in so many directions because of this aspect.

      Which brings me to your point: the ‘spirit of cricket’ and ‘honour code’ add to the complexity in the game. It allows us to see character in various dimensions. It’s not just about going out there and winning a match for your team (which, as you say, should be the ultimate aim) but also about struggling through the individual battles. So batsman A may walk in normal situations but he may not walk when up against bowler B (because he and that bowler have a history). Similarly batsman B may be a model of honesty and uprightness at most times but a certain match situation makes him blow his top (Michael Holding kicking the stumps in NZ comes to mind).

      So I don’t see this as an individual ruining his team’s chances by making his decisions. I think many cricket teams are accepting of various kinds of players (with different moral codes) and understand that one player keeping up a certain spirit is something that is part of the sport’s structure.

      Of course some teams (occasionally) follow a code throughout. That is usually a function of the captain (I think Ian Chappell imposed his thinking on the team he captained). And that has it’s own levels of complexity.

      Hope I got my point across. The fact that I rambled must tell you something about the nature (and richness) of this topic.

      cheers

      • Yogeshwaran D says:

        Interesting Sid. Chappelli himself once remarked that if people think he could impose himself on people like Lillee, Walters et al, then they were dreaming. The Chappelli team had some strong characters. I do not know if there are any stories that makes you say Chappelli imposed himself on the team.

        • Sidvee says:

          By imposed, I don’t necessarily mean – forced them to think in a certain way. Rather – he was inspirational enough for his team to pick up his attitude towards the board, umpires, spirit of cricket etc

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