Jonny Bairstow new1
England batter Jonny Bairstow walks back after an ‘unfair dismissal’ during the second innings on Sunday. Image Credit: Reuters

Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal in the second Ashes Test has triggered a storm of protest, with cricketers and supporters terming it unfair. Contentious dismissals are not new to cricket. And every time, it raises the question of the spirit of cricket.

In cricket, a dismissal should be as per the laws. And for the purists, it should also adhere to the spirit of cricket, enshrined in the preamble of MCC’s Code of Law. But does that always happen? Or does it happen only when a dismissal is crucial? Here’s our special report.

Spirit of cricket: Has it become obsolete?

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

Lord’s, the hallowed turf in cricket, was hosting the Ashes — the oldest rivalry. England were chasing 371 runs for victory over Australia in the second Test.

It was no easy task. To win, England needed to pull off the highest run chase at Lord’s, the third-highest in England and the 10th-highest in history.

England had knocked off 193 runs but lost five wickets in the process. Captain Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, the last recognised pair of batters, were at the crease with victory 178 runs away.

A good partnership was required to push England towards a win that would have squared the series 1-1. And Australia needed a wicket to avert that. The wicket came in a controversial manner.

Bairstow new 2
Umpires referring to the third umpire to get the clarity on the decision. Image Credit: Reuters

What Bairstow did

Bairstow ducked underneath a short ball from Cameron Green, which sailed over his head to wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Bairstow marked the crease with his boot and walked down the pitch towards Stokes at the non-striker’s end, ostensibly thinking it was the end of the over.

Unknown to Bairstow, Carey collected the ball and threw down the stumps in one motion with the batter outside the crease. Onfield umpires referred the decision to TV umpire Marais Erasmus who gave the batter out: stumped.

Read more

Boos rang out around Lord’s as a shocked and angry Bairstow stomped off. Pandemonium erupted on social media with the Australians accused of cheating, and questions on the spirit of cricket arose.

In the commentary box, former Australian captain Mark Taylor called it out and accused Bairstow of dozy cricket. Former England white-ball cricket captain Eoin Morgan concurred. But captain Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum insisted they wouldn’t want to win games like that.

Did it breach the game’s spirit?

Was Bairstow out? He was. Stokes agreed. No doubt about that. If it’s a legitimate dismissal, what is the brouhaha around it?

Apparently, it was in breach of the game’s spirit. That raises the question of what’s the spirit of cricket.

When the current Code of Laws was introduced in 2000, it included, for the first time, a preamble on the spirit of cricket. “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

The inclusion of the preamble was engineered by two former England captains, Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter, to ensure fair play, reminding captains, players and umpires to respect and uphold the spirit of cricket. Their intentions are no doubt honourable, given that cricket is considered a gentleman’s game.

James Anderson
England tailender James Anderson hit on the helmet by a vicious bouncer during the second Test at Lord's. Image Credit: Reuters

What about sledging and bouncers

But is cricket still a gentleman’s game? Are all the teams upholding the spirit of cricket? No. Not really.

If that were the case, there would be no sledging, which most teams employ to get under the skin of batters to wreck their concentration. What about persistent short-pitched bowling? A bouncer is a legitimate weapon in a fast bowler’s arsenal, but to abuse it is certainly not in keeping with the game’s spirit.

Even tailend batters are not spared. There was an unwritten code that non-recognised batters should not be subjected to a bouncer attack. That’s no longer the case. Every batter is fair game for a short-ball barrage.

If a team adheres to the spirit of cricket, batters should walk when they edge the ball. That’s all too rare. The last batter who walked was Adam Gilchrist, and his decision was not looked upon favourably by many of his Australian teammates.

Five controversies England players involved in
Indian opener Krishnamachari Srikkanth on his debut Test in 1981 against England in Mumbai, took his trademark stroll outside the crease when the ball was still in play. John Emburey ran him out.

England’s Ian Bell was run-out assuming that the ball had crossed the boundary on the last ball before tea break during the Trent Bridge Test against India in 2011. Praveen Kumar prevented the boundary and threw the ball back in and the third umpire confirmed his run-out. But Dhoni withdrew the appeal and Bell resumed his innings after tea.

Ravichandran Ashwin Mankading Jos Buttler during the Indian Premier League in 2019 raised a big controversy. It was considered against the spirit of play before ICC now legalised it as run out. Buttler was previously dismissed by the same fashion in 2014.

Ben Stokes stepped out to hit Mitchell Starc, who threw the ball back at the stumps. The England all-rounder stuck his hand out to stop the ball and was dismissed for obstructing the field. Jason Roy too suffered a similar fate while blocking the ball with his body after being sent back by Liam Livingstone off a sharp run against South Africa in 2017.

New Zealand’s Grant Elliot collided with England pacer Ryan Sidebottom and was given run out after England skipper Paul Collingwood didn’t withdraw his appeal, leaving the Black Caps angry.

How many captains have recalled batters?

There are times when a batsman is adjudged to have caught behind, even when his flailing bat would have missed the ball. Umpires, after all, are human. Today, batters can review the decision. But earlier, they had to accept the decision, even if it was wrong. And not many captains recalled the batters.

G.R. Vishwanath did just that in 1980. The Indian captain recalled Bob Taylor, who was given out, caught behind. Taylor went on to string together a partnership with Ian Botham that won the Golden Jubilee Test for England in Mumbai.

How many cricket aficionados remember that? Not many.

The spirit of cricket raises its head whenever a bowler runs out a non-striker at the end of his delivery stride. It used to be called Mankading. Now it’s merely called run out, liberating Vinoo Mankad of the ignominy of being attached to the mode of dismissal (He effected the dismissal first in a Test match).

Why is this run-out considered taboo? Clearly, the batter is cheating: he or she intends to run only 18 yards instead of 22 by backing up long before the ball is delivered. Instead of penalising the batter, the bowler is hauled over the coals for the dismissal. How’s that fair play?

Handled the ball dismissal

If that’s against the spirit of cricket, even the dismissal of handling the ball should also be considered as such. Handling the Ball is now moved under the section of Obstructing the Field in the updated laws of cricket.

No batter handles the ball intentionally. It’s sheer instinct. More so when the ball veers towards the stumps. India’s Mohinder Amarnath (vs Australia, 1986), England’s Graham Gooch (vs Australia, 1993) and Steve Waugh (vs India, 2001) did just that. Australia’s Andrew Hilditch (vs Pakistan, 1979) was at the non-striker’s end when he caught the ball and handed it to the bowler.

If the spirit of cricket matters, these dismissals shouldn’t have happened. But they do. This means the spirit of cricket is invoked when your team is at the receiving end.

What Sunak and Albanese said

Bairstow’s dismissal was crucial, as England lost the Test by 43 runs and went down 2-0 in the series. That seemed to have amplified the issue, with even former players offering their opinions. Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom and Anthony Albanese of Australia have also weighed in, taking their team’s sides.

Stokes admits Bairstow was out but insists that he wouldn’t go down the route in quest of victory, although Australian captain Pat Cummins defended his decision to appeal for the wicket. The laws say Cummins is correct, but Stokes says it’s against the spirit of cricket.

If the roles were reversed, would Stokes recall the batter? Bairstow reportedly attempted similar dismissals against Marnus Labuchagne and Travis Head. Let’s see if the England wicketkeeper does it again.

The spirit of cricket seem to have melted in the searing heat of competition.

Bairstow 2 web new
Australian players celebrate after dismissing Jonny Bairstow. Image Credit: Reuters

Winning is important, but how it is achieved matters most

A.K.S. Satish, Sports Editor

Lord’s is called the home of cricket, where the laws of the game are formulated. It is at the very same venue that the gentlemen’s game has faced a severe test to the spirit of the game.

The Jonny Bairstow dismissal in the second innings of the second Ashes Test against Australia has rekindled the topic of fairplay, an area the game’s governing body has been laying a lot of importance over the last few years. To the letter of the law, there’s no doubt that Bairstow was out after leaving his crease when the ball was still in play. Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey was smart to use the infringement to tilt the balance in the World Test Champions’ favour at a crucial stage by effecting the ‘stumping’. The dismissal must taught a very harsh lesson for the England wicketkeeper due to his misjudgement, but it is also a harsh lesson for those who are associated with the game.

Australia play the game hard

It is not the first time such incidents have taken place, but those that still stand out and are appreciated are those decisions made after looking at the larger picture of the sport, upholding the spirit. Australia at best could have withdrawn the appeal, but in a series like Ashes one cannot expect gifts and certainly not from Australia, who play the game hard.

Bairstow new 3
England skipper Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow having a chat with Australia's Travis Head. Image Credit: Reuters

It is mandatory for the batters to inform the umpire before leaving his crease, but sometimes they do it based on trust. It is time to take a relook at such scenarios and view the playing conditions differently.

Ian Bell's freak dismissal

In this case the batter just walked off assuming that the ball had landed safely in the hands of the wicketkeeper and being the last ball of the over, he just left the crease to talk to his captain Ben Stokes. A grave mistake. It is again the scourge of modern day batters, who don’t lay a lot of importance to finer details. What if the wicketkeeper had let the ball? Then a chance for taking a bye is missed, something one would never witness in the past.

The argument in Bairstow’s favour is that he wasn’t trying to steal a run, nor he was backing-up too far like a non-striker to gain undue advantage. It’s an error of judgement. Mahendra Singh Dhoni recalling Ian Bell could come close to this kind of freak dismissal.

Dhoni and Bell
Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni recalled Ian Bell after a freak dismissal. Image Credit: Reuters

Blurring the lines 

Cricket has moved on and come a long way from the acrimonious past, blurring the lines between the teams. The players are more relaxed and chat during the match and one of the reasons for the bonding is the numerous franchise leagues that the star players are involved, meaning they will be sharing the dressing room at some point of time at some place on the earth. May be it was the familiarity that allowed Bairstow to let his guard down

Stokes, on a couple of occasions during his stunning counter-attack in the second innings, picked the ball and handed it over to the Australians. Had Australia appealed, he could have been given out for handling the ball, strictly going by the law. Similar instances have happened in the past and hence to change the old habit, International Cricket Council has initiated the Spirit of Cricket Award. Winning is important, but how a team wins the contest matters the most. So it is time to have the Spirit of Cricket in letter than in spirit.

What’s the future?

The spirit of cricket will continue to be cited whenever there is a controversial dismissal. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is whether it’s legal or not. And the umpire’s decision is final, even if it doesn’t please one of the two sides.

So, let’s get on with cricket.