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Mankading, it's just not cricket

The MCC first agreed, then disagreed, with the dismisssal of Jos Buttler that sparked furious debate. Photo/Getty Images

The Indian Premier League’s first mankading case has exercised the cricketing gods.

In the 1964 US Supreme Court decision Jacobellis v Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he wouldn’t attempt to define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”.

Like most of his colleagues, Stewart decided pornography was nowhere to be found in the work in question, Louis Malle’s 1958 film The Lovers. Given The Lovers had won the Special Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival, the fact that it wasn’t pornography was presumably evident to most people outside the American Midwest.

Although Stewart was applauded by some for bringing common sense to bear, others questioned whether a legal ruling should be made on the basis of one’s personal reaction. Sport often has similar debates when the “spirit of the game” is evoked or comes into conflict with the game’s laws.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

In cricket, “mankading” – after Vinoo Mankad, an Indian all-rounder of the 1940s and 50s – occurs when the batter at the non-striker’s end leaves the crease before the bowler has released the ball and the bowler, rather than going through with the delivery, removes the bails, thereby effecting a run-out.

Although mankading is within the laws, it has traditionally been regarded as not in the spirit of the game, particularly if the bowler hasn’t forewarned the batter that they’re putting themselves at risk. However, the growth of short-form cricket prompted a partial rethink, with some arguing that, in an era of increasingly aggressive running between wickets and in formats in which every run counts, batters were exploiting the spirt of the game to give themselves a head start.

Hence, in 2017, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the custodian of the game’s laws, tweaked this particular law to emphasise “the importance of the non-striker remaining in their ground until the ball is released”.

Nevertheless, furious debate ensued when Englishman Jos Buttler recently became the first player to be mankaded in 12 seasons of the Indian Premier League. One of the best limited-overs batsmen in the game, Buttler had made 69 off 43 balls and was steering the Rajasthan Royals to a comfortable victory when he was mankaded by the Kings XI Punjab captain and Indian spinner Ravi Ashwin. The Royals promptly collapsed, losing seven wickets in quick succession, and ended up losing by 14 runs.

Angry words were exchanged on the field and in the media between those who believed Ashwin had violated the spirit of the game and those who insisted the law is the law is the law.

An unapologetic Ashwin went further, effectively dismissing the very notion of the spirit of the game: “I don’t understand the point of sporting spirit, because it’s within the rules.” That drew a sharp rebuke from the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which labelled the practice “shady … akin to back-stabbing” and warned Ashwin to keep both the spirit and the laws of the game in mind.

The critical component in this grey area is surely intent: did the bowler approach the wicket fully intending to send down a delivery or was he looking for an opportunity to mankad? Was the batter seeking an unfair advantage or did he just get his timing wrong? Although Ashwin claimed his act was “pretty instinctive”, slow-motion footage suggests premeditation on his part and absent-mindedness, rather than nefarious intent, on Buttler’s.

And although the controversy involved a clash between the laws and the spirit of the game, it would have been defused had the law been correctly applied. After initially declaring that Buttler had no one to blame but himself, the MCC did a U-turn: “We believe the pause was too long between the time Ashwin reached the crease and the moment it was reasonable to expect the ball to be delivered. When Buttler could have reasonably expected the ball to be delivered, he was in his ground.” Therefore, he should have been given not out.

Oh, and by the way, “after further reflection, we don’t think it was within the spirit of the game”.

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.