The man in the centre of the storm, Rajasthan Royals' Jos Buttler seems to be a serial offender when it comes to stealing a yard or two at the non-striker's end. His run out by Ravichandran Ashwin, the Kings XI Punjab off-spinner and skipper, last Monday, in an Indian Premier League (IPL) game, has stirred up a hornet's nest for sure but the brilliant English batsman, in these sort of misdemeanours, seems to be a 'history-sheeter'. Apparently, he isn't a quick learner!
In a 2014 one-day international (ODI) against Sri Lanka, at Edgbaston, the tourists' off-spinner, Sachithra Senanayake had run him out, while he was backing up too early in the 44th over of the match. The bowler, who was suspected of bowling with a bent arm, had warned Buttler twice in his earlier over. Buttler's early dismissal that evening had helped the Lankans win the series after skipper Angelo Mathews had refused to recall the erring batsman.
The Indian off-spinner, who is already a legend with 336 Test and 150 ODI wickets under his belt, also isn't averse to pick the bails when a non-striker leaves his crease a wee bit too early. In an ODI at the SCG in 2012, he had run Sri Lanka's Lahiru Thirimanne out at the bowler's end but not before allegedly warning him a couple of times. Umpire Paul Reiffel, after consulting with his colleague, had asked skipper Virender Sehwag if he wanted to withdraw the appeal. Sehwag had agreed and Thirimanne had then gone on to help the Lankans win.
Cricket, ever the gentleman's game, has always looked down upon bowlers running out batsmen at the non-striker's end. Though it is perfectly legitimate to do so, the game's aficionados have believed that it isn't in keeping with the spirit of the game. Ashwin has therefore drawn a lot of flak, after the latest incident, from international media. And despite the fact that most Indian ex-cricketers and writers have stoutly defended Ashwin's action, and its legality, their arguments have sounded less than convincing.
In the past, two of India's greatest all-rounders have been involved in running out non-strikers who had the habit of backing up too early. The most famous one, where Vinoo Mankad sent Bill Brown packing in a Test match Down Under, in December 1947, led to the term 'Mankaded' being coined. The second incident involved Kapil Dev. In the India-South Africa 'friendship series' of 1992, which heralded the rainbow nation's return to cricket, Kapil Dev ran Peter Kirsten out at the bowler's end. In both these instances, the bowlers had warned the transgressors in earlier matches.
Many of those who have supported Ashwin's action point out to the fact that warnings aren't necessary. It is perfectly legal to pick the bails, without warning, when a batsman is backing up too early. Moreover, they argue that the batsman has an unfair advantage, when it comes to taking a quick single, if he is already half a yard down the pitch when the ball is delivered. These nippy singles and twos can, of course, be irritating, especially when the bowler is working on a plan.
Digressing from the issue for a moment, I have a few genuine queries for the experts. Virat Kohli and a few other batsmen stand a yard outside the crease to negate the effect of swing when facing fast bowlers. Are they 'assumed' to be in their crease at that time? Otherwise, when they play a shot and run for a two or three, shouldn't the umpire at square-leg declare one-short? Or is it in the 'spirit of the game' to give away one yard to the batsmen?
The law that covers run outs by bowlers at the non-striker's end has recently been amended by MCC and the onus on staying within the crease, while the ball is being delivered, now lies with the non-striker. It states: "If the non-striker is out of his/her ground at any time from the moment the ball comes into play until the instant when the bowler would normally have been expected to release the ball, the non-striker is liable to be run out." (Law 41.16).
In Buttler's case, the ball came into play when Ashwin began his run up, in all probability to deliver the ball. Nobody is challenging his intent. When he was in his normal delivery stride, the non-striker was still inside the crease. The freeze frame at the instant when the bowler pauses and turns to break the stumps clearly shows that the non-striker is still in. By this time, Buttler would believe that Ashwin 'would normally have released the ball' and therefore, he leaves the crease on reflex.
Therefore the argument against Ashwin isn't whether he had warned Buttler or whether the act wasn't in the spirit of the game. What is important is: Did Ashwin 'expect' Buttler to leave the crease before he delivered the ball as he had supposedly done in the two previous deliveries? Did the bowler, then, finding that the non-striker was still in the crease when he paused in his delivery stride, wait for a few seconds before he left the crease to pick the bails? Was that wait too long?
To those who have watched the video clip of the incident, it is apparent that the 'pause' was the reason that the third umpire should have declared Buttler not out. The non-striker was well within his rights to leave the crease at the moment the bowler would 'normally have been expected to release the ball'. Ashwin, though he delayed breaking the stumps, had no intentions of 'cheating' as some experts allege. Therefore the onus was on the third umpire to declare Buttler not out.
I wish video analysts would find out the time Ashwin takes to 'normally release the ball' once he lands on his right foot in the delivery stride. We would then know if his pause, at the point of delivery, was inordinate when he ran out Buttler. It isn't as difficult as it would sound, is it? MCC, the custodian of the 'Laws of Cricket', who had earlier supported Ashwin's action, has probably done just that and has come to the conclusion that the bowler's running out of Buttler was not in 'the spirit of the game'.
It is sad that legends like Shane Warne and others targeted Ashwin for what they termed a 'shameful act'. But the sanest tweet that I came across after the incident was that of Scott Styris, the former New Zealand all-rounder and now a commentator. He wrote: "My opinion on the Buttler/Ashwin controversy is that it's NOT Buttler's fault and it's NOT Ashwin's fault either. Ashwin is entitled to appeal. I thought the TV umpire made an incorrect decision. Should have been a dead ball ¦ play on."
The day after the incident, I was at a cricket ground, overlooking the preparation of a pitch. There were quite a few boys there playing the game with a tennis ball " the lifeline of Mumbai's cricket. One among them, while bowling, would run in and break the stumps very often and then look if the non-striker was in his crease. He was probably impressed by the way in which Buttler had been run out the previous evening. The match ended in fisticuffs.
One prominent domestic cricketer tweeted recently that running out non-strikers for backing up too early would increase in the near future. What with our experts and cricket writers endorsing it. For the sake of cricket, though and the spirit of the game, I hope not!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes that it isn't old fashioned to play sport in the right spirit.