February 23, 2012

Letter versus spirit

The Thirimanne episode at Brisbane has thrown the floodgates open again: is it all right to run out a batsman who is backing up too far? Thirimanne's captain says that there was a "bit" of a mistake from his end. Michael Clarke does not feel very happy about the mode of dismissal being allowed in the first place. Amidships passionate fans - Indians frustrated with their team's poor performance, Sri Lankans who think that the Indians are citing the episode as an excuse for the loss and neutrals who play the Devil's Advocate, cry at great lengths about sporting acts and the laws of the game - are abuzz with their comments on twitter, in blogs and in discussion forums. Similar clamouring was heard early last August after Ian Bell, who had been run out wandering out of the crease, was recalled by M.S. Dhoni after tea following a request from the England skipper Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower's appeals to the Indian team. 

The broad question that emerges from both cases is one: if something is legal in (a) sport, does it mean it is also within the spirit of sport itself? It is a difficult question to answer predominantly because (i) the letter of the law is itself subject to different interpretations (if it is not absurd, like the front-line no-ball rule or the rule that says the ball should not pitch outside leg stump for a candidate to be LBW); (ii) and even if it is not, as with the "Mankad" rule, the spirit of the game does not lend itself to an all-inclusive interpretation that is acceptable to those who administer it, referee it, play it and write about it. Seen in this light, a captain who sticks to an appeal under a general interpretation of a law is seen as being too hardy and unethical or as being very single-minded. On the other hand, a captain who revokes an appeal and recalls a batsman is labelled by his own media as attempting a PR show that might, at least in small measure, distract attention from the shoddy performance of the team on the field, or praised by a former cricketer as being among the greatest custodians of the game's spirit.

My own view of judgments that straddle the ideas - for at some level they are just that - of the spirit of the game and the legitimacy of an act tend to tilt in the former rather than the latter direction for reasons that are unclear and not important. I have always believed that while a code of conduct is necessitated by various extrinsic factors, it does not always undercut an individual's volition to act in a particular way. The two are not fated to be mutually exclusive but when they are there is conflict. An act of volition, whether a product of happenstance or brought about by the persuasion of foresight and more mature minds, may refuse to exploit a loophole in the laws of the game but embraces the spirit of the game as understood by the actor. Likewise adherence to a certain clause in a law may be a conscious transgression of all that "most people" hold sacred about a game, and yet if victory at the end of the day is all that matters - and not giving quarters is part of that single-mindedness - there is no point bringing up the spirit of the game as understood by people in general.

Unfortunately, however, both the letter of the law and the spirit of the game seem to be fast becoming just  trump cards of convenience in the hands of cricketers and media persons these days. Stuck somewhere in the mess created by fickleness fairness lets out a rather feeble cry: it seems to say, "The law seems fair only in the hands of those who wish to manipulate it. The spirit of the game on the other hand seems to be a relic that people take out of a loft when they have run out of arguments to show who is holier than who!" Whether it is sledging, excessive appealing, withdrawing an appeal, backing up too far or standing in the way of a running batsman - or a bowler following through - or playing games of "mental disintegration", events that occur in the spur of the moment on the field are later categorised, now according to the letters of the law, now according to the spirit of the game and now in the light of a mishmash of both. And we thought soap operas and reality TV were melodramatic!

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