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Not cricket? Law, convention, ethics, and that run-out

Sporting contests are philosophically interesting, as well as enjoyable, because sports and games are full of rules and conventions, which inevitably raise issues of interpretation and give rise to passion about ethics and the spirit of the game. The recent run-out of English batsman, Jos Buttler by the Sri Lankan bowler, Sachithra Senanayake in the deciding one-day international match is a case in point. Buttler was run out at the non-striker’s end by the bowler almost in his delivery stride after Buttler had backed up too far The anger, complaint and tutt-tutting in the English media, amounted to a sort of slightly stifled outrage (if that is a possible condition). But there is general agreement that Senanayake did nothing against the laws (rules) of the game, so for those shocked by the run out, there is recourse to such things as violating the spirit of cricket, ungentlemanly behaviour, and the ethics of the matter. (For an interesting discussion of this and other examples of legal but improper behaviour in cricket, such as not “walking” when you know you are “out”, see Samir Chopra and David Coady, “Not Cricket” in Sport in Society: Culture, Commerce, Media, Politics, 2007.)

To be clear on the law, Law 42.11 from the International Cricket Council’s playing regulations for international cricket states that “the bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to attempt to run out the non-striker”.

This could hardly be clearer, so the current debate implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that there is a difference between law and morality, or, less grandly perhaps, the rules and the ethos of an activity. So, it is worth looking more closely at what happened. According to newspaper reports, Buttler had already twice been warned by the bowler when out of his crease as the bowler was about to enter his delivery stride. In spite of this he was well down the pitch when Senanayake broke the bails and appealed. The umpire asked the Sri Lankan captain, Angelo Matthews whether he wanted to withdraw the appeal and he declined to do so. The batsman trudged unhappily from the field, and after the match Alastair Cook, the England captain, when shaking hands with the victorious captain, apparently delivered angry words about the incident.

The first thing to say is that the run out testifies either to the batsman’s stupidity or his contempt for the bowler’s manifest intentions. Neither of these are admirable characteristics, and hardly put Buttler or the English team in a strong position to vent indignation at their opponents. That they did so is explained by the belief that, though within the law, the dismissal violated either a convention, an ethical norm, or the spirit of the game.

If there is a firm ethical constraint, it most plausibly would turn on whether there is a convention in place to rule out such behaviour, since the existence of a convention relies upon well-grounded mutual expectations that if one party conforms so will others. As the philosopher David Lewis argued in his book Convention, such agreement can be created without explicit declaration of rules and can be a significant part of normative control in social settings. Violation of such well-grounded convention could amount to unethical behaviour. But is there such a convention against the run out in question? And, if so, is it well-grounded?

It is debatable whether there is such a convention, but it is even more doubtful whether it is well-grounded. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the convention exists requiring an explicit rule or law to be ignored. There certainly are conventions that dictate that a rule or law should not apply in certain circumstances. Some laws remain on the statute book long after they have ceased to make sense and people (including police and lawyers) wisely agree to ignore them. An example would be bathing regulations about the sort of clothing appropriate for swimming on public beaches which still required neck to knee (or ankle) covering long after standards of modesty and decorum had changed. But is Law 42.11 such a law?

The answer to this is, I think, palpably no. The law exists to deter and penalise non-facing batsmen who cheat by getting themselves into a position to run less than the required distance to the other end when they are in a position to see that the facing batsman has struck the ball in such a way that a quick single is possible or to respond to a call to do so. As no less an authority than Don Bradman put it:

Some cricket commentators remarked that such flouting of the law (or resort to the convention) is now so common that allowing bowlers to run out the non-striker a la Senanayake would cause chaos. This seems unlikely, but temporary disruption is a small price to pay for stopping such widespread disregard of a reasonable law. No less an authority than Sir Donald Bradman in his autobiography Farewell to Cricket in commenting on the controversy around Indian bowler Vinoo Mankad’s similar run-out of the Australian opening batsman Bill Brown in a 1947 Test match said:

“By backing up too far or too early the non-striker is very obviously gaining an unfair advantage. On numerous occasions he may avoid being run out at the opposite end by gaining this false start……he (Mankad) was scrupulously fair that he first of all warned Brown before taking any action. There was absolutely no feeling in the matter as far as we were concerned, for we considered it quite a legitimate part of the game.”

Defenders of the widespread flouting of this explicit law can argue that sometimes a non-striking batsman can unintentionally move slightly beyond his crease thinking that the bowler has just delivered the ball when he hasn’t quite. I don’t know how serious this claim is; after all, Bradman also pointedly remarked: ”I always make it a practice when occupying the position of a non-striker to keep my bat behind the crease until I see the ball in the air. In that way one cannot possibly be run out, and I commend this practice to other players.”

Nevertheless, if we want to guard against this risk then what does seem an existing convention for Mankading (as it became called after the Indian bowler made something of a habit of it) which should do the job. This is the convention of giving an offending batsman a warning the first time he strays over the crease line. Senanayake conformed to this convention, indeed rather overdid it, by warning Buttler twice for his repeated offence. As Vic Marks in The Guardian rightly remarked: “What else what he supposed to do?”

The English cricketers and their indignant supporters should just get over it.

Tony Coady is a Professorial Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and an Honorary Fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I agree with the last line “The English cricketers and their indignant supporters should just get over it”. But what the incident reveals, at least to me, is a touch of an old imperialistic attitude where England of course is the last bastion of fair play.

    Tony Coady may recall the 2005 Ashes tour when England systematically used an outstanding fielder (the super-sub Gary Pratt) as regular and frequent substitute. Pratt then made an important contribution to the outcome of the 2005 series by running out Ponting for 48. At the time, Pratt had been on field for a genuine reason but there had been several other cases where it was widely agreed that the substitution was gratuitous.

    The ethics of the use of Pratt were questioned but were lost in the euphoria of the Ashes victory and were certainly not part of the media story in the way of the recent event. Clearly, when a team loses there is a need to find excuses but I still can’t ignore the niggling feeling that the real story here is not the ethics but it is another elephant.


  2. As I have always understood Mankading since I was a kid, it is only unsporting if no warning is given, exactly as Tony says. The run out was perfectly sporting in this case – it was Buttler’s continued attempts to cheat which were not.

  3. Tony Coady wrote: “The English cricketers and their indignant supporters should just get over it.”

    Completely agree. There’s a norm around warnings, which Senanayake observed (more than once). Other than that, Mankading remains an option for exactly the same reason the pick-off is an option is baseball – because the batting team make their job simpler if they shorten the regulated distance they need to run before the fielding team do their thing with the ball. Making Mankading (or pick-offs) illegal would unbalance the game. [By making pretty much any ball hit behind square a run, in the cricket case.] Have to disagree slightly with Bir Singh about this being analogous to having super-good fielders on as subs. That strikes me as more general gamesmanship.* Mankading is necessary for a specific reason to do with game balance.

    Note that 75% of the observed instances of Mankading in test cricket have involved Australians. Just thought I’d mention that.

    *Ponting still made the choice to chance the fielder’s arm…

  4. Thanks, Tony. I do agree with you, of course. But are you criticizing Senanayake for giving a second warning? (That wouldn’t be unreasonable, since as you say there is a good reason for the rule and its application.) I suspect not — you’d say he was being decent. But then the English view might be that decency requires three rather than two warnings!

  5. A few brief comments on the responses to my blog on the cricket.
    (1) Roger, I wasn’t criticizing Senanayake forgiving a second warning though I don’t think he really had to go that far. I think he probably acted prudently in the circumstances since he probably knew that there would be an uproar if he ran out Buttler, and having given two warnings might reduce the uproar and perhaps it did, somewhat.
    (2) On the ethics of substituting super fielders, I think the matter turns not upon how good the fielder is, but whether it was legitimate to substitute at all in the circumstances. As I understand it, the laws of cricket only allow for substitutes in Test matches if the player substituted for has been injured or is ill. What happened in the 2005 series (and elsewhere) was that on some occasions it seemed that bowlers simply went off for extended periods when a bit tired or if they wanted a toilet break. Umpires allowed this when they shouldn’t have. In the Ponting case, Bir may be right that the superfielder was a legitimate replacement–I can’t recall the details.
    (3) I’m not sure about Bir’s claim about imperialism. One factor in the degree of English indignation may have been the belief that Senanayake’s bowling action is suspect so that there was some resentment about him already in play.
    (4) Dave’s comment about Australians is interesting. Were the Aussies involved in that 75 % Mankaded or Mankading?

  6. Fantastic article. Wonder what C.L.R. James would have to say on this particular matter of rules v. ethos. Note: there are two paragraphs introducing Bradman’s remarks; though worded differently, presumably only one is required?

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