Of Angels, Demons & Spirits

Mankad

Spirit schmirit. It’s the law, is it not?

To paraphrase Meatloaf, stop right there, I need to know right now…before you go any further, do you expect this post to pontificate and decide whether what the West Indian bowler did today on the last ball of their U19 World Cup game against Zimbabwe right? If yes, I am sorry to disappoint you. This post will not dwell on that, though it has been triggered by the reactions that incident solicited.

Those reactions have been seen before – during Jos Buttler’s dismissal, during the Ian Bell incident, for Inzamam Ul Haq, and even during Underarmgate. To cite a different sport, something similar happened in Game 3 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. A friend of mine and fellow blogger wrote this piece about how the spirit of cricket is nonsense and should be done away with. His anger is not directed at the idea that people in a competitive arena can be sometimes (and are often) touched by the better angels of their nature and do what ‘feels right.’ His anger is directed at the hypocrisy every such event exposes where self professed defenders of the ‘spirit of the game’ go all righteous about something that is not illegal as per the laws that govern the game. My friend should know. He is a lawyer.

But that’s another thing about laws – ever since they have existed in any sphere in life, there has been an eternal battle between the letter of the law and its spirit. Everyone sneers at those who exploit a loophole in a law for their advantage but is quick to rush to do so themselves if given the opportunity. But isn’t every bit of incremental advantage important when you are in a high stakes competition? The idea of ‘spirit’ exists in this grey zone between what’s legal and what’s not which is why it is hard to judge a violation  of it or even more fundamentally, it’s very existence.

Sports, as a human endeavor, has mixed history in terms of whether it is a tool that builds character or one that merely reveals our true self. In 1987 when Courtney Walsh refused to Mankad Pakistan No. 11 Saleem Jaffar, he was hailed precisely because we did not expect him to do that. With 2 to win for Pakistan off the last ball and a semi final place at stake, we expected him to take that incremental advantage that was available to him. Maradona punching the ball in against England in 1986 did that.

There are many laws across sports where they are open to interpretation and consequently potential abuse. There is a rule in tennis about time taken by players between points but umpires are often discretionary about it considering the flow of the game. When Novak Djokovic became notorious for overshooting those lax time limits in the name of bouncing the ball a gazillion times before serving, they did intervene. Golf too relies on such generous interpretations at times. As Mark Twain once put it ‘It’s good sportsmanship to not pick up lost golf balls while they are still rolling.’ As long as there is room for interpretation the question about whether or not spirit should play a role will never be settled.

I had gone to an exhibition at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne in 2005 called ‘Angels or Demons: The choice of fair play’. It looked at why people cheat in sport and what such behavior tells us about ourselves. I remember a line I had seen there – “Over the centuries, demons and angels alike have lost their independent reality. They have become powers inherent to the person, a symbol of his or her quest for perfection or of personal weaknesses.” The impression I came away with was that it ultimately was myriad factors that inclined someone to act one way or another where the rule left either real or perceived room for interpretation. Things are even more complex for context based individual situations like today’s.

That is precisely why now is not the time to have a debate about the spirit of cricket (or any other sport for that matter) by precipitating the whole debate on this one instance where a teenage kid did something perfectly within the rules during a high pressure situation. And like Lincoln had said in his inaugural address, we can always hold up hope that in the long run we can be touched in the sports arena or outside, by the better angels of our nature. Like Nicholas Hogg wrote on Cricinfo a while back – “Like religion, the Spirit of Cricket is a concept universally understood but not universally practised.” And those exceptions like a Courtney Walsh lend the appeal that the idea has.

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