Monday, 1 August 2011

The Ian Bell incident and the 'spirit of cricket'

I’ve already written a little bit about the position of ethics in sport. About a year ago, I contrasted the football and cycling communities’ reactions to moral dilemmas faced by sportsmen in their field. While nobody raised an eyebrow at German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s refusal to admit he had seen the ball cross his goal line in the World Cup match against England, cycling was shocked by Alberto Contador’s willingness to profit from a rival’s slipped bike chain in the Tour de France.

Both incidents were similar in that they tested the limits of what kind of behaviour is acceptable in pursuit of victory. However, reflecting on the controversy at Trent Bridge yesterday, I now see that there is a significant difference between them.

Neuer’s action was worse than Contador’s because he was complicit in the misapplication of the rules of football. From a formal, legalistic perspective, England were wronged by his actions, since they were denied a legitimate goal. By contrast, in the Contador incident, no rules were broken, and nobody was disadvantaged according to the letter of the law. Rather, it was the more vague ‘spirit of the game’ that had been violated.

In this sense, Contador’s dilemma was rather like M.S. Dhoni’s yesterday. The Indian cricket captain was at the centre of a bizarre episode when his team ran out the English batsman Ian Bell as he walked off, thinking play had ended for tea. India, like Contador, had received what was perceived to be an unfair advantage within the rules of the game. However, Dhoni, unlike Contador, was willing to forfeit this advantage, withdrawing his appeal.

Most people seem to agree that there would have been something wrong about exploiting the Ian Bell incident, and I share the intuition that Dhoni was right to make the decision he made. But what exactly would have been unfair about it?

One possibility is that it is about luck. Bell suffered a freakish stroke of misfortune, and it would have been wrong to profit from it. The ‘spirit of the game’ of cricket demands that teams seek to win in ‘the right way’. That is, by virtue of their superior skill and not as a result of brute luck. Perhaps what troubles us about the Ian Bell incident is that the Indian team failed to dismiss him as a result of their own efforts, and so to get him out as the result of a fluke would have been a hollow victory.

The idea that there is something problematic about gaining a lucky advantage is common to a number of sports. Convention dictates that snooker players should apologise for flukes, and tennis players should say sorry when they benefit from deflections off the net. But of course, in neither sport would the points actually be forfeited, meaning that the apologies often look like meaningless formalities.

In any case, the eradication of luck from sport is both impossibled and undesirable. A huge part of the unpredictability of sport which makes it worth watching sport in the first place is down to the randomness of the ‘run of the ball(s)’. There are so many variables that determine the result of a sporting contest that they could never all be neutralised. Why is capitalising on the Bell incident any worse than taking advantage of winning the coin toss, or helpful weather conditions, which India also did over the course of same the match?

In any case, it is a mistake to chalk the Ian Bell incident up purely to luck. Whether or not it was right to exploit it, Bell - as he himself acknowledges - made a mistake. Young sportsmen are regularly told to ‘play to the whistle’: to maintain full intensity until there is a confirmed break in play. Bell should not have assumed that play was over until it was confirmed by the umpire: he suffered from a culpable lapse in concentration.

Perhaps the problem with the Bell dismissal was the element of deception involved. India got Bell out because they acted as though the ball was dead, and so convinced Bell that it was not in play. However, it seems unlikely that India were actually trying to mislead Bell, rather than just failing to alert him to his error. It is surely demanding too much to expect cricketers to warn their opponents before they make a mistake like Bell’s.

Then again, there is a precedent for such a system of warning in cricket. It is generally agreed that it is against the spirit of the game to ‘Mankad’ a batsman – to run them out if they back up too far – without prior warning. However, there is ample opportunity to warn someone you are about to ‘Mankad’ someone, as this occurs in the middle of a natural break in the game. The Bell incident occurred while the game was in full flow, so it is far from clear how or when it would have been appropriate to tip Bell off.

Moreover, deception is often an essential part of sporting tactics. If misleading your opponent is cheating, this renders a large number of strategies unfair. Maybe it’s that deception about tactics and mental states are legitimate, but about the state of the game are unfair?

I still have the sense that Dhoni was right to call Bell back to the crease. But the difficulty I’m having in pinning down why suggests that it is far from clear what exactly the ‘spirit of cricket’ requires and why.

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