Stealing a march

2014-06-14 00:00

THE culprit in this the latest case was a Sri Lankan off-spinner with an improbably long name who ran out England’s latest batting hero, Joss Buttler, when he backed up too far at the bowler’s end.

This has long been regarded as one of cricket’s most disreputable practices notwithstanding the fact that one of its earliest practioners was first grey eminence of English cricket, Lord Harris. When he was captain of Eton he ran out Harrow’s leading batsman in this manner at a time when the fixture was one of the highlights of the London sporting and social season.

Although the practice of running out a batsman who backs up too far before the bowler delivers the ball has always been frowned upon, it has long been thought that a batsman who disregards a warning to toe the line and is subsequently run out only has himself to blame.

This was the case in the Buttler incident that was preceded by a match at Lord’s when Buttler was one of two batsmen at the crease who ran a number of twos that had not seemed to be “on”. The Sri Lankans had been frustrated by their inability to stop these twos which were damaging their cause in a tight run chase.

The video tapes of the game revealed that the English batsmen were stealing a yard before almost every ball was bowled. In the Sri Lankan opinion, the England batsmen were cheating and they resolved to keep an eye on them in the next match that followed within days.

Their vigilance resulted in Buttler being given a warning to stop backing up too far, but the England ’keeper declined to take any notice of the implied threat. He infringed again with unfortunate consequences for both himself and his team.

I am afraid that in this case my sympathies lie with the Sri Lankans. With the warning given to Buttler they had put the ball in his court to behave himself. That he did not do so may have been due to some doziness on his part rather than a desire to pinch a yard or two, but he should have been on full alert. As far as the spirit of the game is concerned, backing up too far should be regarded as an unfair attempt to gain an edge that is undertaken in the knowledge that the fielding side are under no obligation to warn the offending batsman.

I am afraid that this latest incident is more about the changing times rather than another assault on the so-called “spirit” of the game.

In any case, the recent invocations of the “spirit of cricket” began with an initiative by the late Lord Cowdrey to perpetuate the myth that the ethics of cricket were something special in relation to other sports. As such, they were supposed to represent something about cricket that was worth making an effort to preserve.

Ironically, Cowdrey himself was one of those batsmen who developed strategic walking when he had nicked the ball into a fine art. When it did not matter greatly to either his team or himself Cowdrey would quickly tuck his bat under his arm and walk before the umpire had a chance to give him out. When, however, the outcome of an appeal was crucial, he contrived to lean on his bat with an air of offended innocence. His reputation for walking stood him in good stead in a number of tight situations.

Cowdrey died before the advent of the IPL that has done more than any other single event to shatter his dreams of a utopian world in which foul play was confined to sports other than cricket. Rife as it is with corruption of many varieties, habits cultivated during the IPL cannot be expected to remain within its confines.

Pinching a few yards while backing up is just one of the ills that have found their way from the IPL into the broader reaches of cricket. When one reflects on the minute margins that are involved in run out decisions, it is not surprising that batsmen have become habitually inclined to cheat when backing up in matches where helterskelter running between wickets has become the order of the day.

Accordingly, I have no sympathy with those batsmen like Joss Buttler who have been sent packing for backing up too far, particularly when they have just been warned for transgressing. It is sad to think it might be so, but I suspect that such dismissals will become commonplace in the years to come.

Such a thought would have appalled Chris Burger, the Springbok and Natal batsman who died last week at the age of 78. Chris was one of those schoolboy prodigies who never quite fulfilled his great promise yet in full flow he was a powerful and glorious batsman. He played many fine innings for Natal, but seemed overcome by nerves on the few occasions he played for his country. It was a great shame for he played his best cricket for Natal at a time when the national team was crying out for someone of his ability to succeed.

Chris was educated at Michaelhouse from where he was chosen to play for Natal Schools at both rugby and cricket. He retired from cricket at a comparatively early age, but retained a lifelong love for the game.

Chris was a constant presence at Kingsmead whenever the Proteas were on view. He preferred to watch these games from the Kingsmead Mynahs’ box where he enjoyed the company of his former team-mates in those great Natal teams that dominated the Currie Cup in the 1950s and 1960s.

A perfect gentleman and modest to a fault, Chris Burger will be sadly missed by all his friends and those cricketers who played with and against him.

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