Stretching its spirit to the limit

The run out of the last man, Muttiah Muralitharan, was identical to that of his Zimbabwean equivalent, Chris Mpofu, in the Bulawayo Test in August 2005. It clearly disregarded the first entry in the official Laws of the game, a preamble specificallydealing with its spirit, writes Tony Cozier.

THE International Cricket Council (ICC), over the past few years, has taken to deliberately including a Spirit of Cricket Award among its annual individual honours list. It goes to the full member team which, in the opinion of the elite panel of umpires and match referees and the 10 Test captains, "has best conducted itself on the field within the spirit of the game".

Its obvious purpose is to try to retain the values that led to the universal phrase, "it's not cricket", in reference to dubious practice. Two years ago, that team was New Zealand. Presumably concerned that such a tribute labelled them as anachronistic soft touches in an age of hard-nosed professionalism, it is an attribute they seemingly no longer hold dear.

For the second time in 18 months, their new attitude was revealed with a dismissal in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Christchurch that, while within the law, certainly stretched its spirit to the limit.

The run out of the last man, Muttiah Muralitharan, was identical to that of his Zimbabwean equivalent, Chris Mpofu, in the Bulawayo Test in August 2005. It clearly disregarded the first entry in the official Laws of the game, a preamble specifically dealing with its spirit. This states: "Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself."

Both Muralitharan and Mpofu were run out when they innocently left their crease to congratulate their partners on the landmark they had reached on the completion of a run — Kumar Sangakkara's phenomenal 100 in the former case, Blessing Mahwire's 50 in the latter. As the ball was being thrown from the outfield each time, and thus still "alive", wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum took advantage of his opponents' negligence, and their trust in their fellow cricketers' sense of fair play, to break the stumps as each moved to join his celebrating partner at the opposite end.

Even as Muralitharan was heading out of his ground, Brian Jerling, the square-leg umpire, was shown on television replays motioning him to get back. But, by the letter of the law, both Muralitharan and Mpofu were out and the umpires had no option but to administer it. It is the kind of cunning that triggers explosive reactions among passionate home crowds. It is not difficult to imagine the response in Port-of-Spain, Kolkatta or Melbourne.

At the Jade Stadium, it was an opposing team's last man and there were barely 1,000 spectators occupying 37,000 seats at the time. The heated, contrasting opinions that inevitably followed were aired in post-match interviews, in the New Zealand media and, perhaps, within the walls of the ICC offices in Dubai.

According to Law 1, "the captains are responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the Spirit of the Game as well as within the Law." New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming had the authority to cancel the appeal and reinstate Muralitharan. But he maintained that he was "more than comfortable" with the manner of the dismissal, as he no doubt was with Mpofu's as well. "It's not about sportsmanship or the spirit of the game," he stated. "It's purely a cricketing decision based on a lapse from Muralitharan."

It was presumptuous of Fleming to then contend that, had Chris Martin's throw from fine-leg gone awry, the Sri Lankans would probably have scrambled an additional run to regain Sangakkara the strike in a burgeoning last-wicket partnership in a low-scoring match.

Indeed, as Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene noted afterwards, Sangakkara, then keeping wicket, had reprieved Nathan Astle when he lingered out of his ground with the ball still in play during the Champions Trophy in India in October. "We play in an age where there is sportsmanship and (the) spirit of the game," Jayawardene said. "We play in that kind of spirit. We wouldn't have done it, full stop". All the same, Fleming's hypothesis was reflective of the cynicism of modern players when so much is at stake. Fleming, McCullum, Martin Snedden, the chief executive of New Zealand Cricket, and, apparently, the entire New Zealand team saw no connection between the letter and the spirit of the law in this case.

Asked for the reactions of his teammates, McCullum replied: "We were pretty collective on the front that it was an opportunity for a wicket. We didn't even contemplate the spirit of cricket side of things". Snedden's take was that there was "no issue at all about the spirit of cricket as the ball was still alive". New Zealanders still rankle about the underarm delivery by Australia's Trevor Chappell, on instructions of his captain, brother Greg, to avoid a last-ball defeat in a one-day international in Melbourne almost quarter-century ago. That, too, was within the law at the time but clearly not within the spirit, as New Zealanders are quick to point out. Yet Snedden said the two could not be compared. He did not elaborate.

The main editorial in the New Zealand Herald, the country's leading daily newspaper, left no doubt where it stood on the issue. "Cricket, more than any other game, sets great store on sportsmanship," it stated. "Not for nothing did the phrase `it's not cricket' become part of common parlance. What it suggests is that playing the game involves more than a knowledge of the rule book." It noted that the issue was "all about player conduct".

"It is about making snap decisions," the Herald added. "Even after Brendon McCullum erred by taking off the bails, New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming could have called Muralitharan back. He chose not to."

Two contrasting views in the Sunday Star-Times summed up the split among New Zealand's cricket public. "Until yesterday I held to the quaint notion cricket was a game with a strict moral code," Greg Ford wrote.

"Cricketers, by and large, were men with principles. And I believed I wasn't alone in my views."

"Sportsmen are among the most trusted people in New Zealand," Ford added. "In one fell swoop you dragged down the game, your team-mates and the reputation of New Zealand as a sporting nation."

His sports editor, Michael Donaldson, had no such qualms. He blamed Muralitharan. "Muttiah Muralitharan was a fool," he charged. "He more than anyone knows that cricket is a ruthless game for professionals hell-bent on winning and you cannot give anybody an inch lest they run you out by a mile."

Former New Zealand wicketkeeper Ian Smith, now the foremost television commentator here, suggested that such issues could be diffused by more common sense umpiring. "At moments like this and in the spirit of the game, wouldn't it be better if umpires stepped in and asked captains: `Are you really keen to keep this appeal going? Is your appeal to have that man run out serious?' ", he wrote.

"That would put it back on the captains." For those defending McCullum's action, Geoff Longley posed a significant question. "It is interesting to speculate what the reaction would have been if the roles had been reversed," he wondered in the Press of Christchurch. It was a question that needed no response for the answer was obvious — and embarrassing.

THE SCORES

Jade Stadium, Christchurch, December 7,8,9. New Zealand won by five wickets.

Sri Lanka 1st innings: U. Tharanga c How b Franklin 33; T. Jayasuriya c Fleming b Bond 5; C. Sangakkara c Sinclair b Bond 4; M. D. Jayawardene c Franklin b Bond 8; K. Kapugedera lbw b Franklin 37; P. C. Silva b Franklin 0; H. W Jayawardene c How b Martin 7; C. Vaas c McCullum b Oram 4; M. F. Maharoof c Fleming b Oram 15; S. L. Malinga (not out) 7; M. Muralitharan c Astle b Martin 14; Extras (lb 13, w 1, nb 6) 20; Total 154.

Fall of wkts: 1-11, 2-17, 3-37, 4-87, 5-87, 6-106, 7-110, 8-121, 9-132.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 13-2-43-3; Martin 16.4-2-37-2; Franklin 12-0-30-3; Oram 10-5-30-2; Astle 1-0-1-0.

New Zealand 1st innings: C. D. Cumming b Muralitharan 43; J. M. How lbw b Malinga 0; M. S. Sinclair c H. W. Jayawardene b Vaas 36; S. P. Fleming c Kapugedera b Maharoof 48; N. J. Astle lbw b Muralitharan 2; J.P. Oram c Silva b Vaas 1; B. B. McCullum b Vaas 0; D. L. Vettori c M. D. Jayawardene b Malinga 63; J. C. Franklin lbw b Muralitharan 0; S. E. Bond lbw b Muralitharan 1; C. S. Martin (not out) 0; Extras (lb 5, nb 7) 12; Total 206.

Fall of wkts: 1-3, 2-73, 3-106, 4-108, 5-113, 6-113, 7-188, 8-190, 9-206.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 18-4-49-3; Malinga 19.4-2-43-2; Maharoof 14-3-44-1; Muralitharan 34-7-65-4.

Sri Lanka 2nd innings: W. U. Tharanga c Fleming b Bond 24; S. T. Jayasuriya (run out) 10; K. C. Sangakkara (not out) 100; M. D. Jayawardene c Fleming b Franklin 0; C. K. Kapugedera c Oram b Bond 1; L. C. Silva c Vettori b Bond 0; H. W. Jayawardene (run out) 11; C. Vaas c McCullum b Oram 0; M. F. Maharoof c McCullum b Bond 7; S. L. Malinga c McCullum b Franklin 0; M. Muralitharan (run out - Martin/McCullum) 8; Extras (lb 5, nb 4) 9; Total 170.

Fall of wkts: 1-18, 2-44, 3-45, 4-46, 5-46 , 6-74, 7-80, 8-99, 9-143.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 19.1-5-63-4; Martin 11-2-38-0; Franklin 13-1-34-2; Oram 7-1-19-1; Vettori 2-0-10-0; Astle 1-0-1-0.

New Zealand 2nd innings: C. D. Cumming c H. W. Jayawardene b Vaas 43; J. M. How lbw b Muralitharan 11; M. S. Sinclair c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 4; S. P. Fleming lbw b Vaas 0; N. J. Astle lbw b Muralitharan 24; J. P. Oram (not out) 12; B. B. McCullum (not out) 14; Extras (b 1, lb 1, w 5, nb 4) 11; Total (for five wickets) 119.

Fall of wkts: 1-58, 2-66, 3-66, 4-68, 5-103.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 12-3-33-2; Malinga 4-1-35-0; Muralitharan 14-5-34-3; Maharoof 3-0-15-0.