Umpire Marais Erasmus makes a late dead-ball call as Kevin Pietersen backs away

The killer: without an umpire's signal, it's hard to determine when exactly a ball is presumed to be dead by everyone on the field

© Getty Images

Analysis

Ambiguity in death

When exactly is a ball dead? Five recent instances that show the laws are unclear and the umpires indecisive

Russell Degnan |

Controversies over dismissals generally fall into two areas. Those in which what happened is disputed but the law is clear, and those where what happened is plain to see but the law is open to interpretation. It is the second that is the more interesting, or at least, the most amenable to a non-partisan discussion.

An outside observer might wonder why laws with a written history dating back 348 years are still open to dispute. On this point they would join a long lineage of writers who queried the same thing. Charles Box's 1868 book, The Theory and Practice of Cricket contains an illuminating account of the development and interpretation of the laws up to that time. He was scathing of their ambiguities, stating: "The whole code of laws might be reconstructed to advantage, as nowadays there is very much in cricket for which the laws afford neither direction nor control."

The laws pertaining to dead balls are perversely fine examples of this problem. Many recent controversies, in which the nebulous "spirit of cricket" has been cited, are also issues of legal uncertainty. What the framers of the law may have intended has often been insufficiently clear, making it hard to distinguish between a legally permissible dismissal and a dead ball.

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England v India, Trent Bridge, 2011
Last ball before tea on day three. Eoin Morgan glances it to square leg where Praveen Kumar tries to stop a four. The batsmen run three. Ian Bell, observing the fielder in no hurry, turns for the pavilion. The slips begin to walk off. MS Dhoni moves from behind the stumps to a position about ten metres closer to the fielder to catch the throw. It arrives, 14 seconds after the fielding attempt, and is relayed to Abhinav Mukund, who breaks the stumps.

Much of the discussion focused on what came after: Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss requesting the Indian team, in the tea interval, to recall Bell. If the dismissal attempt was "unfair", however, it was because the ball appeared dead, and that is a matter of the law:

23.1b) The ball shall be considered to be dead when it is clear to the bowler's end umpire that the fielding side and both batsmen at the wicket have ceased to regard it as in play.

This particular clause of law 23 was only introduced in 2000 to resolve a long-standing hole in the dead-ball law. Under previous versions, a ball was only dead if it had been returned to the bowler or wicketkeeper. Several controversial dismissals resulted from this confusion. The opportunistic "run-out while gardening" dismissals of Sammy Jones by WG Grace in 1882 and Rodney Hogg by Javed Miandad in Melbourne in 1979; the handled-the-ball dismissal of Andrew Hilditch in the same Australia-Pakistan series, and the Alvin Kallicharran run-out by Tony Greig that, like Bell's, was overturned after being given out. In each instance, the ball may have been considered dead under the modern law but they would have been open to an unusual degree of interpretation.

As Miracle Max stated in The Princess Bride, "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive"

In the Greig-Kallicharran run-out, every player bar Greig and the umpire Douglas Sang Hue were turning to leave the field while wicketkeeper Alan Knott dislodged the bails nearly as soon as the ball had hit the ground from the defensive shot of Bernard Julien. Most assumed that the day's play was done, though the umpire had yet to call time. Only one player, Greig, appeared to regard the ball as still alive, and he ran Kallicharran out at the bowler's end. Here, and in the Bell case, an argument could be made that the ball was thought to have been dead by most of the players. Yet as Miracle Max stated in The Princess Bride, "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive."

This uncertainty has had an effect on the general habits of modern batsmen. They can regularly be seen motioning their wish to leave the crease, even if it is not clear whether they are looking at the umpire to ascertain that the play is dead or to ask the opposition for consent. Nor is it clear whether consent has been given, or is even required when the play is clearly over.

The law makes no provision for ambiguity in death. But it does allow ambiguity in the moral outcome, as while both Bell and Kallicharran were initially given out, they were later reinstated. The reason for the reinstatement in each case was the morally correct application of the spirit of cricket, which supposedly ran counter to the formal application of the law.

Was it unfair of India to have run out Ian Bell for walking out of the crease before tea was called at Trent Bridge in 2011?

Was it unfair of India to have run out Ian Bell for walking out of the crease before tea was called at Trent Bridge in 2011? © Getty Images

Law 23.1b requires only that the umpire perceives that both teams no longer believe the ball to be in play. The ambiguity on how that clarity is arrived at creates a situation where the formal and moral cases run in parallel. Neither the umpires, who asked three times whether the Indian team wished to appeal, nor a majority of the players felt that the Bell dismissal was within the spirit of the game. The reluctance to officiate on the run-out raises the question of why the ball was not deemed dead in the first place.

This too, may have historical roots. In The Willow Wand, Derek Birley traces the willingness to tolerate ambiguity in the law to cricket's upper-class origins. The umpires, as social inferiors to the lords (and later captains), are decision-makers, but the right of appeal rests with the captain. In times of moral uncertainty, most notably after mankading attempts, the umpires question not the decision but the appeal. It is, in many ways, a callow position. To rule a ball dead means taking a stance on the law, one that could be criticised. To procrastinate and rest a moral obligation on the shoulders of the captain is to abrogate the responsibility to others.

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Sri Lanka v Australia, Colombo, 2016
Nathan Lyon bowls to Dimuth Karunaratne. It pitches short of a length and turns sharply past the bat to Peter Nevill, who waits. Karunaratne's back toe is behind the crease. Two seconds pass. He lifts his foot slightly and Nevill takes the bails off.

A batsman who wanders out of his crease can hardly complain if he is stumped, and few were willing to condemn Nevill. Yet a reading of the first clause of the dead-ball law lends weight to an argument that Karunaratne might have been hard done by.

23.1a) The ball becomes dead when (i) it is finally settled in the hands of the wicket-keeper or of the bowler.

The key ambiguity is over the definition of the term "finally settled". The notes to the law, now contained in law 23.2 are entirely circular, stating that "[w]hether the ball is finally settled or not is a matter for the umpire alone to decide".

An outside observer might wonder why laws with a written history dating back 348 years are still open to dispute

While the wording of many laws has changed substantially since Box critiqued them in 1868, the term "finally settled" has not changed at all. Unsurprisingly, in the era shortly to be owned by a notorious gamesman in WG Grace, the words are designed to curb the excesses of the wicketkeeper. In Box's words:

The ruse frequently adopted by very acute wicket keepers of holding the ball to catch less experienced hitters off his guard, has long been denounced as a contemptible experiment. "Finally settled" is when the wicket keeper has taken the ball, and the batsman is within the limits of the popping crease. It is the duty of the wicket keeper to return the ball immediately."

Box is not unduly influenced by the spirit of cricket but it is clear from his statement that, 150 years ago, the type of stumping Nevill performed was frowned upon, and that the law was designed to prevent it. The ambiguity in its modern meaning raises the question of whether law 23.1a-i should be clarified to explicitly reject waiting for the batsman to step out, or merely removed. If the lack of sympathy for Karunaratne is any indication of prevalent opinion, then the latter is probably the best option.

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Hong Kong v Oman, Fatullah, 2016
Aamir Kaleem is bowling around the wicket. As his front foot lands and his arm moves above his shoulder, the non-striker, Mark Chapman, is in his crease. Kaleem aborts his action, turns, and throws down the stumps as the umpire begins to signal dead ball.

Not-so-safe hands: Peter Nevill's decision to wait a couple of seconds after collecting the ball to stump Dimuth Karunaratne, in fact, goes against the letter of the law

Not-so-safe hands: Peter Nevill's decision to wait a couple of seconds after collecting the ball to stump Dimuth Karunaratne, in fact, goes against the letter of the law © Getty Images

Even in Box's day the removal of a non-striker attracted controversy. There are at least four moral positions that can be taken:

  • at one extreme is the belief that any mankading falls outside the spirit of cricket;
  • at the other extreme, that any batsman out of his crease should be dismissed;
  • in the middle lie two beliefs: ◦ that a run-out is acceptable, provided the batsman has been warned; ◦ that any run-out is acceptable providing the bowler has not pretended to bowl in order to draw the non-striker out of the crease.

Arguably only the last of these is concerned with gamesmanship. If the bowler is not attempting to draw the non-striker out of his crease, then it is the batsman taking advantage and putting himself at risk. Pretending to bowl while actually trying to run the non-striker out, dates to Box's day. He referred to it as "childish, and utterly unworthy of the noble character of cricket", but it was only recently that it became harder to effect.

42.15 The bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to deliberately attempt to run out the non-striker.

This law has undergone several recent revisions. Until recently the MCC used the term "delivery stride", which was both unambiguous and made it nearly impossible to pretend to bowl. However, in the belief that batsmen were taking undue liberties in their backing up, the ICC changed their playing conditions in 2011 to refer to the "delivery swing" of the bowler, and the MCC code has followed suit. Unfortunately the change has brought plenty of ambiguity.

To rule a ball dead means taking a stance on the law. To procrastinate and rest a moral obligation on the shoulders of the captain is to abrogate the responsibility to others

In the mankad of Chapman it is unclear if Kaleem went through with his delivery swing, as he aborted it somewhere at the level of his shoulder, yet still brought his arm through. In doing so, he again raised the problem of a ball that might be called dead, but which the law is ambiguous to judge on. The ICC, in trying to deprive batsmen of a relatively minuscule amount of time to back up, have created a problem that will only get worse with the rampant liberties being taken by non-strikers.

In many ways the modern laws for running out the non-striker are incongruous. While officially the ball is alive once a bowler begins his run-up, a batsman may not run (42.16), a fielder may not change his position (41.7) or talk (42.4), and the bowler is limited to running out the non-striker until such time as he releases the ball. While earlier versions of the law made no distinction between a run-out attempt of the non-striker and a normal run-out, the modern law is a separate game within the game.

While prevailing opinion is currently opposed to the liberties batsmen are taking, and wishes to construct the law to prevent them, the ICC's changes allow bowlers to try and deceive non-strikers into leaving their crease. An alternative law, which applied a run penalty to a non-striker who left his crease before the ball was released, but didn't allow a run-out would be both more consistent and less controversial.

England v New Zealand, The Oval, 2008
Facing left-armer Ryan Sidebottom, Grant Elliott defends to the off side. The non-striker calls him through, leading Elliott to cross paths with Sidebottom. There is a collision where both are upended. The ball is returned to the bowler's end, with Elliott well out of his ground.

Full frontal: which player can be blamed for wilfully obstructing the other in the case of Ryan Sidebottom's collision with Grant Elliott?

Full frontal: which player can be blamed for wilfully obstructing the other in the case of Ryan Sidebottom's collision with Grant Elliott? © AFP

The modern practice of running for balls played at the feet has significantly increased the likelihood of collisions. What is unclear is who, if anyone, has the right to the zone where the ball ends up.

The batsman?

42.5 it is unfair for any fielder wilfully to attempt, by word or action, to distract or obstruct either batsman after the striker has received the ball.

(a) It is for either one of the umpires to decide whether any distraction or obstruction is wilful or not.

Or the fielders?

37.1 Either batsman is out Obstructing the field if he wilfully attempts to obstruct or distract the fielding side by word or action.

In the Elliott dismissal, the charging bowler was impeded by the batsman and vice-versa; without guidance from the law, the only conclusion - short of applying a five-run penalty and dismissing the batsman - is that a player is not "wilfully" impeding the opposition if running across the path of the ball or attempting to field the ball.

In terms of a strategy for self-preservation, an umpire who lets play run - and lets the players take the blame for encroaching on the spirit of the game - is a wise one

The downside to this interpretation: a player will eventually be seriously injured. In a similar incident in Australia, Ian Chappell remarked that a batsman needed to hold his ground and drop his shoulder if necessary. Yet like many batsmen, Elliott was both mismatched against Sidebottom and outnumbered by the fielders.

Faced with a similar problem, the rules of baseball resolve this issue in favour of the fielder, whose right to the ball overrides the batter's right to occupy the base path. In a sport where runs are rare, the opportunity to take a base is the more significant action, and the fielder's preserve to make the out has precedence. In cricket, runs are common and dismissals are rare, so the opposite ought to apply. Yet, the only deterrent to obstructing and then running out a batsman in the act of fielding the ball is the spirit of cricket - which, as numerous examples demonstrate, barely exists.

Basic instinct: Ben Stokes reacts to a ball thrown in his direction. He was then given out for stopping it, since it wasn't actually going to hit his body

Basic instinct: Ben Stokes reacts to a ball thrown in his direction. He was then given out for stopping it, since it wasn't actually going to hit his body © PA Photos

An alternative interpretation would hold that the ball should have been called dead under another rarely considered or upheld clause:

23.3b (ii) a serious injury to a player or umpire occurs.

The word "serious" is mired in ambiguity. What constitutes a serious injury, and under what circumstances might one occur? Collisions have been known to cause serious injury: both on the field, such as between Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie; and running (between Mark Waugh and Matthew Elliott). Yet only the former resulted in a dead-ball call, and only well after it was obvious that neither could continue playing. Elliott somehow regained his ground despite a broken leg, but the reality is that a batsman is more likely to be injured and out than injured and protected, even when the injury is caused by the fielding side.

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England v Australia, Lord's, 2015
Ben Stokes defends down the pitch and hops forward, taking him out of his crease. Mitchell Starc fields in his follow-through and throws. Stokes pivots for the crease, instinctively raises his hand to ward off the potential threat and collapses away from the ball. The throw is at stump height, hitting Stokes' hand.

A batsman can almost always avoid the ball, but they also need to be able to recover their ground, and that potentially puts them in the path of throws likely to injure them

Obstructing the field is an old law given a new twist in the frenetic modern game. The emphasis on the law is on distraction and interference: largely to prevent batsmen from stopping a fielder from making a high catch. Stokes' hand prevented a probable run-out, which is a prima facie case for dismissal. However, the obstruction law includes a sub-clause rooted in the spirit of cricket.

37.1-i a hand not holding the bat, unless this is in order to avoid injury.

By trying to return to the crease and protect himself from an 80mph throw from around 15 yards, Stokes found himself in a dilemma. Having instinctively raised his hand to deflect the ball, there was no instinctive way for him to withdraw it when (or even if) he realised it was missing his body.

The law states Stokes could deflect a ball that would cause injury, but what is meant by the word "injury"? Any ball thrown into the immediate vicinity of the batsman has some possibility of injury, though most will not cause harm. Stokes was right to be concerned about the ball, and wrong that it was going to injure him.

Similarly, a batsman can almost always avoid the ball, but they also need to be able to recover their ground, and that potentially puts them in the path of throws likely to injure them.

There is an argument to be made, on safety grounds, that bowlers should not be able to attempt run-outs if the batsman on strike has not attempted a run; that the ball, once retrieved by the bowler, be regarded as "settled" and therefore dead. As the laws related to fair play stand, there is no protection from malicious or intimidatory throws.

The laws relating to obstruction and handling the ball are a mess of sub-clauses both rare and ambiguous, more likely to inflame the spirit than defend it. It is unclear what the framers intended and how they should be read. Unsurprising then that, when faced with a possible application, the spirit is willing but the law is weak, and umpires choose not to apply ambiguous clauses.

Birley's comments on ambiguity appear well founded, as does his admonishment of the expectation that players will police their own actions instead of the umpires. In terms of a strategy for self-preservation, an umpire who lets play run - and lets the players take the blame for encroaching on the spirit of the game - is a wise one. When Mark Waugh was reprieved after hitting his wicket in a tense draw against South Africa in 1997-98 - one of the few cases where an umpire exercised a clause in a batsman's favour - it ended with the South African captain, Hansie Cronje, putting a stump through the door of the umpires' change room. Less ambiguous laws would offer fewer opportunities to appeal to umpire and spirit.

Russell Degnan writes on cricket governance, finance, statistics and Associate cricket at Idle Summers, and hosts the Associate and Affiliate cricket podcast

 

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