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Cricket news - Can spirit of the game be at variance with laws of the game?

Ashwin says he hadn't loaded up in his action, others say he had crossed the point when he would be expected to release the ball and that, at that point, Buttler was still within the crease.

Tempers are frayed, allegations are made, motives are assigned, voices are shouted down and everyone is in a tizzy. You would think someone had been assaulted, swindled or waylaid. And, in a manner of speaking, you wouldn't be wrong because we are talking about the spirit of our game, that wonderfully fuzzy, subjective thing that everyone defines differently.

So, should Ashwin have run Buttler out? Should Buttler have been more vigilant? Was Ashwin devious and Buttler robbed? Was Ashwin clever and Buttler defeated? Did Ashwin violate the spirit of the game? Ah, the spirit of the game! It is something so dear to cricket lovers that there is actually a preamble to the laws of cricket that specifically addresses this. It talks about respect, towards teammates and opponents and the umpires; it talks about playing hard and fair and accepting the umpire's decision, about creating a positive atmosphere through each player's conduct. And more on those lines.

But can the spirit of the game be at variance with the laws of the game? Since both are drafted by the same entity, you would assume that playing within the laws of the game would assume you are playing in the spirit of the game. So when Ashwin ran Buttler out, was he within the laws of the game? And within its spirit?

If the two are in conflict, as it seems here in the eyes of many, the laws must take precedence. In recent times, running a player out for backing up too far at the bowler's end has been studied by the law makers. And not a moment too soon. Far too many batsmen were abusing the convention that you don't run a player out by drifting, often intentionally, out of the crease thereby running less than needed to complete a run. Where run-outs, and team fortunes, are decided by millimetres conceding six inches or a foot to the non-striker made no sense.

And so the revised Law 41.16 says that the non-striker must stay within the crease till such time as the bowler is expected to deliver the ball. This is where a lot of the debate has centred. Ashwin says he hadn't loaded up in his action, others say he had crossed the point when he would be expected to release the ball and that, at that point, Buttler was still within the crease. Maybe anticipating that, the law-makers also said that 'If you do not want to risk being run-out, stay within your ground until the bowler has released the ball".

Now, we can interpret the law and the line that follows it all we want. The critical thing here is that the umpire who is the caretaker of the law, ruled in the bowler's favour after looking at television footage. So unless the umpire was wrong (the preamble that talks about the spirit of the game also highlights the fact that you must accept the umpire's decision), Buttler was legally out.

Which brings us back to the spirit of the game. I asked two former cricketers who I greatly admire, whose views on the game are balanced and respected, about this incident and they stood at opposite ends. I think about this a lot myself especially when people ask if this is what our game is coming to. Reasonable people have said that Ashwin set a bad example to children watching the game. I think it is far worse to abuse or to sledge batsmen, invoke their parentage, call them filthy names. And it is as bad to claim a dismissal when you know a batsman isn't out. We see the second many times a day in international cricket and yet it seems all right to do so. In effect, you are influencing, even pressuring the umpire, into committing a mistake but the cricket world and its influencers laugh that off. We don't outrage over the spirit of the game there.

We routinely find loopholes in tax laws to ensure we pay less tax even though we know that the taxes we pay go towards educating the poor and affording them healthcare for example. Is that the spirit we want to live by? Or do we say living within the law of the land is respectable enough?

And so, I have no idea of what the spirit of the game is about because it varies from person to person. Just as the expression "we play hard but fair" does. That is why the law must always take precedence over everything else. By the laws of the game as interpreted by a senior umpire, who is in essence a judge, Buttler was out. That is where I believe this debate must end. The spirit of the game is too subjective, too difficult to define.

And yes, I think the law should be amended to say, specifically, that a non-striker cannot leave the crease till the ball has left the bowler's hand.

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