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England cricket captain in retro mode

“In my opinion there’s a line and that line was crossed today.” That was Alastair Cook’s aggrieved response to the Sri Lankan spin bowler Senanayake running out the England batter Buttler at the non-striker’s end in yesterday’s One Day International.

The England captain’s statement was, to speak plainly, self-righteous guff, a sad throwback to the days when the whingeing Englishman was notorious throughout the cricket world.

What happened was this. Buttler (England’s best batsman in the series) was warned twice by the Sri Lankans about his habit of wandering out of the crease at the non-striker’s end, advancing a few steps down the wicket before the bowler was into his delivery stride. When he ignored the two warnings and continued to stray down the pitch, the bowler ran him out: Senanayake stopped, lifted the bails and appealed. The umpire gave Buttler out.

There is a clear stipulation that a batter who strays down the pitch can be run out in this manner. Law 42.15 states: “The bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to attempt to run out the non-striker.”

Under the Laws of the game, the Sri Lankans were not required to issue a warning. The fact that they did, twice, indicates that their aim was not to get the batter out by some underhanded trick but to stop the batter repeatedly taking an unfair advantage.

As Mike Atherton pointed out, all Buttler had to do to avoid this fate was to keep the end of his bat grounded behind the crease. For whatever reason he repeatedly failed to do that, and in the end paid the prescribed penalty.

Cook argues that it doesn’t matter that the Sri Lankans were within their rights under the rules; running out Buttler in this way somehow violated the “spirit of the game”.

In cricket, the official Laws of the game have always been supplemented by an unwritten ethical code, a package of conventions shaped by history, culture, class and empire. This code is given great moral weight but it is hopelessly amorphous and over many generations has been used to cover a host of sins. While all cricket-playing countries have adjusted the unwritten code to their own liking, England’s history of self-righteous and self-serving invocations of “the spirit of the game” makes it the all-time champion in this regard. (I wrote about this in my book, ‘Anyone But England’, published exactly twenty years ago).

Buttler acquired an illegal advantage by repeatedly stepping beyond his designated space. The fact that he did it lazily and apparently aimlessly doesn’t change that. After finding their warnings ignored, what were the Sri Lankans supposed to do? Stoically accept an unfair practise?

It was Cook’s responsibility as captain, along with manager Peter Moores, to ensure that all the England players understood the laws governing running between the wickets. Instead of griping about the Sri Lankans, they should be working with the players to tighten up this aspect of their game.

Asked if ill-feeling over this incident would carry on into the coming Test matches, Cook’s response was: “Probably, yeah, it will spice it up a bit – there’s nothing wrong with that.”

An interesting take on the “spirit of the game”! In Cook’s mind it seems that cricket’s ethos is threatened more by players acting legally and transparently than by the importation of ill-will, grudges and suspicion.

It’s a pity because for the cricket fan the brief Test series is full of promise. This is the last time we’ll get to see that wonderful pair, Sangakara and Jayawardene, play Test cricket in this country and I hope both of them make some big runs. But Sri Lanka have often been a stronger one-day than Test side, especially away from home, and it will be interesting to see how they adapt this time around.

The big mystery is England: not so much the particular selections as the attitude and approach of the team as a whole, and whether they’ll look any less miserable than they did through the long winter months. Maybe Cook thinks the “spice” of ill-feeling will do the trick, in which case he has an even duller imagination that I suspected.