Cricket sees itself as the gentleman's sport - where the spirit of the game is just as important as the rules or regulations. While competitors in other sports dive or deceive in order to get ahead of the game in any possible way, cricket's noble code shuns anybody who doesn't play fair. So when Surrey's Murali Kartik 'Mankadded' (ran out the non-striker as he came in to bowl) Somerset's Alex Barrow in today's game at Taunton, the cricketing universe went into overdrive decrying the former Indian spinner for flouting the all-important spirit of the game. But technically neither Kartik, nor Surrey (who refused to withdraw the appeal) broke any rules - and arguably Barrow was playing against the spirit of the game by attempting to back up while the bowler was in his stride, especially considering Kartik had already had the grace to warn him about it previously. So who is in the right - and indeed, is the spirit of cricket still relevant?
Well, in this case, it seems that Kartik was in the right. While Mankadding is cricketing etiquette's biggest no-no, he had already informed both Barrow and the umpires that if his over zealous backing up continued, he would be left no option but to whip off the bails and appeal. And despite this, Barrow ignored the fairly reasonable request, and he had to go. Critics have said that Kartik completely ignored the 'spirit' of cricket - but in fact, by warning him in the first place (which under the laws he didn't have to do), he showed an understanding and respect for it that many have missed.
There is a level of hypocrisy about the 'spirit' of cricket and it's application - it's almost become accepted that some batsmen are walkers and some wait to be given, and not a great deal is said if a batsman knowingly nicks it, but isn't given out by the umpire, and remains. How different is that to Kartik's actions? Kartik worked within the rules and exploited the stupidity of the batsman to leave his crease while the ball was in play to take his wicket, whereas the non-walkers of this world willingly break a rule (that they are out if they are caught after hitting the ball) in order to continue batting. While there are differences (the non-walking batsman can claim that it's the umpire's fault for not spotting the edge), those who refuse to walk are very rarely given the kind of stick that poor Murali Kartik has had from the cricketing world today.
And deception of the umpires generally often goes unpunished from the guardians of the spirit of the game - wicket-keepers appealing after knocking off bails themselves (step forward Matt Prior), fielders claiming bump balls (Pragyan Ojha) or even AB De Villiers literally the other day lying to the umpire in order to grant himself a reprieve. But why do none of these acts of actual, against the laws treachery carry the same level of outcry as the totally within-the-laws Mankad?
For generations cricket has prided itself on being the noble sport where nobody breaks the rules and everyone plays fair, and often lauds itself over other sports because of it - but is that really the case? Contrast this example from football, where Paulo di Canio refuses to score when the opposing keeper went down with an injury, to Paul Collingwood's moment of shame in cricket, where England ran out Grant Elliot after a collision with Ryan Sidebottom. The spirit of cricket, while noble, can be used as a stick to beat teams with even when playing inside the laws, as seen in the Ian Bell run-out last year, where India, despite being well within their rights to keep the appeal, decided to withdraw it, and ultimately lose the game, thanks to pressure over the spirit of cricket. But in this era of big bucks and high pressure, is the spirit still relevant? Surrey, in a tumultuous season, are in a real relegation battle, and need all of the help they can get. So when Kartik, inside the laws, ran Barrow out, surely they would have been even more foolish than Barrow himself to allow him to stay, and possibly play an innings that might send them down? While I'm not telling cricketers to cheat as badly as Pinky the Panther did during the Mascot Derby, I'm saying that it would be naive to expect teams to not take advantage of the rules when they're available. At the end of the day, the spirit of cricket doesn't pay the bills, and while romantic fans like to think that cricket is the noblest of sports, in reality, it's just as bad as the rest of them.