First, the context. Kings XI Punjab had amassed 184 for four in their IPL 12 opener against Rajasthan Royals in Jaipur, and the hosts were making a strong fist of a stiff chase with Buttler in the forefront. The England batsman had breezed to 69 off 43, hauling the Royals to 108 for one towards the end of the 13th over. Ashwin was running in to bowl to Sanju Samson, but before he started to ‘load’, he stopped in his tracks, paused momentarily – like an eagle-eyed Mahendra Singh Dhoni looking for a stumping - for a backing-up Buttler’s bat to slide out of safety, then whipped off the bails and appealed for a run-out. Importantly, he wasn’t obliged to warn the batsman before doing so.
No matter where you were watching the game from, gasps of shock alternated with stunned silence for significant impact. What was going on? Was Ashwin appealing in jest, or was he really serious? What would the umpires do now?
R Ashwin and Jos Buttler exchange words (IPL)
KN Ananthapadmanabhan, the former Kerala leg-spinner who was the umpire at the bowler’s end, sent the appeal upwards to Bruce Oxenford, the television umpire who is on the ICC’s Elite Panel and has stood in 55 Tests, 90 One-Day Internationals and 20 Twenty20 Internationals. The Australian didn’t need more than a replay or two to rule in the bowler’s favour. Buttler lingered on to engage in an animated discussion with the opposing captain, and continued to spew venom as he stormed off in the direction of the Royals dugout. It didn’t make for pretty viewing, even if the drama was compelling. As it turned out, that was merely the storm before the STORM.
Buttler’s dismissal robbed the Royals of some momentum, but it definitely wasn’t the turning point of the match. Ajinkya Rahane’s men recovered from that heart-stopping moment to move to within 37 of victory in 21 deliveries with eight wickets in hand. How, from there, they lost seven for 22 – and the match by 14 runs – would have been the talking point any other night. Not this night, when everything paled into nothingness in front of the Ashwin-Buttler spectacle.
Inevitably, when something like this happens, the tetchy Spirit of Cricket debate is invoked. Now, this Spirit of Cricket is a wonderful concept, but it is contravened at various levels almost every single game. Appealing for a catch when you clearly know that the batsman has not hit it, is that in keeping with the spirit of the game? Appealing for a leg before when it is obvious to everyone that a bowler has edged the ball on to his pads, what does that qualify as? And not ‘walking’ when one has nicked the ball, what category does that fall under?
The bottom line is that cricketers will do everything possible to try and gain an advantage. Everything possible is perfectly fine, so long as it is within the rules. And, there are officials to adjudicate on whether the rules have been adhered to, or not. “If in the opinion of the umpire…’ is one of the most famous preambles in all sport; in the DRS era, the authority of the adjudicating officials might have been eroded somewhat, but even so, the umpire is the final authority. Which is why it is deemed alright to appeal for a catch that is not, for an lbw that is not, and for not ‘walking’, among other things, because the decision rests with the umpire. Spirit of Cricket is a tool of convenience, used selectively, and generally to slate someone who is well within the rules, but the optics of whose actions might not always be pleasant.
In the middle of the spirit debate, the Laws of Cricket reared its head. The relevant law, 41.6, states, “If the non-striker is out of his/her ground from the moment the ball comes into play to the instant when the bowler would normally have been expected to release the ball, the bowler is permitted to attempt to run him/her out."
What constitutes ‘expected to release the ball’, though? Is the expectation from the time the bowler has ‘loaded’? Should that be the case, with Ashwin not having entered that mode, what is the yardstick against which said expectation is measured? Also, Ashwin has a history of more than occasionally pausing before delivering the ball, largely but not only in limited-overs cricket. If that is ‘smart’ cricket because he gives himself that fraction of a second extra to see how the batsman is setting himself up, then why must this not fall in the same category?
Even had Ashwin contravened the law, the burden of responsibility was on the TV umpire to adjudicate thus. It can be argued that Buttler wasn’t seeking unfair advantage and looking to ‘steal’ a head-start, but carelessness isn’t a virtue either. Maybe his outpouring of vitriol on his stomp off the park was directed at himself, maybe Ashwin was just the most obvious target because he had added insult to self-inflicted injury.
Kumar Sangakkara, the former Sri Lankan captain, was quick to point out that Buttler had previously been dismissed in like fashion in an ODI in Birmingham in 2014. The bowler on that occasion was another off-spinner, Sachithra Senanayake. It’s unlikely that in the intervening five years, Buttler hasn’t left his crease ahead of time. Until Monday night, no one else had called his bluff.
Senanayake after 'Mankading' Buttler in 2014 (Twitter)
Ashwin himself had dismissed Lahiru Thirimanne similarly in another ODI in 2012, only for stand-in skipper Virender Sehwag to withdraw the appeal. This time around, the buck stopped with Ashwin and he took his appeal to its logical conclusion.
Some of the reactions to the incident have been little short of stupefying. Shane Warne, the Rajasthan Royals brand ambassador with a colourful past, has termed Ashwin’s actions ‘disgraceful and low’, while several former and current England internationals, especially, have been equally scathing. Unsurprisingly, they have barely mentioned a word about the rules, though coming from England, the invocation of ‘spirit’ might appear a little rich. After all, they appealed for, persisted with, and won a run-out shout against Grant Elliott in an ODI at The Oval in 2008, even though the New Zealand batsman lay sprawled mid-pitch after a collision with bowler Ryan Sidebottom.
Back to Monday night, and Ashwin’s take: “It is there in the rules of the game. I don’t know where the understanding of the spirit of the game comes from because quite naturally if it’s there in the rules, it’s there. So probably the rules need to go back and be sorted. I didn’t even load and he left the crease. It’s always been my take on it, because it’s my half of the crease.”
Maybe the rules will be sorted. And maybe Buttler will learn his lesson from this, going forward. Or maybe he won’t – Senanayake, anyone?
As for Ashwin, he won’t lose any sleep. And, if the opportunity presents itself again, he is unlikely to hold back either. But he has opened the Pandora’s Box, and played his part in providing the early sparks that will ensure that this IPL isn’t a mere dress rehearsal to the World Cup.
From the press boxIndian Premier Leagueiplipl 2019Jos ButtlermankadR Ashwinrajasthan royals vs kings xi punjabSenanayake
First Published: March 26, 2019, 12:38 PM IST