Bangladesh’s Shakib Al Hasan was satisfied he had the law on his side, which he did. His appeal caused Angelo Mathews to be ‘timed out’ at the World Cup, making the Sri Lankan the first player in international cricket to be dismissed thus.
Shakib said later, “It is in the laws. I don’t know if it is right or wrong. But I felt like I was at war. I had to take a decision to make sure my team wins and whatever I had to do, I had to do.”
Shakib makes two interesting points. One, he is not sure if he did the right thing. Moral ambiguity can be a sportsman’s companion. And two, he did it for his team. The suggestion is that all is fair in war and sport so long as in the latter case it is in the rules. And patriotism trumps everything else.
In sport, fairplay (or ‘spirit’) often involves breaking the rules (or in cricket, the Laws) of the game. Had Shakib recalled Mathews, he would have emerged as a respecter of the spirit, but it would have necessitated overriding Law 31.
However, that is a Law that is generally ignored by fielding captains, and in any case, Mathews had what he called ‘equipment failure’ when the strap on his helmet gave way. Perhaps he could have faced one delivery and then called for a replacement. Perhaps he though Shakib was joking. He was being less than sharp, even lazy.
Sportsmen have to make a choice. Do they serve their own cause or the sport itself? Should they stick to the rules or go beyond them and acknowledge a greater obligation? Black-and-white on the one hand and according to some, grey on the other (although the spirit is equally black-and-white).
At the Jubilee Test in Mumbai, when skipper Gundappa Vishwanath recalled England’s Bob Taylor after he had been given out, the wicketkeeper showed his gratitude by helping Ian Botham add 171 runs for the sixth wicket and taking the game beyond India. Vishwanath does not regret his sporting gesture even today.
Why is Vishwanath’s decision superior to Shakib’s, although India lost? Sport is essentially an artificial activity; we pour our passions into it to transform it into something real and meaningful. Cricket, in fact all sport, is essentially meaningless, a fantasy. And in a fantasy world we should aim for perfection, and go beyond the rules, beyond patriotism. The sport itself is the highest cause. I have often said this, but whenever a captain makes the wrong choice, it hurts.
When skipper Greg Chappell asked his brother Trevor to bowl the last ball of the match underarm to prevent New Zealand from hitting a six and winning, that was within the Laws of the game then. Yet, it raised a huge controversy as it was “not cricket”. In New Zealand, you could soon buy T-shirts with the legend: ‘Chappell, your underarm stinks.’
Les Miserables argument
Chappell’s argument, even if he did not articulate it like Shakib, would have been the patriotic one: I did it for my country. This may be called the Les Miserables argument. In Victor Hugo’s novel, the Frenchman Jean Valjean, is sent to prison for stealing bread. He did it in order to feed his sister’s starving children. Should one forgive an act, legal or illegal, if the cause – patriotism, family need – is justified?
And just how far is a sportsman willing to go? At the 2010 football World Cup, Uruguay’s Luis Alvarez deliberately handled a ball on its way to the goal with the ’keeper out of line. He earned a red card for his patriotism, and Ghana’s striker missed the resultant penalty. Uruguay made it to the semifinal; interestingly, the striker who missed, Asamoah Gyan, said he would have done the same thing in Alvarez’s place.
When Mathews kept objecting, Shakib is quoted as saying, “I understand your situation. It was unfortunate, but I don’t want to (withdraw the appeal).” This is the classic ‘my-hands-are-tied’ argument familiar to those at the receiving end of the apparently rule-driven.
The tension between the rules of sport and its spirit will continue. In this case, Shakib threw himself on the side of the rules. And that’s a pity.