“Cricket has not always been The Gentleman’s Game it is made out to be. In the end, it is a sport played by adrenalin driven young (and not so young) men who want to win using all legitimate means at their disposal”.

Both media and social media alike erupted in indignation when South Africa’s opener Jiveshan Pillai was given out ‘obstructing the field’ at the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand earlier this week.

Pillay mistimed an expansive cover drive against West Indies fast bowler Jarion Hoyte and edged the ball onto his pads. The ball rolled towards the stumps but stopped of its own accord near the off stump. Once the ball had stopped, Pillai picked it up in his gloves and handed it to the West Indies keeper and captain Emmanuel Stewart. Stewart then appealed to the umpire that Pillai should be given out, an appeal everyone at the time thought was for ‘handling the ball’. However, Pillai clearly could not have been out for handling the ball as the ball had no chance of hitting the stumps in its stationary state.

It, of course, turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. What Stewart (displaying an impressive knowledge of the laws of the game) was actually appealing for correctly was ‘obstructing the field’.

As per Law 37.4, “Either batsman is out Obstructing the field if, at any time while the ball is in play and, without the consent of a fielder, he/she uses the bat or any part of his/her person to return the ball to any fielder”. Once the appeal was made on that specific count, the umpires had no choice but to rule him out. The fact that the decision took an inordinately long time in coming, shows that the umpires debated long and hard before communicating it.

The MCC must have been bemused to find themselves vilified by former players and some members of the press for clarifying in a release, “Pillay did not seek, or receive the consent from, a fielder and did use his hand to return the ball to the wicketkeeper. He was thus rightly given out on appeal. The reason behind it is that a fielding team will often take enormous care to maintain the condition of the ball — and they are allowed to do so. Any external influence on the ball — including a sweaty glove — could change its condition unfairly.”

In the absence of an incorrect decision to direct the angst against, the most common theme running through the exaggerated reactions was that the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ had not been respected. West Indies captain and wicketkeeper Emmanuel Stewart became an instant villain to twitterati and experts alike.

Australian great Shane Warne: “Disgraceful, who’s in charge of these teenagers and passing on knowledge and the way the game should be played – someone’s accountable!“

Mark Boucher, former South African wicketkeeper: “Disgusting! Once again WI junior team involved in a matter that goes against the spirit of the game.”

South African captain Faf du Plessis: “(It is) an absolute joke… I have done this almost a 100 times.”

Former England captain Michael Vaughan: “The politically correct crew will say Rules are Rules… But let’s be honest this is a disgraceful way to claim a wicket.”

Of all the indignant experts with short memories and disinterest in the history of the game, Vaughan, as a former England player should know better, if only because his best known predecessor was responsible for the most famous (but by no means the only) early instance of going against the spirit of the game, if that is how we choose to label this episode.

Skipping over the multiple incidents in the intervening years (from mankading to brain fades), it is worthwhile briefly visiting The Oval in the early days of Test cricket to witness an episode that was to assume tremendous significance in the history of the game and continues to be associated with perhaps the biggest rivalry in cricket to this day.

The year is 1882 and England were playing against Australia. The Australians win the toss and on a rain affected pitch on the first day are bowled out for 63. By the end of the day, Fred Spofforth, Australia’s ‘Demon Bowler’ has taken 7 for 46 to dismiss England for 101. The hosts take a 38-run lead.

The Australians have a great start on a difficult wicket the next day and stroke their way to 66 for 1 before England hits back and reduces them to 96 for 6. At this point, 20-year old SP Jones (not much older than Stewart and Pillai in our main story today) the youngest member of either side, comes in to join wicketkeeper Billy Murdoch.

Murdoch hits the ball to the vacant mid-wicket area and takes a run. Jones makes his ground easily and WG Grace gathers the ball. Jones then pointedly grinds his bat in the crease and steps out to pat down some spots on the still damp wicket. Grace immediately removes the bails and appeals for a dismissal.

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It is clear to the umpire that while it was foolish for Jones to leave his crease, there was never an attempt to take a run by either player. Grace’s appeal clearly is purely technical in nature, just as Stewart’s would be 135-years later. Unfortunately for Jones the ball had not come to rest in the wicket keeper’s or the bowler’s hand, so strictly the ball was not dead but still in play.

Just like the reluctant officials in our 2018 U-19 World Cup match, the unfortunate Umpire Thomas standing at square leg that summer of 1882 tells the venerable and feared WG Grace: “If you appeal for it, sir – out.”

What follows is an Australian collapse and England is left 85-runs to win the game. At the break, a charged up Fred Spofforth famously tells his despondent teammates: “This thing can be done.” He then goes out and does it.

At 50 for 2, Spofforth changes the end. He bowls a fiery spell and dismisses England for 77. Australia wins by 8 runs. Spofforth’s figures read 7 for 44 in the second innings and 14 for 90 for the match.

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The next day The Sporting Times carries a mock obituary which announces the death of English cricket and mentions that the ashes will be carried to Australia. The Ashes series is born.

Just as Grace’s action in 1882 spurred Spofforth on to take the game away for Australia in the most unexpected fashion, Pillai’s controversial dismissal 135-years later deepened the resolve of his teammates enabling them to take the score to 282. Their bowlers then put on a sterling display to dismiss West Indies for 206.

Young Emmanuel Stewart is an emotional wreck today from the media pressure. He has already issued an apology. He didn’t need to. He is not the first person to take advantage of the rules of the game and won’t be the last.

Cricket has not always been The Gentleman’s Game it is made out to be. In the end, t is a sport played by adrenalin driven young (and not so young) men who want to win using all legitimate means at their disposal. But the example of two instances designed to gain an advantage but resulting in a loss, 135-years apart, while not putting to rest the debate about the spirit of the game, does demonstrate that in the end destiny is a great leveller.



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