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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A good walk spoiled

The conflicting views of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting when it comes to walking shows that cricket's moral code exists in shades of grey rather than black and white
Sachin Tendulkar's penchant for walking has long been the focus of media scrutiny
Sachin Tendulkar's penchant for walking has long been the focus of media scrutiny

WALKING THE WALK

It was a good ball. No doubt about it. Just short of a length, pitching straight enough to make him to play but moving away just enough to leave him regretting the shot. Yes, it was a good ball from Ravi Rampaul. It had to be to beat Sachin Tendulkar. Would Steve Davis have given him out? We'll never know. But Tendulkar, acting with such speed that the decision could only have been instinctive, tucked his bat under his arm and walked off, leaving Davis with just enough time to begin shaking his head.

What followed was the loudest silence I have ever heard, as though someone had simply switched off the 45,000 fans in Chepauk, who had been roaring, screaming, singing and dancing Tendulkar on towards his 100th hundred just seconds before.

There is a temptation to try and deify Tendulkar. The match coincided with Holi after all, and some sought to invest in him the kind of super-human qualities that Lord Vishnu used to save his devotee Prahlada in the mythology that inspires that Hindu holiday. The day before the match some papers carried reports that Tendulkar had been

batting blindfolded in the nets, threading drives through a close-packed cover field. I suspect that the decision to walk is going to be seen as further evidence of his saintliness, though this should be resisted. In a way that innings of just two is going to be as fondly remembered a part of his lore as any of the other 438 ODI innings he has played.

Partly this is because of what happened the day before. Ricky Ponting had sliced a far more conspicuous edge through to Kamran Akmal during Australia's match against Pakistan. He stood his ground, though all the world suspected he was out, with the solitary exception of umpire Erasmus. Ponting was blunt enough to say enough afterwards that "there were no doubts about the nick, I knew I hit it, but as always I wait for the umpire to give me out. That's the way I've always played the game." Credit to him for not trying to sugar-coat the truth. After Brian Lara retired, Ponting was Tendulkar's one serious rival to the claim of being the best batsman playing the game. Over the last two years yawning daylight has come between them. And here was another good example of the differences between the two. No one is ever going to call Ponting a sporting saint.

His view is still a legitimate one, and the majority of cricketers would be on his side. Ponting plays to win, and a lot of people would argue that has more to do with the spirit of the cricket than walking does. When Adam Gilchrist criticised Craig McMillan for standing his ground after edging the ball in the Brisbane Test of 2004, McMillan shot back "we're not all fucking walkers you know." You could have swapped the 'l' for an 'n' and the implication would have been the same. Gilchrist always walked, and a lot of people thought he was sanctimonious because of it. To walk is to betray your teammates. Steve James did it "instinctively" in two of his four Test innings and endured "mutterings in the England dressing room" afterwards. It is fair to assume that Sachin does not have such worries.

Walking, like so many of cricket's most confused notions, was an idea that grew out of the divide between professionals and amateurs in the English game. Gubby Allen, the man who refused to bowl Bodyline, reckoned that before the war "few batsmen ever walked unless given out." It became more prevalent as the distinctions between amateurs and professionals began to break down in the 1950s. It became a hallmark of a dying breed. When Bob Appleyard was asked if people walked in his day he replied "Aye, mostly. But those who didn't were more likely to be professional."

"By the early 1960s," wrote Mike Brearley, "anyone who did not walk was considered a cheat." Nowadays those who do risk being called a fool. Perversely, walking does not even make life any easier for the umpires. As Steve Bucknor said after that McMillan incident "Sometimes a batsman will only walk because he has already passed 100, knowing

that he wouldn't walk when he was on zero. I have heard batsmen say'You owe me one' to umpires because they walked on a big score."

Many argue that the UDRS is going to make walking more common, simply because it exposes the batsmen to the risk of being made to look a cheat if he forces the fielding team to use it. But the thermal cameras that detect edges are not being used in this World Cup, so small snicks are still almost impossible to detect. Even if hotspot was available, batsmen could argue that fielding team now have an extra opportunity to make sure that the right decision to be reached. The onus is now on the opposition as well as the umpires, and so the responsibility is further removed from the batsman. But the UDRS does debunk the old argument that batsmen suffer so many poor decision that

they are entitled to try and win a break or two from the umpires every now and then.

In Ponting's case there it is also intriguing that while he will not walk for an edge, he has always insisted that batsmen should take fielders at their word when they claim a low catch. This contradiction is part of cricket's moral code, which exists in shades of grey rather than black and white. I suspect it owes itself to the dubious logic

that to stand your ground is to passively ask the umpire to adjudicate, but to claim a catch that has not carried is to actively try and deceive him. The difference, perhaps, between withholding evidence and falsifying it.

As for Tendulkar, he is, as Darren Sammy said, "a gentleman". Albeit one who "has scored over 17,000 runs and can afford to walk". He is also a man who has responsibilities no other cricketer can fathom. When he was accused of ball tampering by Mike Denness back in 2001 the viciousness of the fall-out almost caused the BCCI to split from the ICC.

Such is the strength of feeling he inspires. By walking he gave a wonderful example to hundreds of millions of fans and spectators, which is more than you can say of what Ponting did. At the same time, what would those same fans think if he did it in the first over of the World Cup final? Ponder that, and you get close to understanding the merits of both sides of the argument.

By Andy Bull

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