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Bowlers, rise up, you are being oppressed

Batsmen are cricket’s privileged class, entitled, born to rule. If ever there was proof, the last two weeks were it.

First came West Indian Keemo Paul’s Mankading of Zimbabwean Richard Ngarava to win an Under-19 World Cup knock-out game. Then umpire Richard Illingworth’s mistaken call of no-ball denied Doug Bracewell the wicket of Adam Voges in the first New Zealand-Australia Test.

In the first instance, the principle was said to be unfair to the batsman. In the second, the solution was said to be unfair to the batsman. Always, batsmen are the species that must be protected.

Let’s try for once looking at it through bowlers’ eyes. In the Bracewell case, it was claimed that retrospective correction of the no-ball call would not work because the batsman, having heard the call, might have played a shot that otherwise was not on, lured by a false sense of immunity, and found himself out.

First, it virtually never happens at Test level that a batsman changes his shot in reaction to a no-ball call, especially against a fast bowler. There isn’t time. I can’t remember one instance. Second, ask yourself this: to whom is the greater wrong done, a batsman who theoretically might be dudded, or a bowler who definitively is being dudded?

It seems only obvious that if a no-ball can be called ex post facto, so it can be rescinded. Instead, the cricket world scratches its many heads, pretending to look for remedies.

One, the most bizarre, is to have no-balls called from square leg (from further away, on a worse angle?). The most popular is to have them called only by the third umpire, with powers to intervene at any time. But, say some, far more no-balls are bowled than ever are called. I would have thought this was a reason, not an objection. It would slow and disrupt the game, say the objectors. But bowlers are not as obtuse as batsmen would have you believe. If suddenly they were costing their team 20 runs a day, not to mention forgoing the odd wicket, they would soon mend their ways.

All that is needed is a change of protocol and perspective. The protocol simply is to allow the third umpire to cancel no-ball calls if they plainly are wrong. The perspective is the way a batsman looks at a no-ball call. Instead of seeing it as a free hit, which he rarely has time or mind to take anyway, he ought to see it as guarantee against dismissal if it is right, and a run to his side. That would be justice enough. If it is wrong, the bowler deserves his justice, up to and including a wicket if he takes one.

The Mankad case, seen through the bowler’s prism, also looks different. He is expected to tolerate a batsman creeping many centimetres out of his crease, potentially making part of a run before the ball even is delivered, restricting himself lamely to a warning in the first instance. Yet if the bowler was to stray even a millimetre over the popping crease in his delivery stride, he would be penalised immediately, without warning. He might even be penalised in retrospect.

The difference, it is pleaded, is that the bowler gives up merely one run, the Mankaded batsman loses his wicket. But for all anyone knows in the instant the no-ball is called, the bowler might be costing himself a wicket. It happens often enough. In Wellington, it happened even to a bowler who had not no-balled..

Let the record show again that Don Bradman had no problem with Mankading. In 1947, Indian bowler Vinoo Mankad twice ran out Australian opener Bill Brown, in a tour game and a Test match. Bradman, the captain in both games, wrote that the incidents left no bad taste, and that “by backing up too far or too early, the nonstriker is very obviously gaining an unfair advantage”. Reportedly, Brown was disgusted not with Mankad, but himself, because Mankad HAD warned him. Yet somehow Mankad’s name became and remains a dirty word, and the convention grew up whereby the bowler is obliged to give a warning before acting. The batsmen had their way.

Batsmen get bigger bats, more effective protection, shorter boundaries and greater recourse in technology, yet still they insist on more rights. One of cricket’s longest-standing conventions is that the benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman. You can be certain they did not ask bowlers before propagating that one.

Batsmen are like golfers who wail about the tricking up of courses to counter advances in club and ball technology, saying people come to see birdies, not bogeys. I’m not so sure. Cricket or golf, people come to see a battle of skill and wit. They also come to see fair play. The much-scuffed bottom line in the Paul and Bracewell cases is that the rules and conventions were unfairly stacked against the bowler. Let the protest movement begin here.

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