Vinoo Mankad was one of India’s greatest cricketers. Yet, whenever his name comes up these days it is usually not in reference to any of his great feats with bat or ball. He is not often mentioned for his 8/52 and 4/43 in Madras in 1952 that helped India beat England for the first time. If you hear his name, it likely has nothing to do with the 231 he scored against New Zealand that helped establish a 52-year opening partnership record of 431 with Pankaj Roy, or with his century and five-wicket haul at Lords in 1952, the first Indian to achieve such a feat.
Nowadays, the great man’s name is mostly mentioned in relation to a non-striker getting run out backing up too far. In 1947, despite warnings from Mankad, Bill Brown left his crease at the non-strikers end too early and was run out by the left-arm spinner.
Mankad’s name has been made into something of a slur following that incident, much like the Ponzi scheme was named after Italian, Charles Ponzi, a man who swindled money from others by using funds from new investors to pay older ones. In Mankad’s case, however, it was undeserved. He was unfairly made the villain when all he did was follow the rules as they were laid out. Those who have since done likewise, have been pilloried and disparaged by the more righteous among us for bad sportsmanship.
It happened to Ravichandran Ashwin during the 2019 IPL when he ran out Jos Buttler. Memorably, it happened when West Indies all-rounder Keemo Paul during the 2016 U-19 World Cup ran out Zimbabwe’s Richard Ngarava. The blowback, especially from former players, was so severe that the then 17-year-old was moved to tears: “…it was definitely tough," Paul admitted at the time. “I just locked myself away. I saw it on BBC. I read a lot of comments on social media. I took it hard. I cried a lot. And wondered if I did the right thing…”
More recently, Afghanistan youth player Noor Ahmad has found himself somewhat in the firing line after lifting the bails of Pakistan batsman Muhammad Hurraira’s wicket during the current 2020 U-19 World Cup. To be fair, the backlash doesn’t seem to be as intense this time round, but there were still many on social media using words like “shameful” and “disgusting” to describe the actions of the youngster.
Former players again jumped in. Former Indian batsman Mohammad Kaif offered this by way of Twitter: “Have never been a fan of this mode of dismissal, didn’t ever encourage my bowlers to do this, neither at U19 WC nor while captaining my state side. This may be legal, but so was the Trevor Chappell underarm, right? Reckon the @ICC will have to look at the law at some point.”
Have never been a fan of this mode of dismissal, didn’t ever encourage my bowlers to do this, neither at the U19 WC nor while captaining my State side.— Mohammad Kaif (@MohammadKaif) February 1, 2020
This may be legal, but so was the Trevor Chappell underarm, right?
Reckon the @ICC will have to look at the law at some point. https://t.co/PmB1HE5C1L
England fast bowler Jimmy Anderson also weighed in: “Can we sort out (remove) this law please @ICC #MCC??”
And yet, as the authorities have made clear when they altered the law in 2017, the onus is on the batsman to remain in his crease until the bowler “would be expected to deliver the ball.” The wording of the rule was actually changed from “Bowler attempting to run out non-striker before delivery” to “Non-striker leaving their ground early” in an effort to deliver a proper warning to batsmen: stay in your crease or run the risk of getting out.
During the 1987 World Cup, West Indies fast bowler Courtney Walsh warned, rather than dismiss, non-striker Saleem Jaffer with Pakistan needing two runs off the final ball of the game. They got the two runs required, and not only did the West Indies lose the game they were denied a chance of contesting the semi-finals as a result. They missed the final for the first time.
Following the incident, Walsh was widely and rightly praised adhering to the spirit of the game. The Pakistan government gave him a medal and his warning to Jaffer came to be regarded as one of the great World Cup moments.
But, recordings of the event showed that Jaffer was some way down the pitch when Walsh stopped to issue his warning. The unfair advantage he’d therefore have gained in setting off so early for a run would have been considerable. Why should that be allowed? Walsh did the gentlemanly thing in not running him out but had he decided to remove the bails, allowing his side to win the game, he’d have been well within his rights. The blowback would’ve been huge, for sure, but it would’ve been unjust, just as the blowback heaped upon Paul, Ashwin, Ahmed and others were unjust.
The non-striker who steals an inch when backing up could well miss being run out by an inch when attempting to complete a run. Why is that fair to the fielding side and why would the bowler be in the wrong if he chooses to run him out? And it does not have to be intentional either. Punishment is still often meted out to people who break the law unintentionally. In football, a foul or a handball doesn’t have to be deliberate for the referee to award a free-kick or a penalty.
Sometimes the slimmest of margins determine victory or defeat in sport. Coach Tony D’Amato explains it well in the Oliver Stone movie Any Given Sunday while delivering a pep talk before a massively important game: “You find out life's this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game - life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when you add up all those inches, that's gonna make the difference between winning and losing!”
Cricket, too, is a game of inches. Cross over the boundary by an inch while taking a catch and it's six rather than a wicket. Miss the middle of the bat by just over two inches and you might edge the ball for a catch behind instead of hitting it for runs. Barely overstep the front crease and it’s a no-ball rather than a chance at a wicket. And how many times have we seen a game won or lost by a just a few or even a single run?
The inches, as coach D’Amato said, are everywhere. But, those inches should be earned rather than stolen. A few inches stolen by the non-striker, inadvertently or not, could be the difference between winning and losing. It’s fine if the bowler feels impelled to issue a warning to the roving non-striker. But, he ought not to be castigated if he decides to run him out.