Stumping the Sprit of Cricket
[Image: The moment.]
Going a wanderin’
During the second 2023 Ashes Test at Lords, English wicketkeeper Johnny Bairstow was stumped by his Australian counterpart from 10m behind the wicket.
If you do not understand the above sentence, stop reading now. It will not get easier from here.
The cricket covering media have gone into overdrive talking about this one incident during a magnificent 5 day Test which epitomized many elements of why this most ancient of international cricket series is so revered. The lead-in to a series is always a media frenzy with accusations and predictions flying like drunken punches. This time the favourite topic was "BazBall", England's new approach to Test cricket originating from its new captain Stokes and encouraged by their new coach Brendan McCullum. Lets just sweep BazBall to the boundary by observing that its nothing new. Skilled teams dominate their opposition by scoring heavily and quickly. This happened during the 1970s and early 80s by the towering West Indies with a bowling lineup to scare the hell out of just about everyone, and a batting lineup including irrefutable game winners like Sir Vivian Richards, and arguably the greatest all-rounder of all time in Sir Garfield Sobers. So it was again for Australia during the Waugh era with McGrath and Warne leading the attack and a batting lineup including Ponting and going down to 7 when Adam Gilchrist would walk out. Bazball is just that latest marketing term for a team which is full of talent which it relentlessly displays.
That term and approach set a frame for the series. After two Tests, the result is 2-0 and it could be concluded that brazen run-scoring and limitless self-belief are useful approaches that are aided by more traditional cricketing qualities of determination, patience and a keen understanding of the state of the game as it moves so as to employ strategy as well as tactics to influence the result.
To return to the searing topic of the Bairstow dismissal, lets summarize the series and game situation and then the event itself. We're on day 5 of the second test at the "Home of Cricket" with the hosts 1-0 down. Their backs are against the wall needing 257 runs with 6 wickets in hand. However, their captain Stokes has produced miracles before, including during the last Ashes series in England in 2019 when he and 11th bat and spinner Leach carried England to the most magnificent and improbable of victories.
The day begins with Stokes batting with openner Duckett who has delivered a wonderful innings when he fails to adhere the advice encoded in his name, and top edges a short ball to have the Australian 'keeper Carey leap and just take the catch one handed. Extended periods of short pitched bowling had already featured in the game from both sides. This tactic is effective for run control when well executed, but is boring to watch. Arguments about why it had been and was continuing to be used abounded, failing to acknowledge the most obvious of reasons. The pitch was a road, with no assistance on offer for either seam or swing bowlers working with the old ball. This type of wicket was meant to assist with “BazBall”. By this stage Australia were bowling and their wily old spinner Lyon was nursing an injury which would take him out of the remainder of the series. It is very likely that he knew this when he had, the previous day, hobbled out to bat to add 15 runs to Australia's total, declaring unmistakably that he would do anything for his team. The Lords crowd suitably acknowledged his determination with a standing ovation.
With no spinner and a road to work with, the visitors push on with the short ball approach as Bairstow, England's wicket keeper and last recognized batsman, comes to the wicket to join Stokes to continue England's assault on the still sizable target required for victory. The Lords crowd are uncharacteristically, almost embarrassingly, loudly in support of their team and captain who represents the impossible becoming achievable.
Carey had observed that Bairstow is prone to wander out of his crease, not paying attention to the ball, which is a bit of a failing for a wicket keeper. As Bairstow leaves the last ball of an over and it passes by he touches his back foot inside the crease and goes for a wander without looking at the ball or Carey. The Australian keeper collects the ball and in one smooth movement underarms the ball back to the stumps, which are broken while Bairstow is out of his crease. The Australians appeal to the umpire. Bairstow is given out, initially and quite wrongly as "run out". Before long, and further embarrassment to the scorers, this is changed to stumped, which it was for no batsman was running and the stumps were broken by the 'keeper.
Before we get to the acrimony and explain why that is all codswallop, I must confess to my live reaction. I was laughing myself silly. The English keeper, of all people, wanders out of his crease to be stumped from 10 metres away by his Australian counterpart. This was absolutely hilarious. My brother texted me:
Naturally, Bairstow was livid, as were the engaged crowd. This must be one of the most ignominious ways for a 'keeper to be dismissed. Captain Stokes asks the standing umpire if 'over' had been called. It had not. He makes a key observation which he relates at the post match press conference, to which we shall return.
The first criticism of the dismissal comes from the English who see this as "not the done thing" couched in the language of "the spirit of cricket". As was noted on the BBC luncheon radio program with a collection of cricket reporters, "the spirit of cricket" is wheeled out to support some daft argument about a contentious section of play where the laws of the game don’t support the view presented. There were questions of why the Australian captain had not withdrawn the appeal, so desperate were these commentators.
These ideas are so wide of the mark that no shot is required to defend against them. The laws of the game are clear. When the ball is "live" (not dead) if the stumps are broken and no batsman has some part of his or her body touching the ground behind the line, then whichever batter was meant to be there is out, stumped, run out, or run out at the non-strikers' end (Mankad'd). The only question is what to write down as the mode of dismissal. Whether the ball was ‘live’ or whether it should have been ‘live’ or whether an appeal should have been lodged are the basis for the opprobrim from the English camp. Its all bunkum. The ball was live, without a doubt. An appeal was made. The umpires adjudicated. And your problem is?
There was an objection from an Australian friend who expressed that the dismissal showed no skill. It was missing some elegance or talent. This is patently false. Carey had observed the poor batsmanship from Bairstow, his desire to wander. I expect that the Australian ‘keeper calculated that the best way to trap him was off the last ball, but this is supposition. It is the way in which the stumping is delivered which is skillful. Carey is in fluid motion from when he takes the ball to when he releases it towards the stumps. The ball is certainly live when it meets Carey’s gloves. The fluid motion maintains that the ball is live as it leaves his hand, and thus is still live when it hits the stumps. There is no dithering or pause.
The underarming is not rapid. The whole movement is controlled to create the best opportunity, just enough time for brainless Bairstow to start wandering. This is brilliant wicket keeping, requiring observation, planning and careful delivery. You could ask any qualified umpire anywhere in the world to look at the footage and every single one of them would give Bairstow out, unless the on-field umpires had called over. This is the only escape and the only thing Carey could not control, apart from Bairstow's stupidity.
Lets take the suggestions from people who believe this was inappropriate or unbecoming. Geoff Lemon provided the most succinct approach to the topic. Replace the pace bowler with a spinner and that Carey is at the stumps. Bairstow would not have been so stupid, or if he had, nobody would argue about the dismissal. Imagine its not the wicket keeper, but short leg, or silly point who throws the stumps down. Nobody would argue. He's out.
The crux of the objection is to introduce a special rule to cricket whereby when a pace bowler is bowling the last ball of an over, the wicket keeper is back from the stumps and the batsman leaves the ball that the ball is somehow magically dead when the wicket keeper catches it.
We could re-express the above, in the specific circumstance outlined, as: every person on the fielding team can dismiss the batsman by breaking his stumps, except the wicket keeper.
Do you really want to write a law like this into the game?
Back to Stoke’s point. He says he had seen the umpires signaling to one another as they would between overs. This may have been why he asked if ‘over’ had been called.
If any review of this incident is to be made then this would be it. Was any uncertainty created in the minds of the facing batter because of this? I think not, and I would not like to add further burdens to the already encumbered umpires. However, if people wish to make a fuss of the incident, this is the only element of it which seems worthy of discussion.
Rules and Laws
The contention at the heart of the Bairstow incident is whether the ball is 'live'. While there is no uncertainty in this incident, the concept of a live or dead ball is interesting.
When laws are written and passed by parliaments the theoretical intention is that the law should be sufficiently clearly worded that edge cases are avoided or clearly dealt with. The scope of the legislation should be clear. This in turn, can lead to very wordy legislation to cover all of the edge cases. Even with hefty tomes of legislation running to the thousands of pages courts equipped with judges and juries are required to adjudicate cases where the accused submits a plea of not guilty.
These are matters of weight upon which an individual's liberty or livelihood are at stake, and even their life if the jurisdiction still employs capital punishment.
For the Bairstow stumping we are considering a game where the punishment to be meted out is reputational harm to be delivered by the media and a record of the result of the game in official records. There is a quintessentially beautiful element to this. The result, which may hang on a tiny incident across a five day game, is so important to followers of the game that such effort, including vitriol, is employed to comment upon it. This is possible because the rules (which are officially called "laws" for this game) are loose for some aspects of the game. The laws are written, and some require interpretation. They are cared for by a private organisation, the Marylebone Cricket Club. The judges, in this case called "umpires", are approved and trained by an independent body funded by both public and private organizations, the International Cricket Council. These umpires interpret the rules on the field of play.
If there is one rule of cricket to which there is no contention, no dissent, it is that whether correct or incorrect, an umpire's decision is final. Showing disrespect to an umpire, irrespective of any decision, is a serious offense and is not tolerated. This singular understanding is essential for there are edge cases. The question of whether a ball is live or not contains so many of these that it would be nigh impossible to describe them all, and so the umpires are burdened with assessing the situation on the field of play. The laws of the game are there to assist the umpires. A list of around 10 situations in which the ball becomes dead are provided. Whether the umpire should signal this on the field is optional, except in certain circumstances, and the key clause of whether the ball is dead or not leaves the decision in the hands of the umpires.
So, despite the specificity of some aspects of the dead ball laws, there are grey areas. The glaring 'in the hands of the umpires' case is the most common.
20.1 Ball is dead
20.1.1 The ball becomes dead when
126.96.36.199 it is finally settled in the hands of the wicket-keeper or of the bowler.
20.2 Ball finally settled
Whether the ball is finally settled or not is a matter for the umpire alone to decide.
Section 188.8.131.52 is describing the situation of a bowler delivering the ball and the ball either being collected by the 'keeper or bowler following whatever action by the bowler. These combined are the most common situation of a dead ball, and whether the ball is dead or not is up to the umpire. Clear as mud, right?
No, it is clear. One just needs to understand what is happening. Simon Taufel, an experienced and respected former international cricket umpire notified the BBC on the day of the incident to clarify for them, and the audience, the core nature of the dead ball decision. His comments were paraphrased as "The ball is dead when both teams have lost interest in the play." This, again, is not a technical expression which covers all edge cases. It is the essence of the game itself.
This is captured in the laws with:
20.1.2 The ball shall be considered to be dead when it is clear to the bowler’s end umpire that the fielding side and both batters at the wicket have ceased to regard it as in play.
This looks circular, does it not? No, it captures essence not specificity. The law uses 'and' to conjoin the fielding side and both batters with 'ceased to regard it as in play'. This is what Taufel is describing with "lost interest in play".
Every cricketer knows what this is.
For example, as soon as a wicket keeper, having taken the ball, passes it to first slip, it is dead. He signals that the play for the ball just delivered has ended by doing this. Similarly, if a fielder collects the ball and throws it to another player who starts shining the ball, the ball is dead either when the fielder throws the ball (if there is no running and the player to receive the ball is not near the stumps) or when the receiving player starts shining the ball. It is context dependent, but in each case, a player for the fielding team declares for their team that play has ended for the delivery. The ball is dead for the fielding team.
The batters may not agree with this.
Perhaps the throw to the player to polish the ball is wild and a run can be stolen? Off go the batters to "steal" a run. Is this "cheeky", or "not the done thing"? No. It is up to the fielding team to maintain control (and condition, if you want to get technical) of the ball when it is not in the hands of an umpire, else the batters can steal runs until the cows come home. This is why one of the ten-odd sub-clauses for the dead ball rule includes scoring a boundary. For at that point the ball is off the field and it is unfair to expect the fielding team to maintain control over it.
What happens in the Bairstow incident is the facing batter, Bairstow, declaring that he considers the ball dead and rendering the fielding teams choice on the matter irrelevant. The laws of the game came down gently and firmly on his hubris.
The core rule, or law if you will, covers the most common case by its essence, not its specificity. This in turn creates the space for all of the heated discussion, vitriol, wise words and other interaction. Through this we live and love the game as spectators and reflect on moments when we have played.
The flexibility, the use of the essence of a common understanding for the dead ball law gifts this space. It is a beautiful thing which is created by invoking shared understanding rather than specificity.
Why all the talk?
We all know that explaining the cause of some humor nullifies it, but I'm happy to extinguish the mirth I still feel at the look on Bairstow's face when he realizes what has happened by examining the community's response to the incident.
Firstly, lets just call out the sore losers. The English supporters knew that their team had been outplayed in the game and their last hope was Stokes. They'd just lost Duckett who'd played a great innings to keep the chase alive. The English supporters knew that Stokes needed some help to reduce the target. He needed another batsman who could withstand the short pitched bowling. Thus, their hopes were dashed with the Bairstow brainfade. Of course, Stuart Broad played really well. He took a few to the body, he engaged the crowd with his antics and showed clear defiance. And I loved it, as did the Lords crowd. Go Broady! The whole incident fired Stokes up like only he can be and the sixes flowed. Wonderful!
The "not in the spirit of cricket" people have really missed the forest for the trees. Bairstow's ignominious exit created the conditions for one of the greatest rear-guard centuries you will ever see and you're complaining about the legal dismissal that launched it? Really? If anyone could have pulled off that chase, it was Stokes. He gave it his all.
For the Australian viewer who felt an ugliness in the dismissal, there is a reason for that too. There is another underarm moment in Australia's cricketing history which lives on in an ignominy which far outshines anything that Bairstow can ever do; the Chappel delivery.
It's okay, Australian supporter, this was not that. This underarm was both fair and legal and entirely within the spirit of the game. It was very clever wicket keeping exploiting very poor batting by Bairstow, not the laws of the game. Breathe out, its okay. Acknowledge how good our current 'keeper is. He has all of the qualities we like in our wicket keepers. Yes, he's not Gilchrist. He's a mix of Gilly and Haddin. He is a team man, through and through. He's aware, nimble, has a good set of hands and contributes with the bat supporting the lower order or tail. For me, the greatest compliment is that Lyon likes bowling to him. From where I sit, that is very high praise.
Cummins and other "senior players" in the Australian team were there in 2019. We observers and our team on the field were caught in the moment, the horror of the potential repeat. Most of the Lords crowd was praying for this repeat, and almighty declaration of defiance . Australia's captain and those senior players recalled the lesson, and calmed down as many of us implored them:
The Australian team forced Stokes to take the slightly more difficult hoikes up the hill. Eventually, a mistake was made. The work that Australia had exerted over the previous days enabled them to begin to close the game. England did not give in. They fought, as is to be expected of them, to the end.
The match was fantastic. It would have been epic if Stokes had pulled off the chase, but that was not to be. It was hard fought. It moved, swung, enticed, and enthralled even burdened with a dull pitch. It was a match fitting for Lords between the oldest Test playing nations.
It was an Ashes Test.
Yes, I just declared that I am taking a break. I am. I'm still writing though, I need to keep practicing the craft. This article is published, but no notification is issued. That's how things are going to be until I'm "ready" to return to publishing.
Consider these random articles like studies, as an artist would do. Playing with ideas. Do not expect any consistency on the topics covered or frequency of publication. You may expect that they are attempts at reasonable writing. That is all.
I'll probably write a little more on cricket. I like it. Its obscure and fun. Its a topic I feel I can play with.
Feel free to like or comment.
Ashes Daily - Lord's 2023, Day 5, Geoff Lemon and Adam Collins, The Final Word, 2023-07-02
Dead Ball, Marylebone Cricket Club, The Laws of Cricket, updated 2017.