Sri Lankan Angelo Mathews being timed out during their World Cup clash with Bangladesh is yet another example of cricket’s continued troubles in comprehending basic common sense in the face of its rigid and often archaic set of rules.
Much of the debate over the bizarre, world-first dismissal has been centred on Bangladesh and captain Shakib Al Hasan’s decison to appeal for the wicket in the first place – but it really shouldn’t be.
Yes, it’s a cheap way to get a wicket – at least Alex Carey’s Ashes stumping of Jonny Bairstow, whatever side you take in that debate, required the skill of the wicketkeeper to throw the stumps down from distance, whereas all Shakib needed was an understanding of the rules of the game and an ability to count to 120 seconds.
But in the cutthroat world of professional cricket where wickets are hard to come by and the consequences for losing are often severe, it’s hard to be overly harsh on any player when they see an opportunity to take one and remove a dangerous opponent in a way accepted and upheld by the laws of the game, just as Carey did at Lord’s.
The so-called ‘spirit of the game’ is often used by the side copping the rough end of the stick as a rod with which to beat their conquerors: the only time anyone seeks to take the moral high ground is when the actual high ground is out of reach.
No, the issue here is not one of ethics, but of sensibleness: it is the latter measure which was comprehensively bungled in Delhi.
Every sport needs its laws in order to function, and cricket of course is no different – given the issues facing the game, especially in the shorter formats, regarding time-wasting and teams taking liberties with keeping proceedings going, it makes perfect sense to have the severest of penalties on hand to discourage them.
The problem, in Mathews’ case, is the lack of any flexibility when it comes to incidents with obvious extenuating circumstances such as this one – as well as the unwillingness from umpires Marais Erasmus and Richard Illingworth to judge that following the laws to the letter despite them was the right thing to do and not a farce.
Had Mathews dawdled his way to the wicket, or been unprepared to make his way out onto the playing field, and as a result not made it in time, that would have been one thing. But the sole reason for his dismissal – the first of its kind in nearly 150 years of international cricket – was because his helmet strap, a crucial piece of equipment for obvious safety reasons, broke just as he was preparing to take guard.
It wasn’t a faulty piece of equipment Mathews had carelessly walked out with, for which his ‘timed out’ dismissal would have certainly been deserved; but one which, as happens from time to time in the game, malfunctioned at what proved to be the most inopportune time possible.
The rules set in stone under both the MCC Laws and the World Cup playing conditions, which state that “the incoming batter must, unless Time has been called, be ready to receive the ball, or for the other batter to be ready to receive the next ball within 2 minutes of the dismissal or retirement“, simply don’t have the nuance to fairly adjudicate in incidents like this, where the reason for the delay is a freak accident and not one for which the batter can reasonably be held responsible for.
Adding to the farce is the fact that, had the strap broken a single ball later, or indeed had any other piece of equipment needing changing at any other point in Mathews’ innings, a delay would have been permitted to get a replacement with no risk of the Sri Lankan veteran being dismissed.
The icing on the cake was that, in removing Mathews for time-wasting, the umpires convened a lengthy mid-pitch discussion with the 36-year old and batting partner Charith Asalanka, as well as with Bangladesh captain Shakib Al Hasan, by which point Mathews’ replacement helmet had arrived: the result being that more time was wasted than if he had simply been allowed to change his helmet and begin his innings normally.
The unfairness of Mathews’ dismissal is only magnified when one considers just how lax the ICC in general is about the many other incidents of time-wasting that we see in every single match, with consequences far more minor than what were faced in Delhi on Monday.
Bowling teams are allowed to change fields with every passing ball, take unscheduled drinks breaks, or hold extravagant conferences in late overs to determine tactics, with their only punishment a fielder not permitted outside the inner circle for every over bowled after the stated playing time elapses. Hardly comparable to the price Mathews and Sri Lanka faced of losing his wicket.
Making things even more laughable is the reveal from fourth umpire Adrian Holdstock, speaking to Ian Bishop on the international broadcast feed, that Mathews had in fact already taken more than two minutes to be ready to face even before his helmet strap broke – but was only able to be given out when Bangladesh made their appeal.
“In the instance this afternoon, the batter wasn’t ready to receive the ball within those two minutes, even before the strap became an issue for him,” Holdstock said.
“The fielding captain requested or initiated the appeal to Marais Erasmus… just after the strap came loose.”
If the ICC were truly serious about stamping time-wasting from the game, then surely the right move would be to take away the need for an opposition team to appeal for a timed-out dismissal, instead blaring klaxons or flashing a message up on the scoreboard just as what is now done to inform umpires when a bowler has sent down a no-ball: it begs the question, how often have batters even at this World Cup faced up after the two-minute time limit, only for no one to have any clue that they have transgressed?
In a perfect world, after Shakib made his appeal to the umpires, they would have spoken with Mathews, realised the reason for the delay was out of his control – if necessary, via a video replay that would have confirmed the strap breaking with Mathews at the crease – and deemed there to be extenuating circumstances that justified a not out decision.
The incident hearkens back to the infamously farcical finish to the 2007 World Cup final, when Australia and Sri Lanka (once again) were forced to play out a rain-interrupted match in near total darkness, after the umpires deemed that under the tournament’s playing conditions (later found to be a bad misunderstanding of the laws) they would either have to do that or finish the game the next day.
It was only the good sense of Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene that allowed a match Australia were no chance of losing to be completed in that way.
So here we are again, after yet another example of cricket’s laws being found not fit for purpose on the international stage, and umpires either unwilling or unable to overrule them even when they fall short.
It’s not the spirit of the game which let Angelo Mathews and Sri Lanka down in Delhi – it was their sport’s total inability to prioritise common sense over rules that regularly show themselves to be inadequate in handling the myriad of wild and wacky scenarios that crop up in this bonkers game of ours.