India, the top-ranked cricket nation in the world, have received glowing praise despite a crushing defeat at the hands of England, who now look set to steal India’s place at the top of the international pecking order.
Tributes have been lavished on the Indians after a moment of sportsmanship that damaged their own chances of victory at a crucial point in the match. As England were building a lead on day four of the second test match at Trent Bridge, their top scorer Ian Bell (pictured) committed what can only be described as a schoolboy error; thinking his batting partner Eoin Morgan had hit a boundary off the last ball before the tea interval, Bell wandered nonchalantly off the pitch towards the clubhouse ready for a well-deserved cake and a rest. However, the ball had not touched the ropes and the Indian fielders threw the ball back and appealed to the umpire for a run-out decision. Television replays confirmed what was, strictly speaking, the right decision: Bell was out of his ground and therefore, in accordance with the laws of the game, dismissed. The (mainly English) crowd was in uproar. Bell had scored 137 runs and looked ready to steer England into a dominant, match-winning position.
After tea, the Indians ran back on the pitch to a cacophony of boos. But they were followed by none other than Bell himself. Unbeknown to the crowd, English captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower had gone to the Indian dressing room and asked captain MS Dhoni if he would consider rescinding the appeal and allow Bell to carry on. Dhoni was under no obligation to indulge the English and could have simply refused the request and removed an obstacle lying between his team and possible victory. But after talking with some senior members of the Indian team, he decided that Bell could be reinstated. Bell went on to add 22 runs to his total and England went on to build a lead so enormous that it effectively took the game away from India.
Former Indian cricket greats came out to applaud Dhoni’s sporting gesture. Gundappa Viswanath said the “spirit of the game is of paramount importance rather than winning or losing…there are times when it’s your inner call that tells you what is right. I really appreciate Dhoni’s decision to call Bell back.”
Anil Kumble, one of India’s greatest ever bowlers, agreed. “I think at the end of it, you are playing a sport and you have to take a call on whether the game is bigger than an individual and I think that is what Dhoni did,” he said. Sunil Gavaskar said “Full marks to Dhoni and Team India for upholding the spirit of the game. That’s how the game should be played.”
India’s sports minister Ajay Maken added his voice to the praise, saying “Proud of you Dhoni. Spirit of the game is more important than the result. Win the hearts and you will win the game too.”
However not everyone appreciated Dhoni’s clemency. Former Indian cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar argued that Bell was being “very casual, almost careless…and deserved to be out.” And several former England captains also said Dhoni should have dug his feet in. Ian Botham said that Bell “had no right to expect to be batting after the break. He was out….I would have had no problem if (Dhoni) had upheld it and sent a message about dopey cricket.”
Michael Atherton went further, saying that “In this instance, some spurious notion of the spirit of the game has actually subverted the laws of the game, and, therefore the natural progression of the game. It was Bell, not India, who made a mistake yesterday and Dhoni should not have been castigated for initially upholding the appeal. It had nothing to do with the Spirit of Cricket.”
Arguments about whether sportsmanship has any place in sport aside, the record books will say that India were thrashed by 319 runs. England now lead the four-match series 2-0. If they win the series by two matches, they will replace India as the number one cricketing side in the world for the first time in 31 years.