Through ten years in the US of A, I never much cared for that great American pastime, baseball. A couple of other Indian pals grew to love the sport, and would often ask me to go to a game with them. But I rarely did. Give me basketball, every time.

I don’t know if this indifference was because of, or in spite of, being a fan of cricket, that superficially similar game of bat connecting with flung ball. But the few times I did watch baseball, I was far less interested in the actual score than the idiosyncrasies of the game, the various antics that are always happening on the field. Like the way the catcher signals to his pitcher, fingers firmly in crotch. Like the various umpires’ emphatic arm flourishes. Like the novelty of a base coach, his job to tell the runner whether he should keep running or stop. Like the commentary when there’s a home run, the gravelly voice that cries out: “You can tell that one goodbye!”

And my favourite? Right before going into that glorious leg-hoisting pirouette to fling the ball at the batter, the pitcher stands there making sidelong glances here and there. What’s that about, I wondered when I first saw it. What’s he looking for, a secret lover?

That romantic notion was quickly dispelled, of course. He’s looking to see if anyone’s even thinking of stealing a base. That is, if you’re on the batting team and you’ve reached one of the three bases, you’re at liberty to try to run to the next one, if you think you can reach it, during a pitch.

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Your nearest base coach, of course, will help you decide whether you have the time to “steal a base” in this way. The pitcher, of course, wants you to stay put on your base. If he thinks you’re about to steal, he is at liberty to throw the ball to the appropriate baseman, who will attempt to tag you out. Or sometimes it’s the catcher who sees you stealing and fires the ball across the diamond to get you.

Whichever it is, this intricate tango is integral to the game — in fact, it’s one of the charms of the game. A successfully stolen base invariably generates oohs and aahs, and there are plenty of YouTube compilations of spectacular steals.

[This “Stealing home compilation”, for example, has several delightful examples and nearly 6 million views].


I’ve been thinking of stolen bases in the wake of cricket’s most recent “Mankading” uproar. [There have been others].

Recap: In a recent IPL game, Ravi Ashwin was running up to bowl. From the opposing team, Jos Buttler was at the non-striker’s end, ready to run if needed. In being ready, he was also doing what nearly all non-strikers do: taking an anticipatory step or three down the pitch. Ashwin stopped, waited for an unsuspecting Buttler to entirely leave the crease, and then ran Buttler out. This kind of dismissal is named for the great Indian all-rounder of the 1950s, Vinoo Mankad, who once used it in a Test match against England.

What ensued, from practically the moment Ashwin knocked off the bails, was a storm of outrage and comment. Ashwin acted contrary to the “spirit” of cricket. Buttler tried to get an advantage, thus “cheating”, and only got what was coming to him. Ashwin should have warned Buttler once and only then, if he repeated the “offence”, run him out. Butler is a “repeat offender” and should have known better.

And I’m following this, and I’m totally bemused.

Let’s get one thing clear, first of all. The laws of cricket allow such a wicket. There’s some room for interpretation, of course, and that’s why the game has umpires.

In other words, there was nothing wrong in what Ashwin did. But equally, there’s nothing wrong in what Buttler did either. Certainly he was seeking an advantage, but in doing so he was simply taking a risk. At other times the risk might have paid off, in the form of a quick run or two. This time it failed, because the bowler ran him out.

This is the way to consider this episode, and “Mankading” in general: as just another part of the game.
Take two parallels that might help make this clear.

First, let’s suppose the batter facing Ashwin — Buttler’s partner, whoever he was — decides to take his stance halfway down the pitch. Most cricket watchers, and Buttler, and their teammates, and Ashwin and his teammates, would think he was crazy. Crazy to take such a risk, that is. But nobody would call him a cheat. And if Ashwin bowled the ball high over the batter’s head for the wicketkeeper to make an easy stumping, nobody would accuse either man of acting against the “spirit of cricket”. Nobody would seriously suggest, either, that Ashwin should have warned the guy once and only then had him stumped.

And in fact, there are batsmen who routinely do take their stance outside the crease, if not halfway down the pitch. One Virat Kohli comes to mind. Far from cheating or offending, it’s a calculated risk that they are fully prepared to take. Not only that, there are plenty of times when such risks bring rewards. Think, for example, of a bye to a deepset wicketkeeper, which is a perfectly legitimate way of making a run. If either or both batters manage to take a start, the bye becomes that much easier.

Second, consider baseball’s stolen bases. Again, nobody suggests that the stealer is cheating. Nobody says the pitcher is acting contrary to the spirit of baseball when he turns quickly and pumps the ball to his fielder, to tag the stealer out. Nobody urges him to warn the stealer once first. He merely watches in that sidelong way and decides whether to call the stealer’s bluff.

Sometimes he wins, sometimes the base stealer wins. And all this is why base stealing is such a crowd-pleaser, so much a part of the sport.

Seems to me it’s well past time that cricket looked at Mankading in the same dispassionate way. It’s a matter of risks, with consequent rewards (runs) and penalties (wickets), that’s all.

See it like that, and Mankading will spark no outrage, no accusations of bringing the game into disrepute — and, dear gods of the game, none of this airy-fairy stuff called “spirit” that nobody really understands, but too many invoke superciliously when convenient.

Instead, we’ll have cricket played hard-nosed and fair, athletic and scintillating. Cricket played, in fact, as it was always meant to be played.

P.S. Thanks to KS Sridhar for the discussions that led to this article