Pringle column: What led the MCC to introduce a law that tempts the fate of controversy?

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By Derek Pringle

You’ve heard the expression “the law is an ass” – especially when its application to the letter contravenes common sense. The game of cricket is bound by laws and while most are useful there comes along, every now and then, one that highlights the silent ‘s’  in asinine.

The latest to have caught my eye is the one on ‘Fake Fielding’ – Law 41.5 for those who like numbers. For reasons best known to themselves, MCC, the self-appointed guardians of the Laws of Cricket, have decided that any attempts by fielders into fooling the batsman that they have intercepted the ball, when they haven’t, is an act of such dastardly subterfuge as to be worthy of punishment – in this case the awarding of five runs to one’s opponents.

It is a penalty that places it on the same level as ball-tampering an act some, but not all, consider to be among the most heinous in sport. MCC claim fake fielding to be against the spirit of the game, something that could just as easily be levelled at their new queueing policy for Lord’s Test matches, though that is another story.

The Law, which came in recently, has already been applied, Marnus Labuschagne incurring the penalty after pretending to intercept a cover drive by Param Upal, during a match between Queensland and a Cricket Australia XI in Brisbane last week. Labuschagne’s actions, where he stood up after diving, imaginary ball in hand and feigned to throw, made Upal hesitate, though the batsmen did eventually complete the run which stood along with the five added for the contravention of Law 41.5.

Am I being thick here, but why can the batsmen not watch where the ball has gone? If they can locate a 90mph delivery coming at them from 22 yards they should be able to see whether or not a fielder has it in his hand. Where I would perhaps draw a line is if a fielder does collect the ball but then makes out as if they have missed it, their action emboldening the batsman to set off for a run that is not there.

You sometimes see wicketkeepers do it when standing up, then whipping off the bails when the unsuspecting batsman sets off for a run. For me, that is a deliberate attempt to mislead, rather like the batsman who rubs their arm or shoulder after they have gloved the ball behind – calculated actions in an attempt to misdirect the umpire.

Pretending you have the ball when you don’t differs in that it is more speculative in nature, something batsmen do all the time when they stand their ground full in the knowledge that they have edged a catch. It is up to batsmen in the first instance, and the umpires in the second, not to be fooled.

MCC, through Fraser Stewart, their Laws of Cricket Manager, say the law was passed after their global consultation on the matter received an overwhelming response. What they don’t say is how many of those in favour were batsmen.

Deception is part of cricket so why can’t fielders play their part? You wouldn’t expect Yasir Shah to announce his googly or flipper before he bowled it, or Jimmy Anderson his in-swinger.

It is a potential minefield of interpretation, too, with umpires having to decide fairly quickly and often without replay, whether a fielder’s actions are firstly a ‘deception’, and then whether that deception is ‘deliberate’.

That places judgment on a case-by-case basis though with five-run penalties for every infringement, and with white ball games potentially hinging on such infractions, expect teams to start employing lawyers to fight their cause.

Talking about lawyers in cricket, Middlesex are probably employing a few to fight their relegation after they missed out on staying up by two points, the same number they were deducted for a slow over-rate.

Middlesex’s beef is that they received the penalty during the match against Surrey at the Kia Oval, the game that was subsequently abandoned after a man fired a crossbow bolt onto the outfield.

Although batting at the time, their argument is that had the game run its natural course, they could have declared their second innings and bowled again, getting their over-rate up to acceptable levels in the process. If that really was their plan it was a spurious one.

They aren’t, of course, the first team to feel hard done by. In 1989, a 25-point penalty for a sub-standard pitch cost Essex the Championship title, Worcestershire eventually beating them into second place by six points.

What irked was that the pitches, at Southchurch Park in Southend, were not deliberately underprepared. For some reason, the council did not allow Essex’s groundsman access to the three strips that would be used (two Championship matches and one Sunday League game), using their own staff to undertake the various work needed.

Both the Championship pitches broke up a bit and Essex won both games, against Kent and Yorkshire, comfortably despite losing the toss on each occasion. Neither strip was perfect but they were better than the one we played Nottinghamshire on at Trent Bridge.

Notts would later be penalised for a sub-standard pitch but this should have joined it even if the first day scores did not reflect its foibles – excessive sideways movement as well as variable bounce.

As captain of Essex (Gooch and Foster were on Test duty) I called a Press conference at the end of the match to say that while Essex were happy to play on any surface, and that we’d been beaten fair and square, judging the standard of the pitch was far too subjective for the policy to be even-handed.

The ‘Presser’ was a bad move even if the point being made was not. The umpires saw it as an attack on them and it soured my relationship with one them for the remainder of my career.

So, let it go Middlesex. As 2016 Champions you did not defend your crown resolutely enough. For you to be shown clemency now would be both ill-deserved and unfair to the other teams who stayed up.

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