By Hemant Buch
The Wanderers in Johannesburg has made a habit of being associated with memorable cricket, particularly memorable ODI cricket. It was here, remember, that South Africa, powered by Herschelle Gibbs’ 175, edged past Australia’s mammoth 434 fifteen years ago.
Yesterday, it fell to one more knock of genius, this time from Pakistan’s
Fakhar Zaman, to set the seal on another fabulous game of cricket. The left-handed opener, who has been struggling for form of late, and was under pressure to retain his place in the team, played the innings of a lifetime, clattering a top-class attack to all parts of the ground as he notched up 193, the highest ever individual score in an ODI chase.
But a game that should have been remembered for the excellence of South Africa’s top 5, and for the pace and fury of Anrich Nortje, followed by Zaman’s blistering counter-attack, ended in controversy, and a debate on ‘fake fielding’.
Zaman himself deserved better. He had fought a lone battle throughout the innings. The next highest score was Babar Azam’s 31, and he had stayed in from the start, watching the carnage unfold at the other end. It had been a measured knock and he was in his 90s when the last recognised batsman, Faheem Ashraf, fell in the 38th over. At that point, Pakistan still needed 137 runs to win in just over 12 overs, with only the bowlers to follow.
What transpired thereafter was a brutal assault, as Pakistan put on 107 runs for the next two wickets, with Zaman’s partners only contributing 6 runs between them. As the final over began, 31 were needed and Zaman was on strike.
A slower ball from Lungi Ngidi was slammed to long-off where Aiden Markram fielded it beautifully and hurled it back. Quinton De Kock behind the stumps gestured towards the non-striker’s end and Zaman, looking for two, turned back to check on whether his partner, Haris Rauf would make it back safely. As he turned, he got the shock of his life as he saw the ball arrowing in towards his end. He stretched out, but it was too late – Markram’s throw had come in like the proverbial tracer bullet, hurled in from 80 yards, straight onto the stumps and Zaman found himself well short, much to de Kock’s joy.
The fact that the ball was thrown in from perhaps the farthest point on the field to the stumps with such power and precision seems to have been forgotten in the furore that followed the dismissal. As is often the case, the indignation poured in, not on the field, but from the outside, particularly on social media. Wasn’t this a case of ‘fake fielding’, asked former cricketers, journalists and Pakistan fans alike. Later the MCC, who draw up the laws, came in with their own take, tweeting “Law 41.5.1 states: “It is unfair for any fielder wilfully to attempt, by word or action, to distract, deceive or obstruct either batsman after the striker has received the ball. The Law is clear, with the offence being an ATTEMPT to deceive, rather than the batsman actually being deceived. It’s up to the umpires to decide if there was such an attempt. If so, then it’s Not out, 5 Penalty runs + the 2 they ran, and batsmen choose who faces next ball.”
Clearly Marais Erasmus and Allahudien Palekar, the officiating umpires did not think de Kock’s actions translated into “fake fielding” and neither, to be fair, did the batsman. Zaman blamed nobody but himself, saying he was too busy looking back, as his partner had been slow to set off and he was worried he may be caught short.
It isn’t inconceivable that de Kock was asking Markram to throw to the bowler’s end as that would have been easier and faster, and Markram threw to the wrong end. It could also be, that since Markram was throwing from long-off, it wasn’t clear where he might throw to and de Kock was asking the bowler to be ready behind the stumps. Or, as is most likely, he could have been attempting to throw off the batsman. But he would have to have been a soothsayer to have thought up a grand plan where he would distract the batsman enough for him to be so thrown off that he would dawdle as long as it was required for a direct hit to come in and find him short.
For the umpires to conclude that this was fake fielding, would have taken a whole lot of guesswork and was always unlikely to happen. And those on field, particularly the man at the centre of it all, the batsman himself, did not believe the wicketkeeper had done anything wrong. There, the matter should have rested.
The fact that it didn’t is more to do with the fact that cricket has this ability to convolute even the simplest of events. The laws of the game and their interpretation, coupled with this nebulous, ever-shifting ‘spirit of cricket’ that seems to transcend even the laws, makes it pretty confusing for not just the lay-viewers, but cricketers and pundits as well. So many things in cricket are open to interpretation, that controversy never seems far away.
Take this law for example. It is fairly recent, having come into being less than four years ago. And the reason it was brought in? Apparently, the fact that fielders often pretended to have the ball in their hand, was fooling batsmen into not taking runs they might otherwise have attempted. This was thought to be unfair and against the spirit of cricket, and it was felt that this needed to be stamped out. Deception was apparently against the spirit of cricket.
Sport though – and cricket is no exception – feeds off deception. A fast bowler bowling a slower ball, a slow bowler bowling a faster ball, a bowler bowling from well behind the stumps, stopping in his delivery stride, a batsman reverse sweeping, or even (the horror!) switch hitting, wicketkeepers flicking the ball behind their back onto the stumps (think Dhoni) – the examples are endless – are all aimed to deceive the opponent. One could argue that bowlers appealing for a catch behind to try and prevent umpires from signalling a wide, or batsmen moving around in their crease are also attempting deceive.
Tennis, badminton, football, motorsport, even chess thrive on deception and to equate deception with cheating is just plain wrong. Not all deception is cheating, though all cheating is deception. The ICC (and by extension the MCC) need to take a long, hard look at the ‘fake fielding’ law and realise that it is creating more problems than it solves.
(The author is a former Sr VP, Ten Sports and currently directs and produces sports broadcasts around the world. He tweets @hemantbuch)