James Lawton: Rule of Law is trampled on to protect 'spirit of the game'

By commuting Bell’s sentence, India saved Trent Bridge from bitter scenes of recrimination that almost certainly would have also polluted the rest of the series

However it turns out in the second Test, whether England roll to their second straight victory and a few heartbeats away from becoming world cricket's No 1 team, or the Indians make an unlikely return from the dead, there will always be two irrefutable, unassailable facts.

One is that Ian Bell played an innings of great beauty and brilliant competitive edge.

The other is that it should have ended at the stroke of tea yesterday when, at the end of two sessions of flawless concentration, he broke a cardinal rule of the game.

He left his ground when play was still alive. He was run out, not sneakily, iniquitously or any other way that would have justified the bear-pit booing which greeted the umpires and Indian team when they returned to the field while the Trent Bridge crowd still believed that Bell's innings was over.

That it was not, that the tea-time appeal of England captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower had managed to persuade Indian captain MS Dhoni to abandon his appeal, naturally and dramatically changed the mood. Cheers replaced the jeers and everything in the English garden was rosy again. Except that it wasn't.

What had happened was a burst of sentimental cricket illiteracy.

Laws are not there to be pushed aside when it suits the prejudices of any particular audience. Infinitely better for the development of this increasingly impressive England team, and Bell, who was been in such wonderful nick for so long now, would have been the acceptance that for all the glory of his latest century, he had made a fundamental error. It happens. It is what shapes the implicit understanding of those who play games which demand discipline – and especially one filled with as many nuances as cricket.

Great golf tournaments have been surrendered for much less than the error made by Bell when he failed to establish beyond doubt that the ball was dead before rushing off to a well- earned break.

What really was the basis of the appeal to Dhoni by Strauss and Flower? Was it that there had been a miscarriage of justice? No, that couldn't be so because the Indians and the umpires had all behaved impeccably. They had followed the laws of the game, quite simply.

Praveen Kumar, the fielder whose somewhat languid but plainly successful attempt to prevent the boundary first created the confusion in Bell's mind, made it clear that he did not know whether the ball had hit the boundary rope. Dhoni transferred the ball to a team-mate at the stumps, the bails were removed and Dhoni appealed. The verdict went to third official Billy Bowden, who ruled in the only way available to him. He said that Bell was out. So where was there to go? Only, of course, to that uncharted philosophical country known as the spirit of the game.

Strauss's face on the balcony was a picture of disdain and disgust, and no doubt there was little change in his demeanour when he presented himself with Flower at the door of the Indian dressing-room.

Dhoni, we are told, carried the English pleading back to his team. The consensus was that Bell should be reinstated, which was a display of generosity repeated when he fell after adding 22 more runs. Generosity, perhaps, was involved but maybe also a degree of working statesmanship. That certainly was the effect of the earlier decision, when a mob reaction so quickly returned to the sweetness of a mellow sports crowd.

Unquestionably, by commuting Bell's sentence, India saved Trent Bridge from bitter scenes of recrimination that almost certainly would have also polluted the rest of the series. But were they right? The instant debate was predictably furious. Former England captains David Gower, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain argued strongly and cogently for the rule of the law. David Lloyd and Shane Warne, of all people, for "the spirit of the game", but the latter did so much less persuasively once he was asked to speculate on the reaction his old captain Steve Waugh might have had on receipt of the request made to Dhoni by Strauss and Flower.

The truth is that when cricket was asked a basic question yesterday it blinked in an entirely unsatisfactory way. It wasn't asked to adjudicate on a piece of sharp practice or borderline skulduggery. An umpire didn't plead, as one once did, unsuccessfully to another captain, England's Paul Collingwood, for an appeal to be withdrawn "in the spirit of the game" but merely sought confirmation that one had been registered. Then due process followed with an unequivocal decision.

So why was it revoked? Because England, backed by a wave of home- crowd emotion, pleaded their case. Their only case was that Bell was confused and acted in ignorance, which means that on one occasion at least ignorance of the law has been an effective defence. In the end, of course, the near certainty is that this will be a controversy of significance barely brushing the outcome of this second Test. This was virtually guaranteed when Matt Prior and Tim Bresnan picked up their cudgels after Bell left, finally, with the warm congratulations of the great Rahul Dravid ringing in his ears, and Eoin Morgan completed some fine entrenchment of his Test place after a run of indifferent form.

However, this didn't prevent a gushing statement from the English cricket board which spoke of a great triumph for the spirit of cricket – an underlining of some of the game's deepest values. It spoke of the wonderful entertainment value provided so far in a little more than one and a half Tests, and it allowed that India's appeal had been entirely valid.

Sometimes there is a special value in silence, one which was not notably well served when the world's ruling authority, the ICC, weighed in with the confirming view that this was indeed a fine day for the Test game, which it has so thoroughly undermined in recent years. It was a triumph for that famous spirit and goodwill of cricket. Just a small pity, then, that the cost was a trampling of the quite important matter of the laws of the game.