Stephen Brenkley: Do not say 'it's not cricket' - moral grey areas define the game

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The Independent Online

Cricket abounds with ethical dilemmas. Sometimes they appear to be the reason for its existence, as if it alone can provide a nation's moral compass. The latest example seems certain to influence the temper of the rest of the summer, or at least the Test series of two matches between England and Sri Lanka.

Jos Buttler, the country's new batting genius, was run out while backing up in the fifth one-day international between the sides at Edgbaston on Tuesday night. There was instant perplexity, which was complemented by outrage and righteousness in equal measure.

The incident was complicated. Buttler had barely left his crease at the non-striker's end and the bowler, Sachithra Senanayake, made as if to begin his delivery action. Equally Buttler (and his partner, Chris Jordan) had already been warned by Senanayake in the previous over for stealing ground.

This was Sri Lanka's justification for making the appeal and declining to withdraw it. But they must have been well aware of the fuss it would cause. For the bowler to execute a run-out while the batsman is backing up – unless he is clearly sprinting down the track – is one of those actions that is mysteriously considered beyond the pale, although it is completely legitimate under the Laws of the game.

Yet earlier in the match, to nobody's disapproval, Joe Root of England stood his ground when he must have known his glove had brushed the ball, after which it looped to the wicketkeeper. Only the fact that Sri Lanka implemented the decision review system led to Root's dismissal. Otherwise he would have remained.

Alastair Cook, England's captain, gamely tried to split the two issues. "I'm quite happy for anyone to stand there and not walk, you get given not out and you're out, that's the way it is, it's how you handle it that's probably more important.

"The umpires are there to make a decision, it's just a different way, for some reason it's different. In my opinion there is a line and that line I think was crossed."

Most people, except Sri Lankans on this occasion, probably agreed with him. Yet the game has other apparent contradictions. For instance, it is perfectly acceptable for a bowler, usually a spinner, to rub his finger on the ground near the footholes to try to erase perspiration. But woe betide him if he were to pick up some of the same soil and rub it on to the ball to try to change its condition.

Players accept sledging up to a point, as they always have. There is an old joke about the early Victorian sledger fielding close to the bat who said to the top-hatted batsman: "I don't imagine your mother's sister's cousin is a particularly pleasant person."

Sledging is a little more personal now but seemingly accepted. Interfering with the ball using your fingernails, running up and down the pitch to try to alter its condition and claiming a catch knowing it has hit the ground are all crimes and misdemeanours. As Cook said, "for some reason it's different", which is the way it is.