Jos Buttler was run out as the non-striking batsman in the 44th over of Tuesday’s final ODI between England and Sri Lanka, and absolute pandemonium broke out on the cricket interwebs. Buttler had backed up too far, Sachithra Senanayake broke the bails with Buttler a yard out of his crease, and he appealed to the umpire for a dismissal. After consulting with Sri Lanka captain Angelo Matthews, umpire Michael Gough raised his finger and England subsided to 199 for 7.
Others have written very well on Tuesday’s circumstances and the curiosity of asking the fielding captain to uphold the appeal, but there is more going on in this debate. At root, it’s about an essential element of sport: balancing risk and reward.
Cricket can be distilled to the following: the movement of humans and objects around a space that has certain regulated parameters and rules that control the movement of the humans within the space as they aim to achieve set goals (scoring runs and taking wickets). When a batsman backs up, leaving his crease before the ball is bowled, he gains an advantage not explicitly granted to him in the Laws of the Game or the ICC playing regulations, as this movement makes it easier for him to complete a run.
The mankad allows some balance between the batting and fielding sides. Any sportsperson must judge the risks and rewards of an action before taking it, whether making a long crossfield pass in football, raising the pace on a leading group in cycling, or attempting to clear the fielder on the boundary in cricket. Without the potential of being mankaded, batsmen will only be rewarded from backing up; there will be no risk of dismissal. How could this be fair to bowlers or fielding teams?
It obviously is not. Yet every time there is an incident of this type (the two most recent have been R Ashwin’s withdrawn appeal against Lahiru Thirimanne and Murali Kartik’s mankad of Alex Barrow in the County Championship), many people leap to criticize the fielding side! But as Angelo Matthews said today, what else are they to do? There is no sanction imposed upon batsmen who back up to far – except the mankad. In Buttler’s case, they had offered him repeated warnings, and he continued to walk a yard down the pitch by the time Senanayake released the ball. The Sri Lankans were faced with choosing between opprobrium from the sanctimonious British press if they ran Buttler out (see CricketingView’s blog, the first link above, for a sample) or allowing the opposition to steal quick runs by gaining an unfair advantage.
The fielding side needs a deterrent to keep batsmen from walking yards down the track, and the mankad is that deterrent. Quite a few batsmen will get mankaded in backyard and Sunday league cricket after bowlers have seen this week’s reminder of that option – and it’s a great thing for the sport. To maintain (or restore) balance between bat and ball, which is fundamental to cricket, batsmen like Buttler have to be reminded to stay in their crease until the ball is bowled. The threat of being mankaded will keep them there.