The 2nd ODI between England and Australia at Lords will be remembered for reasons other than those related to the result. The match will forever go down in history for recording the sixth instance of a batsman being given out as “obstructing the field” in ODI history. The incidence happened in the 26th over when Ben Stokes drove Mitchell Starc who stretched his left hand and takes an aim at the stumps.
The unfortunate batsman obstructs the ball with his left glove apparently instinctively to protect himself from the hard leather ball hurled by a bowler who consistently bowls at over 145ks.The bowler appeals, the on field umpires Sri Lankan, Kumar Dharmasena and Tim Robinson converge and it seemed as if the appeal would be turned down but amid the boos ringing around the hallowed stadium, Stokes was given out by umpire Joe Wilson. The last time an England batsman was given out obstructing the field in international cricket was the great Len Hutton, at the Oval in 1951.
The laws regarding fielding, 37 (1) and (2), are clear on this issue. Law 37 (1) states that a batsman is obstructing the field if he wilfully obstructs or distracts the opposing side by word or action. It is also regarded as obstruction if a batsman willfully, and without the consent of the fielding side, strikes the ball with his bat or person – other than the hand not holding the bat – after the ball has touched a fielder. And Law 37 (2), on accidental obstruction, states it is for either umpire to decide whether any obstruction or distraction is willful or not. Furthermore, the umpires can consult each other in case of any doubt.
While the laws are certainly not the issue here, the discretionary power of the umpires to decide whether an obstruction is wilful or not certainly is. There is also an issue whether the fielding team should appeal or not and whether such an appeal is in the “spirit of the game”. While many may not see eye to eye on this, the point remains that this law cannot be removed from the rule book as doing such would implicitly allow batsmen to “wilfully” obstruct the ball which would encourage a spirit that is detrimental to that of the sport. It would also make an already skewed game more biased in favour of the batsmen.
The debate on the legality and sportsmanship of obstructing the field is once again on the centre stage of the cricketing world. The last time it occupied the spotlight was when former Pakistan captain Inzamam Ul Haq was declared out obstructing the field against India back in 2006 at Peshawar. While the issue was hotly debated then and is likely to be debated once more now, one cannot argue against its legality or its necessity. The role of the umpires’ discretion needs to be curbed but the golden question still remains whether element of doubt in such instances should be given to the batsman or to the fielding side. In meantime, one will need to decide for oneself if Ben Stokes deserved to dismissed obstructing the field.