From Hutton to Stokes, few happy with Obstruction verdict

The unseemly din refuses to die down, though it has been two days since the scorers inked in the entry “Ben Stokes Obstructing the Field 10” during England’s second ODI against Australia at the Oval on Saturday. Steve Finn tried to get everyone to move away from the dismissal but New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum threw in some criticism of Australian captain Steve Smith.

The cricket world does appear divided at the moment and terms like Laws of Cricket and Spirit of Cricket are being freely bandied about. Only Stokes will know if he was merely taking evasive action or willfully sticking his left hand out to obstruct the cricket ball hurtling wicket-ward. It would be silly, though, to let this come in the way of spirited battles on the pitch.

Indeed, it is not as if the decision can lead to the divisive situation that the Bodyline controversy of 1932-33 sparked. England captain Eoin Morgan was right in pointing out at the end of the match that the umpires’ decision to rule Stokes out and Australia’s decision not to withdraw the appeal did not alter the outcome of the game.

Thankfully, umpires are rarely called to adjudicate on appeals for Obstructing the Field in international cricket, Stokes being only the player to be ruled out in this manner on English soil after Sir Len Hutton in a 1951 Test between England and South Africa at the Oval. Three of other five such dismissals came in the sub-continent and the others in South Africa.

There should have been one in Australia as well. But David Hussey was lucky not to have been ruled out in such fashion after he patted down a throw from Suresh Raina and stopped it from hitting the wicket at the striker’s end in a Sydney ODI in 2012. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and team were visibly disappointed that their appeal was turned down by Simon Taufel and Billy Bowden.

Clearly, it is domain of the umpire to decide whether a batsman obstructs the field ‘willfully’ or not. Yet, few batsmen are likely to be happy when the decision goes against them. Sir Len Hutton’s reminiscences more than three decades after being the first batsman in international cricket to be ruled out Obstructing the field are a case in point.

Len Hutton wrote about his August 18, 1951 dismissal in his 1984 book Fifty Years in Cricket. “I have the doubtful distinction of being the only batsman in Test history to have been given out for obstruction,” he said. “Frank Lowson, my Yorkshire colleague, and I were going steadily towards the 163 runs England needed to win. We had reached 53 when (off-spinner) Athol Rowan pitched a ball to me outside the leg stump which turned an inch or so. By then the pitch had lost some of its pace and, fractionally early, I got a top edge (all the versions that I was hit on the glove and that ball ran up my arm were wrong). I saw the ball leap up in front of my eyes, and my first reaction was to think that if it hit the ground it could spin back on to my stumps. Instinctively, I put my bat up to fend off the ball.

“There was no way of my knowing that wicketkeeper Russell Endean was poised to take a catch – indeed the whole affair was over in a flash – and the moment my bat made contact with the ball, there was an appeal from several fielders. There was never any intention on my part to prevent the wicketkeeper, or any of the other fielders, taking a catch. Nor had I thought of going for a run. Umpire Dai Davies, supported by Frank Chester, who seemed to take immediate charge of the situation, gave me out. Amid the resultant confusion, Peter May came and went for a duck, and in the end, England scrambled home by four wickets, thanks to some bold hitting by Freddie Brown,” Hutton wrote.

Of course, if the obstruction is blatant – as was the case when Pakistan’s Ramiz Raja used his bat to hit the ball when trying to complete a second run that would have given him a century against England at Karachi in 1987 and when Mohinder Amarnath kicked the ball away from bowler Ravi Ratnayake in averting a run out against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad in 1989 – batsmen would like to erase such memories quickly.