On balance, I agree with Sir Geoffrey: Ian Bell was out and the Indians had nothing for which to feel ashamed. On the contrary, it is England whose reputations are, to my mind, (slightly) diminished by this incident.
To recap: batting for England in the second test against India yesterday Ian Bell believed his partner Eoin Morgan had either hit a boundary or that, the players having run three, the umpires had declared the Over finished and announced it was time for tea. At this point Bell was sauntering down the pitch, miles out of his ground, and unaware that a) the ball had not reached the boundary rope, b) the Umpires had not called tea and c) the ball was still live.
At this point MS Dhoni, the Indian captain and wicketkeeper, gathered Praveen Kumar’s throw and flipped the ball to a team-mate who removed the bails and appealled. After consulting the Third Umpire – to check that Morgan had not his a four – Bell was duly given out. Cue uproar in the crowd and high dudgeon in the England dressing room.
The crowd, allowing partisanship to trump any appreciation that Bell was out, booed the Indian team and the Umpires when they returned to the field after the tea interval. For their part the England players, appearing on their balcony, appeared to offer sardonic applause to the Indians as the visitors trotted out to field.
As it transpired, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, captain and coach of England respectively, had visited the Indian dressing room during tea to ask if Dhoni might consider withdrawing the appeal. There was no doubt Bell was out, according to the laws of cricket anyway, but he was out in unusual circumstances and based on a misunderstanding and confusion and so there was an argument that the appeal ran contrary to the spirit of the game. That is, in a very cricketing way, something was simultaneously permitted but not quite on. Here, as so often, the interest lies in the area between what may be done and what should be done.
Nevertheless, England were fortunate that it turned out that the Indians themselves had decided to apply the Golden Rule. According to Rahul Dravid:
“If it was Laxman there or Sachin [Tendulkar] there, I don’t think our guys would have felt nice about it. And that was one of the things discussed when we first came in, what if it was one of our guys? Would we have liked it? And the general feeling was no."
So England were lucky, not least because I doubt that other sides would have behaved as generously as the Indians. (Steve Waugh? The South Africans? Quite.) Furthermore, I think it mildly unseemly that England petitioned the Indians to withdraw a perfectly legitimate appeal. Indeed, asking that question risked inflaming an already awkward situation still further while also putting undue pressure on the blameless Indians.
And they were blameless. As Bell himself explained:
"It was the right decision for the spirit of the game," Bell said. "It was very naive of me to assume the ball was dead. I didn’t hear the umpire call ‘over’. To walk off for tea was stupid. I have learned a lot of lessons."
I doubt he’s learned the right ones. Bell, such a lovely batsman, appears to think he merited a second chance because he was only naive, deaf and stupid. These seem like poor grounds for issuing such a reprieve.
But, yes, perhaps the spirit of the game made Dhoni’s gesture a fit and proper one. If this be so, however, then it should have been matched by Bell himself. If the spirit of cricket suggested Bell be given a second chance the spirit of the game also suggests Bell should have declined the opportunity to make the most of that second chance.
That is, Bell should have been reinstated, nudged a single after tea and then shouldered-arms to a straight one and walked off. All parties could have maintained their honour and no-one need have cause to feel aggrieved. This would have made for a pleasing, symmetrical resolution of the matter.