In defence of Keemo Paul
The final over run out of the Zimbabwe non-striker, Richard Ngarava, to give the West Indies victory and passage to the quarter finals of the Under 19 World Cup has detonated a full spectrum of opinion from cricket followers. I will construct a defence of Keemo Paul, the West Indian bowler who completed the run out, and argue that the rest of this tournament and the World T20 that follows shortly will be better contests because of his action.
For cricket-law essentialists, Paul and his captain Shimron Hetmyer, who confirmed to the umpires that he wanted to uphold his bowler’s appeal, acted within the Laws and so should not be questioned. Allied to this position is the contrarian, and often humorous, cabal who celebrate anything that discomforts those who argue for cricket’s lofty role while not applying the rigour that spots double standards and inconsistencies. And this incident most definitely discomforted this group.
But the conclusion to today’s match also sat uneasily with many who know the Laws and how to negotiate them and have long, unsentimental experience of playing, watching and officiating cricket. That uneasiness was partly because a game, boiling up into a grand finale, was cut short. No stumps were splayed, no batsmen frantically scampering home or fielders flinging themselves to stop or miss a ball. It was an unworthy end: the game of bat and ball abbreviated before bat even had a say in the matter.
More strongly than that, I suspect, was the notion that Paul had tricked Ngarava into his demise and not that Paul had caught Ngarava stealing down the pitch sneakily. I admit that seeing the footage, I immediately inclined to this view. The non-striker is standing, not advancing, bat in conventional fashion leaning back towards, but sadly not inside the crease. It took the third umpire to confirm that the motionless Ngarava’s bat was grounded on the line. Paul had no intention to bowl and participate in the contest that could win or lose his team the game.
Seeing that one ball, in isolation, it is easy to come to that view. Paul is the villain, who exploited the grey area between the Law on paper and how the game is played. Paul’s vindication comes, I believe, by looking beyond that single ball to the situation of the match.
Zimbabwe were nine wickets down, three runs from victory. Their last pair at the crease were in the team as bowlers. The senior partner, Matigimu, had scored a boundary – from his inside edge, past off-stump to the fine-leg boundary. There was a looming possibility that the match would end with batsman, keeper, fielders converging, sliding, diving towards the stumps. It could come down to a scrambled single from a mishit, deflection off the pads or ball running through to the keeper. We’ve seen so many matches end this way. And the odds are loaded in favour of the batting team when the non-striker leaves the crease early for this last mad dash.
If Paul, trusted (or burdened) with bowling the last over of the match, was to take his team to victory, he had to guard against singles scored from mishits and misses. He had to even up the odds. To wait to see if the batsmen were adventurous runners would be to act too late. There’s no complaints mechanism, or dispute resolution for the fielding team that sees a non-striker dashing to the danger end before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. There’s just frustration and disappointment. Paul’s was a calculated decision to run in first ball and dislodge the bails.
Cricket’s lines are governed in two ways. Some lines – front and back foot no-balls, the creases when batsmen are turning after completing runs – are policed. Other lines – for example, the batting crease – are managed through competitive tension. With the former, the umpires have control. With the latter, the opposing players check each other’s excursions and retreats, jockey for advantage. The sport is better where competition is the governor. Policing of lines by umpires only happens where there is an absence of competitive tension. It is a necessary, but inferior substitute.
The position of the non-striker, relative to the crease, falls into the second category of line governance. The fielding team can rely on no policing of the non-striker’s move across and away from that crease. This is acutely, match-definingly crucial when a game is in the clutch. The fielding team must apply its own pressure and compete for control of that line. Surrender it, hope perhaps that the spirit of cricket will act as their proxy, and the single and with it the match is conceded.
Keemo Paul knew this and exerted pressure on the line; a pressure that would ensure any single run in that final over would have to be the full length of the pitch from, and not before, the moment he released the ball. It just so happened that his premeditated application of competitive tension caught the non-striker carelessly, not sneakily, out of his ground.
Paul’s action should now ensure that other matches in this tournament and at the World T20, coming to a tense conclusion, have batting and fielding teams competing over both ends of the pitch. Match-winning singles will have to be run in full, with guns jumped at the non-strikers’ peril.
It was clever, pre-emptive action that should eradicate future complaints and controversies about unfairness in close finishes. If I coached a cricket team, I would make it a tactical requirement of my side in the field to commit a Keemo Paul as matches approached their climax; and I would coach my batsmen to expect it to happen to them.