Oh, that controversial run-out...

Yes, that one. Where, earlier this week, Kings XI Punjab captain Ravichandran Ashwin ran out big-hitting Rajasthan Royals batsman Jos Buttler at the non-striker’s end — not while attempting a run, but while backing up.

That’s still a lawful dismissal, right?

It is, but that’s where the conflict kicks in.

Between the letter and the spirit of the law?

Exactly. Remember that back in 1947, when Vinoo Mankad dismissed an Australian batsman in a Test match in this fashion, it was seen as violative of the sporting spirit. Mankad effectively had his name forever ignominiously tagged with such a dismissal.

Again, wasn’t it lawful?

Of course, and even the legendary Don Bradman dismissed any suggestion that such a dismissal is lacking in sportsmanship, given that such a cricketing law does exist.

So where’s the conflict?

Remember the infamous underam ball?

What about it?

When Aussie all-rounder Trevor Chappell, acting on brother Greg’s direction, bowled that underarm ball in 1981, with New Zealand requiring six to win off the last ball, it was a legal delivery, but it was universally reviled because it was unsporting. To be fair, ‘Mankading’ a batsman isn’t quite as egregiously unfair, and it can be argued that a non-striker who is out of his crease before the ball is delivered is looking to gain unfair advantage. Nevertheless, Ashwin’s action too was borderline dodgy.

How so?

As Ashwin gets into his delivery stride, Buttler is still within the crease, but the bowler checks himself, and almost waits for Buttler to stray beyond the crease in order to run him out. This was one of those instances when one can be right in the letter of the law, but not in the spirit of the law.

Does the distinction matter?

It does, depending on how you view sports. Cricket, more than most other sports, has traditionally revolved around many unwritten conventions, and although that romanticised notion has frayed a bit over time, it’s still something of a gentleman’s game. It’s that idea that Ashwin’s action has tainted. In any case, even beyond the world of sport, these distinctions matter.

Tell me more.

Many experiments have been conducted on behavioural law and economics. A study conducted at the University of Michigan established, for instance, that respondents consider it unfair to violate the spirit of the law, even if the letter of the law is not violated. Participants reasoned that while the “letter of the law” is what the law explicitly states, the “spirit of the law” is a social and moral consensus of the interpretation of the law.

That sounds self-evident.

It is. Italian-American philosopher Cristina Bicchieri defines social norms as “the embodiment of values and collective desires.” Typically, there is a buffer zone between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law”, and the size of this zone varies depending on the social norms for the pertinent law. Ashwin’s action failed to acknowledge that buffer zone.

Does this insight have applications elsewhere?

You bet it does. Writing in the Stanford Law Review in 1998, professors Christine Jolls, Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler noted that law and economics analysis could be improved by increased attention to insights about actual human behaviour, particularly in their response to legal rules and how such rules are shaped. What happened on that cricket field could reshape jurisprudence as we know it!

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions