The Mitchell Marsh run out - who knows if MS Dhoni would have had to concede five runs instead of getting the run out under the present laws. © Getty Images

The Mitchell Marsh run out – who knows if MS Dhoni would have had to concede five runs instead of getting the run out under the present laws. © Getty Images

First up, the confession: I’d completely missed this ‘fake fielding’ business when the rejigged laws of the game were published recently. Careless. Perhaps I was distracted by how many of the changes are actually for the better, a step forward.

Then appeared the video, and subsequently the report.

Marnus Labuschagne, the young and moderately promising Queensland batsman and part-time legspinner, had been pulled up for pretending to have fielded the ball when he hadn’t.

It went like this, in the JLT One-Day Cup match between Queensland and Cricket Australia XI at Allan Border Field in Brisbane last Friday:

“It’s one thing to pull up fielders for claiming a catch they have definitely not taken – according to the discretion of the umpire/s – but to take away such a fun element of the game is rubbish, to my mind. It’s an excellent ploy, if the fielder can pull it off. It’s intelligent fielding.”

We were in the 27th over of the CA XI innings, and Param Uppal drove a Mitchell Swepson delivery towards mid-off. Labuschagne, the cover fielder, ran in, dived but couldn’t reach the ball, but made as if he had it in his hands and shaped to throw. His action caused Uppal to stop midway down the pitch and turn around, before the batsmen realised Labuschagne was feigning, and completed the easy run as Matt Renshaw from long-off collected the ball and sent it back.

Labuschagne raised his hand in apology, realising he had breached the new rule, and the umpires had a conversation before one of them, Paul Wilson, tapped his left shoulder to tell the scorers that five penalty runs were being awarded.

Queensland won the game anyway, despite the five runs. And, afterwards, everyone seemed to put their weight behind what had happened, Renshaw even saying, “Obviously you shouldn’t do it. It’s a good rule because from a batting point of view I can see where it comes from – it’s quite a challenging thing when someone picks up and throws, and you think you’re miles out but they don’t have the ball.”

Okay, so here is the good rule: “It is unfair for any fielder wilfully to attempt, by word or action, to distract, deceive or obstruct either batsman after the striker has received the ball.”

When a fielder claims a catch he knows he hasn't taken, well, that's fake fielding, fair and square. © Getty Images

When a fielder claims a catch he knows he hasn’t taken, well, that’s fake fielding, fair and square. © Getty Images

The law – 41.5 – goes on to explain the powers and responsibilities of the umpires in the matter. What it also does is outlaw a perfectly inoffensive and smart act on the part of the fielder.

The first thing I thought of, after reading the report of the incident, was ‘MS Dhoni’.

The best-known incident, talked about at the time and extensively viewed on YouTube ever since, is of Dhoni collecting a throw from Umesh Yadav from the extra cover boundary and running out Mitchell Marsh in a One-Day International in Melbourne on India’s 2015-16 tour. Nothing out of the ordinary? Only there was. As the throw came in, Marsh kept his eyes on Dhoni, who didn’t look like he was waiting for the ball. He jogged up to the stumps as usual, hands by his side, and Marsh probably felt the ball was going to go to the other end. Then, at the last moment, Dhoni reacted, collected the ball, and ran Marsh out by the smallest of margins. Who knows if Marsh would have dived had he realised what the situation was.

It wasn’t the only time Dhoni had pulled a stunt like that. Not always has it ended in a run out, but he has managed to fool batsmen often enough. Like when he started sticking his right leg out sideways, parallel to the ground almost, to stop a batsman’s late cut. The karate kick, it’s called.

Under the new laws, it must fall under the definition of a fielder attempting to – by action – distract, deceive or obstruct either batsman after the striker has received the ball. Yes?

Ajay Jadeja, running out Darren Lehmann in the 1999 World Cup in this photograph, was an outstanding fielder, who had mastered the art of 'fake fielding'. © Getty Images

Ajay Jadeja, running out Darren Lehmann in the 1999 World Cup in this photograph, was an outstanding fielder, who had mastered the art of ‘fake fielding’. © Getty Images

What about a slip or short-leg fielder changing position anticipating a sweep, or a reverse sweep? Just two years ago, the Marylebone Cricket Club, and therefore the International Cricket Council, accepted that “significant movement” on the part of a fielder “before the ball reaches the striker” was fair. Earlier, it was not. It comes under Law 41.7, and credits “intelligent fielding”. That’s okay, but a fielder pretending s/he has the ball when s/he doesn’t is unacceptable? Or like Dhoni, pretending the ball isn’t coming to him when it is? That, to me, is the very definition of intelligent.

Another incident that comes to mind is of Kumar Sangakkara pulling a fast one to send Ahmed Shehzad sprawling on the ground. Across in Dubai during the 2013-14 tour, in an ODI, Shehzad was sprinting for the second run when Sangakkara, at the stumps, suddenly moved as if to collect the ball and whip off the stumps. Shehzad dived, but the ball arrived much later. It was quite the LOL moment, with Sanga rubbing it in with a big smile, and Shehzad looking suitably aggrieved, and embarrassed.

What Labuschagne did the other day is a classic fieldsman’s trick. The first time I saw anyone do it in an international game was Ajay Jadeja (of course, stunts of the sort were a dime a dozen in our gully games). I have no memory of the details of the match, but the batsman flicked one past midwicket, Jadeja chased after it, and then dived and turned around as if he had the ball and was going to throw it. The batsmen stopped, opted out of a second run, and the fielder from the deep collected it and sent it in. A laugh or two exchanged, no harm done, deception accepted and acknowledged, and all was well. Cool stuff, Mr Jadeja.

Marnus Labuschagne became the first player to be pulled up, and penalised, for 'fake fielding' last Friday. © Getty Images

Marnus Labuschagne became the first player to be pulled up, and penalised, for ‘fake fielding’ last Friday. © Getty Images

It’s one thing to pull up fielders for claiming a catch they have definitely not taken – according to the discretion of the umpire/s – but to take away such a fun element of the game is rubbish, to my mind. It’s an excellent ploy, if the fielder can pull it off. Intelligent fielding.

What next? An offspinner can’t bowl a doosra – legally – or a legspinner can’t bowl a googly? That’s deception, isn’t it? What about reverse swing – the ball must swing the way it should, not the other way? Deceptive enough – but that’s the point of it. And what about batsmen? No reverse sweep, no switch-hit, no moving around inside the crease? That’s deceitful, no? Think about Wasim Akram – practically everything he did with the ball was deception, he made the ball do things I have never seen anyone else do. Penalty runs?

‘Fake fielding’, or the actions of the fielder that come under its ambit, have always come in for praise, the ones who have routinely pulled it off – like Dhoni – have been lauded. Not even a wizened, stiff upper-lipped MCC life member could have resisted breaking into an ‘I say’ and clapping thrice upon seeing it. Why outlaw it? To be a tad unparliamentary, What the Fake!

Most of the new laws, or updated rules of the game, are improvements. Like the stamping out of bad on-field behaviour, the rethink on how DRS plays out, bouncing bats, un-Mankading … all welcome updates.

Fake fielding – no, that just takes some of the fun out of the game. The very nomenclature is a problem: These aren’t fake techniques, but clever and sharp-witted ones. Deception, if it’s good enough to fool the batsman, must be welcomed. The bosses have missed a trick with this one, they have.