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Cricket Risked Diplomatic Crisis At Trent Bridge, And Not For The First Time

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CRICKET BELL
AP

For such a gentle and stately game, cricket has a surprisingly long tradition of unleashing major diplomatic incidents on an unsuspecting world.

Just such an event was narrowly avoided on Sunday when, to the great relief of the British High Commission in New Delhi and their Indian counterparts in Kensington, a controversial dismissal of England batsman Ian Bell was taken back by the Indian captain MS Dhoni at Trent Bridge in Nottingham.

As ever in cricket, the detail of exactly what happened on the pitch was not very important. But here is the gist: just before the teams strolled off the field for tea Bell, having hit a century, smashed what he thought was a four, in which the ball crosses the boundary. That would have ended the session of play, and a nice cuppa beckoned, so Bell walked off, blissfully unaware that despite the uncomfortably relaxed reaction of the Indian fielders the ball was not a four.

The Indian team took the bails off, Bell was out, and the crowd cried foul.

Indeed, for a while it looked as though something fairly major in the history between India and England was about to occur - and not just in cricket.

Social networks were ablaze, first with condemnation and then praise for the Indian captain when it was announced soon after that he had graciously decided to withdraw the appeal and reinstate Bell.

"India were one phone call away from being expelled from the Commonwealth, say my sources at the Foreign Office." said comedian Andy Zaltzman on Twitter.

"Diplomatic incident narrowly avoided. I reckon there would have been a question in PMQs if India hadn't reconsidered their decision" said another fan.

Even Lord's cricket ground itself congratulated the Indian captain: "Congratulations to @bcciindia & @msdhoni for their decision on Ian Bell. The MCC #SpiritofCricket in action at the top level" said the Home of Cricket.

Crisis averted. However, had the decision not been reversed the history of cricket has plenty of examples of the disaster that may have followed.

Perhaps the first such incident came in the 1932 Ashes series, in which the England captain, Douglas Jardine, instructed his bowlers to aim their bouncers at the opposing batsmens' heads. Known as 'bodyline' the tactic worked like a dream for the English, but after an Australian player was quoted as saying it was "unsportsmanlike" - a shocking statement at the time - and a player sustained a skull fracture, diplomatic cables were exchanged demanding that the insult was taken back.

Indeed the row was only settled after the Australian prime minister met with cricket officials and outlined the economic impact of a trade boycott if England followed through with its threat to cut all ties. The board withdrew its allegations and the tour was saved.

More recently incidents have constantly rocked the cricketing world and threatened to spill over into disaster. Perhaps the most major such incident came in 1970, when South Africa were ejected from the International Cricket Conference after cancelling England's tour due the inclusion of a black player in their side. In 1981 another row erupted after Australia decided to bowl underarm at New Zealand to ensure the Kiwis did not hit a match-tying six, leading to the New Zealand prime minister labelling it "the most disgusting incident I can recall".

More recently still, in 2007 the International Cricket Conference averted what they said was a "serious international diplomatic incident" by removing West Indian umpire Steve Bucknor from a test match between India and Australia after criticism over his decisions.

And like other sports, tension within cricket is often highest when exacerbating pre-existing diplomatic strains.

Take India and Pakistan, whose fractious relationship is often brought to boiling point through the gentleman's pastime, as in 2010 when teams in the Indian Premier League refused to sign a single Pakistani player, a move considered a 'public snub' by authorities.

It is worth remembering, however, that cricket can be a force for good too.

Take the expulsion of South Africa, for instance. South Africa were readmitted to the ICC in 1991 after the end of apartheid, but their removal from world cricket was often cited as an important move that raised awareness of the situation inside the country. India and Pakistan resumed cricket ties after 10 years in 1999, just six months after both countries tested nuclear weapons - a powerful statement. And when the two sides again faced off in the World Cup semi-finals in 2011 the game was played with great emotion but was a safe and positive occasion.

And then there is Trent Bridge 2011.

True, the world was brought to the brink of collapse by Bell's careless decision and the opportunistic taking of the wicket. But cooler heads prevailed. Peace broke out. The game, perhaps the world, was saved.

The Spirit of Cricket, which since 2000 has been enshrined in the very laws of the game, held strong through fair play, discussion and compromise.

The very stuff of diplomacy itself, perhaps.