One of cricket’s dumbest rules helped India stun Pakistan. It needs to be fixed, and fast

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After the 2019 ODI World Cup, the ICC moved swiftly to change the laws of the game after the final – one of the greatest matches of all time – was marred by a farcical finish.

Three years on, and after an almost identical set of circumstances – a classic encounter with some final-over controversy thrown in – the governing body now has another glaring error in the rules staring it in the face, which must be addressed.

Back at Lord’s in July 2019, England claimed world cricket’s biggest prize not by scoring more runs than New Zealand, and not by taking more wickets – but because following a tied game AND super over, they had hit more boundaries.

The three crucial byes scored by India in the final over of their thrilling win over Pakistan on Sunday night weren’t quite as ridiculous as all that – but good luck telling anyone from Pakistan.

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With a rampant Virat Kohli facing a free hit following a spectacular choke from spinner Mohammad Nawaz, who followed up a waist-high no ball with a wide, the left-armer finally found his range to get past the Indian megastar’s bat, bowling him neck and crop.

The problem was that as it was a free hit, Kohli couldn’t get out. Consequently, with the ball ricocheting away down to third man, India were able to steal three byes – just one run fewer than if Kohli had middled the ball like he had all night away for four.

Cricket has many bizarre rules and loopholes attached to it, from bygone relics of the gentlemen’s game causing ructions in the modern cutthroat world such as ‘Mankads’, to unintended consequences of recent additions to the laws.

Surely the fact India were able to run three byes following Kohli being castled is one such loophole. Surely the person at the ICC who invented the free hit rule in limited-overs cricket did not intend for a circumstance such as this.

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Being unable to get out is already an advantage in and of itself – there was no risk for Kohli in that instance, meaning he could and did swing for the hills.

It’s already enough of a disadvantage for the bowler to have to come in knowing that they cannot dismiss the batter with this delivery, and have to bowl to a player who knows he is in a no-lose scenario. The fear of losing a wicket is the most powerful tool in a bowler’s arsenal; depriving them of that is punishment enough for a no ball.

It was ridiculous that Nawaz, in bowling the perfect ball for that scenario (incidentally, probably the only ball he got right to Kohli in a final over from the blackest depths of hell) actually ended up with him and his team badly disadvantaged by it.

Virat Kohli is bowled by Mohammad Nawaz off a free hit.

Virat Kohli is bowled by Mohammad Nawaz off a free hit. (Photo by Daniel Pockett-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Equally, in a situation like this, the bowling team is further disadvantaged by the decreased likelihood of being able to inflict a run out. With the bails disturbed, Pakistan keeper Mohammad Rizwan was forced to pluck a stump from the ground in an attempt to catch Dinesh Karthik short of his ground, adding precious fractions of seconds to the whole process.

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Karthik was safe anyway in this instance, by the way: but the principle still stands.

It’s time for the ICC to mandate that, should a batter be ‘dismissed’ in the normal sense of the word on a free hit, by being bowled, caught, LBW or stumped, the ball is deemed dead and no runs able to be scored off it; similar to the ruling when the ball strikes an umpire, or hits the Spider-cam wires – which we also saw on Sunday night at the MCG.

If the bowler is good enough to respond to the situation and take a ‘wicket’, their sole punishment should be that the batter remains in.

Not only is this the right thing to do for the fairness of the game, it adds another element of consideration to the taking of a free hit. Right now, batters have the freedom to swing knowing that, should the ball hit the stumps, it’s essentially a free run.

Make this tweak to the rules, and suddenly Kohli would have faced the reality that, should he go for a six and be caught, or try too much and be bowled, he might be safe from being dismissed, but he’d give up a precious, precious dot ball.

Surely this would only add to the drama of the situation, and put some form of pressure back on the batter to regain something resembling an even contest between bat and ball?

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Look at Kohli’s face as he plays the shot – it’s his ugliest of the night. Eyes closed, one hand coming off the bat, he swings lustily across the line without a care in the world. There is no chance he plays a slog as hideous as that if there was any threat that being dismissed could result in a dot.

Just to be clear, this is not in any way suggesting that this moment cost Pakistan a victory, or indeed that it in any way diminishes one of the greatest, most exciting and most iconic matches of the 21st century.

Kohli’s heroics, like those of Ben Stokes in the 2019 ODI World Cup final, deserve all the acclaim they have and will continue to receive – it’s just that the way they got their teams over the line deserves close scrutiny to ensure it can’t happen in quite that way again.

The T20 game is already an impossible enough ask for the bowlers – there is no sense in maintaining a poorly thought out loophole in a rule clearly not designed to exist that makes things just that little bit more unfair.

It’s just not cricket.

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