This question has continued to bug me. Why did England think it was right to ask Dhoni to reconsider an appeal which was fairly clearly within the rules? Why did Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss think that it was the right thing to do? Or were they going to do it simply because Bell was batting so well? Sportsmanship involves doing the right thing irrespective of the cost to one's interests, purely because it is the right thing to do. Surely, the sporting thing to do in the case of the Bell episode would have been for India to withdraw their appeal, then, for Bell to be declared retired Out by England for his tea time score. For if Bell admitted being "naive" or "stupid", what price did he pay for it?
Increasingly, Michael Vaughan's reading of the situation seemed to be the most plausible one. Bell and England "handled the situation" brilliantly to protect their own interests. Sportsmanship had nothing to do with it. Flower's nonsense about an "international incident" was only the last step in that performance.
3 years ago, Grant Elliot set off on an iffy run in an ODI against England at the Oval. Due to various factors, such as where the ball went, where Sidebottom's normal follow through ended up, and what line the non-striker was running, Elliot collided with the bowler. England claimed the run out (the fielder was Ian Bell), and Elliot was given Out. As per the law, it was judged by the Umpires that the wicket had been put down fairly. This is not just my interpretation, this is what the law actually says. Law 38 says that the batsman shall be out if "his wicket is fairly put down by the action of a fielder". Paul Collingwood, then England's captain, declined to withdraw his appeal, and the decision stood. Later that day, Collingwood regretted this decision, but explained it away as something that happened in the heat of the moment.
14 months later, England were playing Sri Lanka at the Wanderers in Johannesburg in an ICC Champions Trophy game. This time, the Sri Lankan all-rounder Angelo Mathews collided with the bowler Graham Onions after he had turned for a second run. Unlike the episode at the Oval, where Sidebottom was trying to race to the ball when the collision occurred, in this case, Onions was nowhere near the ball. England claimed the ensuing run out, but Andrew Strauss withdrew his appeal.
In both instances, the collision was an accident. There was no suggestion that either bowler or batsman deliberately tried to get in each others way. As such, it would have been perfectly legitimate for the fielding side to have claimed the run out in both cases, because the wicket was put down "fairly". The fielding side did not cheat, because the bowler did not deliberately get in the batsman's way. Further, it can also be argued that since it is the batsman who is doing to running, he should watch where he is going. Typically, batsmen have a fairly good feel for where the bowler is when they are rushing for a quick run. But sometimes, accidents can happen. However, this is one of those instances in which claiming the dismissal did not "feel right".
Andrew Flower disagreed with Strauss's decision to withdraw the appeal against Angelo Mathews (My thanks to Siddharth Monga of Cricinfo for reminding me of this example). "I would definitely have not recalled him," he said, "But Strauss is a good man and I trust him completely. He made his decision and I back him on that, I just wouldn't have done it myself. I would have sent the batsman on his way. He ran into the bowler. Simple deal."
So Flower's attitude to these things is clear. If the batsman makes a mistake, then he pays the price. Bell admitted that he made a mistake. So why didn't Flower want Bell to pay a price? Does Flower support India's decision to recall Bell? Surely, the whole point of sportsmanship, is that you do the right thing, irrespective of the consequences for your team. If Dhoni's decision was an example of sportsmanship, was Flower and Strauss's decision to ask Bell to resume his innings not unsporting? And it is not as though Flower disagreed with the decision to ask Dhoni to withdraw the appeal.
To be fair though, England have been quite honest about their attitude - an attitude which involves doing whatever marginal thing it takes to win. Strauss stopped short of definitely agreeing with Dhoni's decision. His comment was as non-committal as he could get away with. As opposed the clear comments from Vaughan and Hussein (for example), that they would have appealed exactly as Dhoni did, Strauss hemmed and hawed and came out with "I would like to think so", when asked if he would also have withdrawn the appeal in similar circumstances.
England's role in the Ian Bell episode can only be described as a thoroughly unsporting, professional and sophisticated. They protected their interests single mindedly, the "right thing" be damned. The "Spirit of Cricket" such as it is, is little more than an empty rhetorical trope, just as their standard ultra-conditional mea culpas are empty rhetorical tropes.
So how should India deal with England in the rest of this series? I hope they will stick to playing by their own standards and not sink to England's. I also hope they can match England's accuracy with the ball.