When the golfer Bobby Jones was congratulated for calling a foul on himself in a tournament long ago, he replied, 'you might as well praise me for not robbing a bank'. The Corinthian Casuals football team would instruct their goalkeeper to vacate the six yard box if they conceded a penalty on the grounds that the other side had already been denied a goal by their foul. Mark Taylor declared on himself when he was level with Bradman's then-record Australian score of 334.
Sportsmanship in sport has always been coded by the times in which it happens. Jones admitted that he never played what he called 'friendly golf' even when he went out with his friends. Football's professional foul occupies a respectful category of its own. Matthew Hayden remained qualm-less as he muscled past Taylor and the Don against the mighty Zimbabwe.
The point being that acceptability is a movable feast, the product of complex interpretations that change with the years. Bodyline almost started a war; the West Indies quicks who did the same thing are the subject of awe and rose-tinted documentaries. WG regarded the umpire's decision as optional. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga risked their lives to wear black armbands. Things are equivocal.
MS Dhoni's act was about more than just sportsmanship, although it was an act of sportsmanship and should be remembered as one. Yet it was also an act of leadership, and one that explained a lot about why India are successful. It was the decision of an alpha-male with a sense of perspective.
It was noticeable, during the Sky coverage, that one of the commentators most convinced that Bell should be dismissed was Nasser Hussain. His England side would have done so, because they were not a great team and he was trying to install in them a notion that no-one should give an inch on the field. Shane Warne, a player far more accustomed to winning and the winner's mentality, said that he would have recalled Bell.
Ultimately, it's a decision based on confidence. Dhoni is confident in himself and his team. If he allowed himself to be consumed by the pressure of captaining India, he would implode. The same quality that allowed him to saunter to the crease in the World Cup final and win the game was the one that allowed him to withdraw his appeal. The truly secure man knows that his time will come again; he's not obsessed with small-picture detail.
England would do well not to get ahead of themselves. India have been asked to win a World Cup, stage the IPL, achieve number one status in Test cricket, play out a series of shimmering brilliance in South Africa, appear in front of empty stadiums in West Indies and then take on England with a main bowler and talismanic batsman missing.
Andrew Strauss said that he 'liked to think' he'd do the same as Dhoni. It will be a signal of his strength if he does.