What's the spirit of cricket?
My favorite kind of philosophical discussion involves one where after a lengthy argument about some X, a participant finally throws up his hands and says, "I don't think we have a determinate concept of X".
After many attempts to process the sound and fury generated by Dhoni's 8-1 field placings (day three) and Ponting's bowler handling (day four) in the Nagpur test, I'm starting to think we don't have a determinate concept of "the spirit of cricket". For what else can explain the simultaneous blasting of both captains, one for violating the spirit of cricket, and the other for not?
Let me try and explain my puzzlement at this state of affairs. Dhoni was castigated for violating Clause 2.3 (a) of the Spirit of Cricket, which reads "Thou shalt not set fields that inhibit scoring excessively for doing so may lead to spectator boredom, opposing captain (and fan) disenchantment, and the demise of test cricket." (And bring the wrath of Peter Roebuck and Malcolm Conn down upon your head)
Ponting was castigated for NOT violating Clause 3.7 (b) of the Spirit of Cricket, which reads "Thou shalt always strive to maximize over-rates in Test cricket because failure to do so will lead to spectator boredom, opposing captain (and fan) disenchantment, and the demise of test cricket." (And besides Christopher Martin-Jenkins told us many years ago that the West Indian quicks were destroying all cricket with their dastardly over-rates)
Dhoni was lambasted for playing within the rules of the game, but playing excessively hard and being cynical, for saying "The hell with balanced fields, I've got a series to save, a trophy to win" (Whatever happened to the wonderful land of Hard-But-Fair? Why was Dhoni denied even a tourist visa for that wonderful place?)
Ponting was lambasted for not playing harder, for not saying "The hell with the damn over-rates, I've got a match to win here, goddamnit, a series to square, a trophy to win". Sure, a lot of the hostility directed at Ponting suggested he was merely trying to save his own skin, to not suffer the humiliation of a ban for over-rates. But Ponting was trying to up the over-rates. Why wasn't he praised for sacrificing his team on the altar of the Spirit of Cricket[tm]? The Spirit of Cricket seemed to demand that of Dhoni, didn't it?
I know that the anger directed at Ponting has to do with his general slackness in maintaining over-rates. On which point I agree, he needs to stop his endless waffling on about field placings, his desire to hold lengthy consultations with bowlers and so on. But still, I thought everyone had agreed that over-rates were a Good Thing At All Costs. So Ponting was slack about it. So he fell behind. So he tried to bring them back on board, even at the cost of his team's fortunes (and the enhancement of his own in terms of being able to play against New Zealand next week). But that's not cool. Because one thing captains should not do is sacrifice their team's fortunes for the sake of the Spirit of Cricket. Or should they?
So should Dhoni have messed with India's chances of trying to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy by not setting the fields that he thought gave him the best chance of messing with Australia's strategy? And over-rates are only a Good Thing till the point they start messing with your chances of winning a game? And at that point all worry about the spectators, the demise of test cricket and so on, goes out the window?
Do we have a determinate concept of the Spirit of Cricket?
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here