February 16, 2016

Why we need the spirit of cricket

In recent times it has almost come to be fashionable to deride the concept, but it is one worthy of upholding

Brian Lara and Adam Gilchrist often didn't wait for the umpires to dismiss them when they knew they were out © AFP

I think it's worth defending the idea that animates the spirit of cricket. But I'm not going to judge whether the Keemo Paul incident signals the dawn of the apocalypse. Instead, I'm going to try to step back a little and explore why it matters that we retain the concept that is provoking the apocalyptic debates. But in order to do that, it's necessary to first sketch what that idea is, because it's often missed in controversies over specific incidents like the recent mankading.

It's actually pretty simple. The spirit of cricket, to my mind, expresses a very straightforward idea: winning isn't everything. And nor, pace Vince Lombardi, is it the only thing.

Now this is not to deny that winning is a value. Of course it is; indeed, in some sense playing to win is necessary for a game of cricket to exist at all. What I'm saying is rather that to believe in the spirit of cricket, to believe that cricket ought to be played according to it, is to believe that there are other values that matter, and that can sometimes outweigh the (genuine) value of winning.

I think many of us endorse this idea. It's why we admire Brendon McCullum, why Victor Trumper and Keith Miller are still heroes, why Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee is an iconic image. Whether they did it consciously or not, I don't know - but I do know that in the way they played they expressed the idea that there's more to cricket, even elite cricket, than the numbers on a scorecard or win-loss records.

The resistance to the idea of the spirit of cricket doesn't come because we're opposed to this basic concept. It comes because we confuse that idea with issues a bit further downstream. We can, for example, equate believing in the spirit of cricket with believing that blazered fools in egg-and-bacon ties decide what is or isn't against that spirit. Well, they don't. It isn't decided by an appeal to tradition, either, as some people claim. The history of cricket is littered with instances of sharp practice, and if you're going to say whatever used to be done long ago is in the spirit of cricket, well, bring on match-fixing, contesting umpire's decisions, tricking batsmen to look into the sun just before facing a delivery, and so on.

Nor, and this matters, is the spirit of cricket to be understood as being defined by the laws of the game. That suggestion is a conceptual absurdity. If what you should do, and all you should do, is play within the laws of the game, the idea of a spirit of cricket is otiose. If this concept is to do any work, is to give us something distinct, it can do so only by existing in a space not defined by law.

It's worth talking about the relationship between the spirit of cricket and the laws of cricket a bit more, actually. Let's take walking as an example. Walking could quite easily be seen as being in the spirit of cricket. It might show that you think being honest is more important than scoring runs; or that some idea of fairness matters more to you than winning; or that you believe, correctly, that a game of cricket is a communal enterprise that, like all such, is benefited and improved by trust within the community - in this case, between players and umpires.

A common response to this claim is: how can you condemn a batsman for not walking? The laws don't say it's wrong, so how can someone be wrong for acting within the laws?

It's entirely permissible for a batsman to stand there when he has smashed it to second slip, but it's also entirely fair for that action to be judged negatively without it being judged as illegal

A concept from ethics can help us here, namely the concept of supererogation, which is a fancy name for a simple thought: some actions are not commanded by duty but are still good. For example, imagine a group of soldiers, in front of whom a live grenade lands. One of them throws himself onto it, thereby saving the others. This action, of sacrificing himself to save his comrades, is surely praiseworthy - but at the same time, not many of us would say that it was his duty to sacrifice himself. We would not, I think, blame him for not doing so. His action, in other words, can be thought of as supererogatory.

Analogising, a wrong action in cricket would be one contrary to the laws of the game. A right action, one to which no penalties should attach, would be one commanded by the laws of the game. A permissible action would be those actions that are neither contrary to nor commanded by the laws of the game. But an action being permissible isn't the end of the normative story - there can be permissible actions that we judge negatively, and others that we judge as deserving of praise.

The idea is that walking should be thought of as a permissible action that is deserving of praise, i.e., as a supererogatory action. We're not saying that walking is required. It is not. The laws of the game don't forbid standing there when you've smashed it to second slip. It's entirely permissible for a batsman to do this - but it's also entirely fair for that action to be judged negatively without it being judged as illegal (i.e., in our sense here, wrong).

Noticing this defuses, I think, a lot of the resistance to the idea of a spirit of cricket. Because it shows us that when we say someone acted contrary to that spirit, we're not saying he did something he wasn't allowed to do, or that was in a strict sense wrong to do. And when someone acted according to the spirit of cricket, we're not saying that everyone is required to act in that way - we are, however, saying that acting in that way is praiseworthy.

I used walking as an illustrative example; I'm not here trying to figure out what concretely belongs to the spirit of cricket or not. What I'm saying is that it's important we retain this idea, because the idea is special. In a world destroyed by the profit motive, it can matter to have a place where we learn that winning isn't the same thing as succeeding.

Pranay Sanklecha is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Graz

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jeff on February 20, 2016, 21:44 GMT

    Walking is a different issue for pros and for amateurs. At the amateur level, it is a sporting gesture. At the top level however it is different. It is your career. Suppose you edge you first ball to slip for a duck (or 'middle it to slip' as the Broad-haters say), and the ump misses it. For a top player its the difference between being an also-ran and winning silverware. For a fringe player it is the difference between getting another game and getting paid for it, or getting dropped meaning you and your children having no food.

  • Lance on February 20, 2016, 21:34 GMT

    Once again the spirit of the game issue is just a matter of opinion. I stil see nothing wrong with what keemo Paul did but as this article isn't specifically about that incident I won't address that. To me the spirit of the game is nothing but nonsense. How about we just confine ourselves to what is actually written in the rulebook? Until sledging is 100% banned from all cricket at all levels in all countries it seems rather silly to even talk about this arbitrary spirit of the game.

  • Yuji on February 20, 2016, 2:10 GMT

    How about a "Most Egregious Violation of the Spirit of Cricket Award" handed out in December of each year... I suspect that if it were judged fairly, the recipient every year would either be a cricket board, a consortium of boards (looking at you, Big Three) or the ICC itself. Definitely not individual players, who might make a few controversial choices here and there, but mostly play fair and hard cricket.

  • TUSHAR on February 19, 2016, 20:45 GMT

    Well said. After the two umpiring horrors in Adelaide and Wellington plus the comments of Australian captain Steve Smith? Yes ICC dont wrap your tail between your hind legs and ignore these umpiring errors. Enough said.

  • David on February 18, 2016, 23:01 GMT

    I think it would be sad if sledging had to be banned by the laws of cricket. Thumping someone is not banned by the laws of cricket either, nor is slipping a heavy dose of laxative into someone's cup of tea at the interval. The laws of cricket legislate for those activities that are deemed part of the game - batting, bowling, fielding, captaincy, ground dimensions etc. Sledging should not be part of that list.

    My son is currently reading a very old copy of Bradman's "How to Play Cricket" - I am not expecting a chapter that covers how and when he should cast aspersions on the batsman's ancestry, or speculate what his mother does for a living, or what his wife might like to get up to in her spare time.

    What is it about standing on a sports field that makes people think they can act like total douches?

  • Aaron on February 18, 2016, 15:16 GMT

    @ ELECTRIC_LOCO_WAP4 : Couldn't agree more!! The ''pitches'' that have been prepared by OZ have indeed been ''substandard''

  • Baundule on February 18, 2016, 14:38 GMT

    Unfortunately, the Spirit of cricket is a buzz word that does not Need to exist in modern day. If it is a charity match, if the umpire is the only one to judge, then it might make sense to walk after nicking. In modern day, enough Technology is available to obtain a correct decision. It is the responsibility of the umpire to use it.

    If something like mankading is not in the Spirit of cricket, why should it be allowed by the cricketing laws? Why sledging is not banned by cricketing laws? Why umpires mistakes are above the law? The cricket authority should be more active in implementing a fair Environment, than depending on the Players to willingly behaving like Saints.

  • Clifford on February 18, 2016, 13:44 GMT

    I celebrate the idea of walking when you've edged it because especially in lower forms where umpiring is often poor/non-existent it is often necessary for games to not become a farce. I believe that is in the spirit of the game (I will point out that a compulsive walker may not always know that he's edged one). I believe sledging, and by sledging I mean the nasty stuff that occurs when stump mics have to be turned off, is outside the spirit of the game. I believe running out a batsman who's backed up too far is within the laws and spirit of the game.

    The fact that there are many well meaning people who 100% oppose those views however is an indication that the "spirit of the game" is so nebulous as to be non-existent. The spirit of the game should be "if your Mum knew what you did would she approve or disapprove" but I suppose Mums vary...

  • Jose on February 18, 2016, 12:43 GMT

    In my reply to FANOFCRICKET123, I made a distinction between the 'descriptive' &' 'prescriptive'.

    I have to clarify.

    Most of the 'descriptive' fit into my 'prescriptive' model too. In a larger context, most of such changes are induced by technological changes, and globalisation of mindsets.

    I cricket, I welcome very many changes, like:

    1. The three formats; each catering to different sensibilities. Which format will thrive and grow, and which may fade away, depends on the 'demand' side (viewer preferences) changes, and the 'supply' side (economics and viability - both flows from the demand side)

    2. Innovations in techniques: By the bowlers. By the batsmen. And, equally importantly by the fielders.


    But, there are many aspects (some of them are only changes in intensity), like

    a) personal sledging

    b)'fictional' appealing

    c) manipulation of props (balls, bats, and pitches) et al are not acceptable, in my prescriptive model.

    Genuine errors can be condoned, though.

  • Radhesh on February 18, 2016, 10:47 GMT

    How does the "spirit" come into picture only in case of Mankading or such events and not in other cases. If "winning isn't everything", the batsman should be in his crease and event of Mankading won't even arise. When one person tries to take an unfair advantage to win at all costs, why should the bowler then become a saint? And as for Flintoff consoling Brett Lee or such instances sighted, that has nothing to do with Spirit of Cricket. Even boxers or MMA fighters who beat the hell out of each other shake hands or even hug after a brutal contest. That is "sportsman spirit" and encompasses lot more than what people refer to when they talk about Spirit of Cricket.