A travesty in two parts
No awards ceremony is complete without a good travesty, and on Tuesday night at Alexandra Palace, the ICC dished up a beauty. No, I'm not referring to Muttiah Muralitharan's exclusion from the World Test XI. Even though the message that sends out to poor Murali is a distinctly unpleasant one, we can at least rest assured that it won't have been a decision taken lightly.
On the other hand, the random anointment of Stephen Fleming's New Zealand team with the "Spirit of Cricket" award was a classic pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey moment - and in a misguided instant, the ICC pricked the poor ass right between the eyes. The proper application of such an award could have created a potent reminder of everything that is good about the game. Instead, and at the inaugural attempt, it has been conferred with all the moral authority of a Blue Peter badge.
I'm not about to come over all metaphysical, so let's just say the spirit of cricket is a pretty nebulous concept, and therefore damned hard to pin down. In the late 1990s, MCC did an honest job of setting out the parameters, and lo and behold, clause 1 of their preamble states: "The captains are responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the Spirit of the Game."
The ICC, however, seems determined to wing that pamphlet in the same direction as the MCC's coaching manual, and has taken up a bewilderingly contradictory stance. Fleming may be a fine and upstanding captain, but his one outstanding contribution to the cause of fair play came earlier this year against South Africa, when he destroyed Graeme Smith's hard-man image with the sort of ruthlessly premeditated sledging that Ian Chappell could not have bettered.
Afterwards, Fleming was so candid about his tactics that repentance didn't even enter the equation. "We saw an emotion that we could tap into," was his succinct confession at the time, although on Tuesday he did at least have the good grace to look distinctly embarrassed while accepting the accolade. The rest of his team ought to have been shuffling in their seats as well, for "respect for the game's traditional values" is another of MCC's suggestions for self-policing. This presumably includes being fair to one's fans, and not charging autograph-hunters money for the privilege of an illegible scribble, as was the case on their tour of England earlier this summer.
But this is not intended as an anti-Kiwi tirade - personally, I thought Fleming's tactics were remarkably astute, and he could never have expected them to come home to roost in this way - courtesy of a meaningless bauble with ideas below its station. The blame lies entirely with the organisers who chose to limit themselves to a choice of ten teams, all of whom have it in them to be equally awful in any given year. Trying to encapsulate the spirit of cricket in such unwieldy vessels is like trying to eat soup with a fork.
That's not to say it's impossible, however, which makes part two of the travesty all the more astonishing. For in this very year, one team has met all the relevant criteria and still emerged smiling and victorious at the other end. Let's face it, Michael Vaughan's England side have become the best ambassadors in the game today. Their camaraderie is tangible, their good humour is infectious, and their cricket has been exhilarating. Given the limited scope of the award, it beggars belief that their efforts went unnoticed.
The ICC would have avoided such a lame duck if it had cast its net wider, and followed the example of the Cricket Writers' Club, whose annual Peter Smith award - for services to the presentation of cricket to the public - has a roving brief to trawl through the world of cricket, and settle upon the worthiest recipients it can find. In 1996, Sri Lanka's World-Cup winners were honoured en masse; while in 2003, a joint award was made to Henry Olonga and Andy Flower for their protest against what they termed the "death of democracy" in Zimbabwe.
Now that was spirit. But then I suppose there's the rub - it was the type of spirit that is as welcome at an ICC awards bash as a can of Coke and a Zanussi dishwasher. Even so, as the ICC demonstrated with their Murali snub, there's no such thing as a controversial ruling, so long as you reserve the right to turn a blind eye to the bits that don't fit.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.