April 8, 2008

What spirit of cricket?

Does it matter anymore? Does it even exist?

The IPL's announcement that it will adhere to the MCC's Spirit of Cricket charter is mutually beneficial to both parties, but how relevant is the idea of the spirit of cricket these days? © AFP

The marriage between the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Indian Premier League seems an unlikely liaison: ancient untouchable institution meets brash gold-digger. These sorts of alliances normally end up in messy and acrimonious High Court settlements. But needs must. There is mutual benefit in the announcement of a commitment by the IPL to the MCC's Spirit of Cricket charter, which since 2000 has formed a preamble to the Laws of the game and is also endorsed by the ICC.

The IPL can show off to the establishment and the game's more traditional followers that it is a serious and upstanding member of the global cricket community. For the MCC, meanwhile, it is another notch on the bedpost of modernisation, as Keith Bradshaw, its forward-thinking Australian chief executive, seeks to widen the organisation's sphere of influence with consensus rather than pontificating. It is also indicative of the MCC's increasing status, in these overly commercial and politicised times, as the game's conscience.

But whenever the spirit of cricket gets mentioned, I find myself wondering what it, this spirit, is, and whether it means anything. Does it matter any more? Does cricket indeed have a spirit?

It certainly reeks of old MCC, of jazz-hat matches between wandering clubs like I Zingari and Free Foresters. There is so much mythology about cricket's supposed nobility, its higher calling. Indeed, there is so much of this nonsense in the UK that it puts people off playing the game.

The problem with the idea of a spirit of cricket is two-fold: one, it sounds outdated and irrelevant, especially for younger people; and secondly, that cricket means different things to different people.

Does a village match in rural England have anything in common with a game of tape-ball on the streets of Lahore? Does the member of the Melbourne Cricket Club have anything in common with the Sachin-worshipper on the concrete terraces of the Wankhede? The answer is cricket. The game itself. Not rules or values but a game, no more no less. It's not about fair play, it's about fun.

Matthew Hayden spoke after Bill Brown's death recently about the game being purer in Brown's day. Hayden misses the point. It is about perspective. The old Keith Miller line about pressure being a Messerschmitt up your backside contains an universal truth, that cricket is a game to be enjoyed not endured. By all accounts Hayden is a charming bloke off the cricket field but on it he exudes all the charm of a playground bully. He is a player at odds with the spirit of cricket.

There is plenty of room for extreme competitiveness, fruity back-chat, and even the intelligent end of the sledging spectrum without turning the game into an expression of orchestrated malevolence.

The remarkable backlash against the Australian team by their own public and media in the immediate aftermath of the Harbhajan-Symonds row was an attack on joylessness. It was not that they wanted their team to be pussycats. They wanted their cricket hard but they wanted a smile or too as well, and it was clear that a line had been crossed.

There is a certain paradox that MCC should be promoting the spirit of the game when watching cricket at Lord's can be a joyless experience - though things are improving on that front. People still aren't allowed to dress up as carrots but at least fun is no longer a dirty word.

The IPL, with its American influences, sounds like it could be fun, and I'm sure the players will enjoy it too, but whether there will be much evidence of the game's spirit is another matter. Because if it is just a circus then it has no merit or sustainability.

The players and spectators must care about the result, just not too much.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer