June 17, 2014

The incredibly malleable spirit of cricket

It's possible for two people to argue for hours about someone "crossing the line" without anyone knowing what or where the line is

Two British satirists, the late John Fortune and John Bird, mastered the art of explaining slippery subjects through humour. They would take a major news story and apparently merely knock it about in a light, spontaneous chat on TV. But their mischievous dialogues often took us closer to the heart of the matter than acres of self-important newsprint. (Here they are in a famous sketch from 2007 about the financial crisis)

How I would have loved them to address cricket's confusion about the "spirit of cricket". The old controversy was reignited this month when Sri Lanka "Mankaded" Jos Buttler. In the spirit of admiration rather than emulation, in this piece I imagine a conversion between the two great satirists, reflecting on Mankading and cricket's odd attitudes towards morality...

"So what is it, this spirit of cricket thing? Presumably it's about behaving with dignity out on the pitch and that kind of stuff?"

"Oh no, not really. Most players can get away with swearing at each other non-stop for five days without contravening the spirit of cricket. We don't get involved morally at that level. Better to turn a blind eye."

"You mean sledging - that's the right term isn't it? - does not contravene the spirit of cricket?"

"Not really. No, cricket tends to celebrate verbal abuse as "banter", even though it's very rarely funny. Let's put it this way. If someone sledges you all day in a Test match, the correct response in modern cricket is to go up to him at the end of play and say, "I loved the way you showed real passion about playing for your country, you seem like a champion cricketer, can I buy you a drink, as I'm sure you're a great bloke off the pitch."

"So the appropriate response to someone calling you a "f****** ****" for seven hours is to say, 'Thanks, can I buy you a beer?'"


"Now I'm confused. So abusing someone who is simply doing his job is fine. But when an opponent performs a run-out, entirely within the laws of the game, he has broken the spirit of cricket, and the crowd starts booing and the whole occasion is apparently demeaned?"

"You are beginning to understand how the phrase "spirit of cricket" can be thrown around."

"But what could Sri Lanka have done to avoid the Mankading? Other than the threat of a Mankad, there's no other way of preventing a batsman setting off for a run from an advanced position is there?"

"Not really."

"And I suppose, in the heat of battle in elite sport, no one offers warnings before acting within the laws, do they?"

"Well, actually Sri Lanka offered two warnings."

"So they offered two warnings to an opponent who was - deliberately or, in this instance, accidentally - gaining an illegal advantage, and yet they still broke the spirit of cricket?"

"According to lots of people, yes."

Everything up to and including my actions are "within the spirit of cricket". Anything I don't like about the actions of other players is "against the spirit of cricket"

"So if acting within the laws is against the spirit of cricket, what does upholding the spirit of cricket look like?"

"It's about not taking advantage of the fact that a man can lose his mind immediately before eating a slice of cake."

"I'm sorry, you've lost me."

"Back in 2011, poor Ian Bell offered a plea of temporary insanity brought about by the immediate temptation of a slice of cake. The 'spirit of cricket' jury gave him a reprieve, effectively a second life as a batsman."

"You're joking, right?"

"Deadly serious. Ian Bell made a brilliant hundred at Trent Bridge against India. But after the last ball before tea, he lapsed in concentration and assumed that the ball had crossed the boundary when in fact it hadn't. As he sauntered off for tea, the Indian team dislodged the bails, and Bell was run out. That is indeed out, according to the laws. But after an English delegation went to the Indian dressing room to complain, India retracted their appeal.

"That is, they invited Bell to bat again. Not because he wasn't out, but because they now realised that the prospect of tea had clearly clouded Bell's mind. Pundits agreed that everyone had behaved superbly. After all, how could a man be expected to remember the laws of the game when he can already sniff the aroma of chocolate cake in his nostrils?"

"This spirit of cricket is incredibly complex and malleable, isn't it? It looks as though you can explain or condemn almost anything using the rhetoric of the spirit of cricket."

"Exactly. That's the magic of it. It's all about not crossing a line."

"Whose line?"

"My line."

"What do you mean your line?"

"Everything up to and including my actions are 'within the spirit of cricket'. Anything I don't like about the actions of other players is 'against the spirit of cricket'."

"So it's possible for two people to argue for hours about someone 'crossing the line' without anyone knowing what or where the line is?"

"Exactly. That's the brilliance of the idea."

"Let's go back to the Mankading controversy. Wasn't there some background controversy about the bowling action of Senanayake, the bowler who performed the Mankading?"

"Senanayake's action has been reported as suspicious by several officials - i.e. it may be deemed a throw rather than a bowl. He will have to go to Cardiff to have his action specially filmed and analysed to see if it is legal after all."

"But isn't there a risk, when spin bowlers have to attend special testing, that they will simply bowl with a slightly different and 'more legal' action during the forensic examination?"

"What do you mean 'risk'? Basically, almost everyone who is tested eventually gets cleared. Think of the whole thing as a cooling off process."

"But what about the bowlers who don't have questionable actions? Aren't they placed at an unfair disadvantage by having to bowl in the traditional manner?"

"What do you think this is, a charity? This is cut-throat, elite sport. There is no room for sentimentality."

"Except the spirit of cricket?"

"Except for that, of course."

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mespnqa on March 2, 2016, 9:43 GMT

    Nice article of this... Good one

  • Francis on June 21, 2014, 11:16 GMT

    Very well explained.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2014, 20:40 GMT

    It is normal practice for a bowler to give the non striker a warning about backing up, i.e. being out of his crease, before running him out. At the other end a striker who takes guard out of his crease has no such warning should he fail to get bat or foot behind the line after a swing and a miss. The wicket keeper will immediately appeal for a stumping. No second chance there. Perhaps all bowlers should stop warning non strikers about backing up. After all, the fielding side is trying to dismiss the batting side !!!

  • Rizwan on June 18, 2014, 19:54 GMT


    Yes , you are correct - it was Harmison and not Anderson - I stand corrected

  • Shane on June 18, 2014, 13:30 GMT

    It's a valid point, and humourously made - which is why players don't decide what's within the spirit, the umpires do.

    The expectation to play within the spirit is something which sets cricket aside from other sports. Sadly, the arguments against this usually come from supporters of a team which has just gained an advantage from ignoring it, and the support from those that have been disadvantaged.

  • Sinhhalaya on June 18, 2014, 12:27 GMT

    Take a lesson from baseball. The pitcher ostensibly winds up to pitch but is allowed to throw to first, second or third base if there is a runner attempting to "steal" a base. Taking a lead is legitimate and if you are caught out at the base you attempted to leave (let alone the base you are running to), you are OUT! If stumbling, bumbling, sauntering, sleepwalking, slithering, shuffling, sprinting or otherwise taking a start out of the crease before the ball is bowled, you are liable to be dismissed. This conforms with the law but is apparently against the so-called spirit. English bowlers bowling vicious bouncers at tail-enders, is all covered in Cook's own code of spiritual conduct, is it? Joe Root, et. al.'s incessant chirping (i.e. sledging by any other name) is also condoned by the code a la Cook. So is a former captain (from the same County) urging bowlers to crack open a champ spinner's fingers by bowling short into the body. Third grade tactics by a second rate team.

  • Steve on June 18, 2014, 11:14 GMT

    Nice to see I have stirred up a bit of feeling out there!. I am pro the 'mankad' form of dismissal, but feel that if a team chooses to break ranks with common practice, they should say so before the game rather than spring it on one individual during the match. I guarantee Buttler did not believe he had done anything wrong, or different to any other batsmen that day for his dismissal. And before anyone jumps back on their high horse, just imagine that instead of getting all haughty about it, England had started actively seeking to mankad all the Sri Lankans! As there is no penalty for failing to 'mankad' successfully, the game would easily be reduced to farce.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2014, 4:30 GMT

    wanna stop mankading. One way; allow it. As ian chappel said once batsman start getting out they will think twice before making the same mistake again. At the same time u will see them backing up properly. The whole concept of warning is ridiculous to be honest. batsman start taking advantage knowing they will be warned several times. Kartik and sachitra got the flak despite warning the batsmen twice I think. @steve: do u warn a batsman that u are about to ball a yorker or bouncer. So why warn him on mankading. Regarding norms: in medieval europe - domestic violence was more common than missing church on sunday. Does this mean missing church is worse. Norms change with time. So to judge an act based on its commonality is stupid.

  • Raj on June 18, 2014, 3:31 GMT

    I would also like to understand England's position here in this test when they bowled 84 overs in a full day's play - thus bowling 6 overs short. Is this in the spirit of cricket? English Test players are known whiners and they will disregard all rules of cricket with the "spirit of cricket". With scientific reasoning now, isn't it time we dropped all forms of spirits from our game altogether?

  • Leonard on June 18, 2014, 1:53 GMT

    @steve48, So what you are saying is "Broad" is the authority on what is right and what is wrong, and a practice, which is morally wrong, and against the spirit of cricket, been carried on for generations, it s therefore a norm and has to be accepted, and something that is right and within the laws but not the "norm" should not be done (even after numerous warnings) Then sir you need to get your head examined.

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