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