By sponsoring the Test series between Pakistan and Australia played in England, the Marylebone Cricket Club did the game a service. Cricket faces no greater task than the protection of the game in one of its traditional homes. Moreover, Pakistan has always been compelling. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
But the MCC took another, no less significant, step. By calling the series The Spirit of Cricket they drew attention to a somewhat old-fashioned view of a professional game played between nations who are often at each other's throats. It was an attempt to provoke a debate and a way of challenging cricket to seek its better self. Some cricketing folk go weak at the knees whenever the spirit of the game is mentioned. Others, the sceptics, think it has been overdone.
Every game has its unwritten rules. Soccer players boot the ball into touch upon seeing friend or foe writhing on the turf. No less impressively, they seldom object when the prostrate promptly rise and start running around like teenagers whose mobiles have gone missing. The custom does not stop them diving or pulling shirts. The rules of etiquette are clear. The fallen are to be protected. Suddenly they are members of the fraternity. Everything else is in the hands of the referee.
Rugby forwards are widely regarded as a rough-and-ready lot, but they stop pushing whenever an opponent calls "Neck!", to indicate that a vulnerable but vital part of his body is under severe stress. Muddied oafs share a common fear of neck injuries. Apparently the privilege has never been abused. Culprits could hardly hope thereafter to command respect. That does not stop them kicking, gouging and unceremoniously removing opponents from rucks.
Cricket, too, has its sporting side. Not even the most bitter enemies stoop to bowling beamers at each other. It is understood that the delivery is unacceptable. Plain and simple, beamers are beyond the pale. Instances are mostly unintentional and bring forth an immediate, and usually sincere, apology. The remainder cause a commotion.
But cricket makes a higher claim. Other recreations take the view that the rules are sufficient to determine right and wrong on the field of play. Players are answerable to a code of conduct, not a code of ethics. Cricket talks about its special spirit and by doing so announces a lofty ambition. Clearly the MCC is anxious to press the case. Whether it is sensible to do so is another matter. And it is risky to begin the enterprise at Lord's, bastion of the old guard. Spirit is notoriously difficult to define and anyhow the game long ago moved beyond its Western presumptions. Perhaps, though, merit can be found in reminding all and sundry that we are mere servants of the game and called upon to protect its reputation. However corny it might appear, it does no harm periodically to reflect on the higher cause.
The notion that cricket has a particular and binding spirit has been handed down the generations. Its beginnings lie not with the original players on Hambledon and elsewhere, among whom saints were few and far between, but with the headmasters and aristocrats who took hold of the game and used it for educative and other purposes. In a short time a game played by all sorts and familiar with temper, controversy, bookies and drink was transformed into a highly principled and structured activity, reflecting the conservatism of the nation at large.
The schools of the elite took up the game and perforce were obliged to play it as gentlemen or not at all. It was not merely a matter of ostensibly rejecting reward. Proper behaviour was paramount. Playing for the team, walking without waiting for the umpire's verdict, appealing with due restraint, applauding the deeds of opponents and other principles were invoked. Vicars talked about the value of these from pulpits, headmasters from rostrums. Before long the professionals had put aside the revelry that marked their progress in the mid-19th century and adopted the new values. Indeed they applied them with an integrity that sometimes eluded their supposed betters.
Nor was it merely a matter of England. These schools were preparing boys to serve and sustain the Empire. Cricket became a part of the programme. Starting as a relaxation for homesick solders, it caught the eye of locals in most places and presently they were playing the game in much the same manner as their rulers. So well did the subjects absorb cricket that they became not only outstanding practitioners but proud bearers of the tradition. Indeed, they talked more about the spirit of the game than their rulers. West Indians were amongst the last to stop walking. Until recently Sri Lankan batsmen called umpires "Sir." Doubtless it frayed in places but the cord stayed strong. Even now locals take umbrage whenever the spirit of the game is forgotten.
"Cricket talks about its special spirit and by doing so announces a lofty ambition. Whether it is sensible to do so is another matter. Spirit is notoriously difficult to define"
In a simpler world and in smoother times, if such can be imagined, the spirit might have been sustainable. Cricket occupies no such habitat. As long-suppressed nations supped with increasing confidence from the cup of freedom, so the spirit became ever harder to define. At times it has caused such a fracturing that observers have questioned its relevance. Arguably the spirit has not been strong enough to bind unleashed nations together. Certainly the game's governors reached that conclusion. That's why they introduced independent umpires, referees, replays and other ruses calculated to resolve conflict. It is a reflection of reality. Appealing to the better self has its merits but does not always survive the frenzied finish. Nor does everyone agree about its meaning.
Every nation has a different starting point. How to create a common culture when the attitudes and experiences of the small number of competing nations are so varied? Which values are to be chosen?
Walking is a particularly hot topic. Australians are regarded as the main culprits. Alone among the cricketing nations, they never did accept the English outlook. But then, they were a settled not a tamed land. Dumped, they lacked the fondness for English ways detected elsewhere. From the outset Australians played by their own lights, put the game in the hands of the umpires and sought to avoid deception and trickery. As far as they were concerned, walking was unnecessary and open to abuse.
Even now Australians are blamed for not departing voluntarily. But walking is no longer expected anywhere. Numerous Indians worked themselves into a lather when Andrew Symonds did not depart voluntarily in the infamous SCG Test a few years ago. It was a foolish response. He was under no obligation. When their own batsmen stood their ground, the same observers held their tongues. At such times shrill talk about the spirit of the game does as much harm as good. Double standards have nothing to commend them. Maybe the Aussies are right. Maybe it is better to get on with the game.
Sledging is another contentious subject. Somewhat to their chagrin, Australians are constantly cross-examined about it. Partly it is the insight it offers to secrets of the field. Supporters want to know what it is really like out there. Accordingly they relish the remarks. Australians point out that their words are mere banter and that much worse is said in the backyards and gardens and beach matches of their boyhood. Aussies like to tease each other. It's their way of showing affection. Did genial Bill Woodfull once enquire of his men, "Which of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?"
But sledging does not travel well. Other nations are not raised in the knockabout way. Teases can be taken as taunts, can provoke a fiery response, whereupon trouble begins. Other cultures instill respect for elders and politeness. Others still, and sometimes the same ones, do not put racism as high, nor regard match-fixing or ball-tampering as rotten. Everyone knows all these things are wrong but opinions vary about their relative importance. Arjuna Ranatunga can hardly have realised how much refusing to shake hands after the match offended Australians. His opponents can hardly have imagined the demons that had been raised by their confrontational approach.
Accordingly it is extremely difficult to settle upon a code of conduct, let alone a universally agreed spirit. Cricket is not like golf. It's a battle between teams and also between bat and ball, a struggle for supremacy between proud nations bearing the burdens of history and its memories.
Perhaps "spirit" is the wrong word. It sounds superior. It's not really about walking or talking. It's about respect for opponents and the game itself. Forget about the vaunted spirit of the game. Respect holds the key.