The Laws evolved as a means of regulating what cricket historian Dominic Malcolm says was then "a relatively violent pastime"
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Beginners find it hard enough to understand what cricket is. Devotees know it can be harder still to explain what it is not. When Ian Bell was run out at Trent Bridge last summer, the manner of his dismissal - even though overturned soon after - became the latest in a long list of deeds to have been described in the British press as "not cricket".
As if to confirm the problem, the following were each regarded as examples of the genre: the lack of bilingual librettos in English opera productions, the reluctance of British bishops to sanction changes to the Book of Common Prayer, and the attack on Pearl Harbour. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said in 1929: "One could not define what cricket was, as one could not define a gentleman, but one knew it, as one knew a gentleman when one met a gentleman."
If Baldwin was so adept at identifying gentlemen, he must have known that cricket, even then, always had its share of cheats and cads. And that makes the phrase's prevalence all the more puzzling.
Yet on it lingers. When Mr Justice Cooke was searching for the right words to begin his verdict at the spot-fixing trial in November, he accused the Pakistanis of corrupting a pastime, "the very name of which used to be associated with fair dealing on the sporting field. 'It's not cricket' was an adage". At least he had the good grace to imply the phrase had fallen out of fashion; but by using it at all he was having his rhetorical cake and eating it.
"It's not cricket" is one of the oldest clichés in sport, long since exhausted through overuse. But while the words themselves seem hollow, the sentiment behind them remains significant: witness the crowd's raucous reaction to Bell's dismissal.
Fans of other sports can be excused for finding this moralising a little grating. Other games have ethical codes that are at least as strict, if not stricter. That was true even when the phrase made its first appearance in the Times, in a report on the 1896 Varsity match at Lord's. In an eerie precursor of Salman Butt's instructions there 114 years later, the Cambridge captain Frank Mitchell ordered deliberate no-balls because he did not want Oxford to follow on, which was then mandatory. The Times thundered: "Cricket is a kind of synonym for generous behaviour, nor can we condemn any conduct more severely and succinctly than by saying that 'it is not cricket'. In golf everyone recognises and submits to the etiquette as well as the rules of the game. Are cricketers to be less sportsmanlike than golfers?"
The idea was echoed a few decades later, shortly after Bodyline, by the five times Open champion JH Taylor of "The Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, Richmond" in a letter to the same newspaper: "May I, Sir, as a devoted servant of an old, illustrious, and honourable game, suggest that, instead of saying, as has been the habit, 'It isn't cricket,' we regain a lost significance by saying 'It isn't golf'?" The suggestion did not catch on. For as Baldwin had already pointed out: "Men never said: 'Oh come, that is not golf, or lawn tennis, or marbles, or anything else.'"
To begin to answer why and when cricket became a "synonym for generous behaviour" in the English imagination, you have to go back to the 18th century, when it was, as MCC's chief librarian Neil Robinson says, "a game for gamblers". Historians Derek Birley and David Underdown have shown it was disreputable in its early years, even corrupt. "Aristocrats were putting up their own teams and saying '1,000 guineas that we beat you'," Robinson says. "And there were lots of examples of devious practice, which would have led to people feeling they would have been cheated out of their money."
The Laws evolved as a means of regulating what cricket historian Dominic Malcolm says was then "a relatively violent pastime". The first set we know of are the Articles of Agreement from a match in 1727 between the teams of the Duke of Richmond and Mr Alan Brodrick of Surrey. The Duke himself caused a riot at a match in 1731, when his late arrival delayed the start. The game ended with the opposition needing "eight to ten more notches", to the crowd's great displeasure. The cricketers had "the shirts torn off their backs" by a mob. There was also more physical contact between the players in those days, and the Laws governing run-outs, hitting the ball twice and obstructing the field were designed to cut down on clashes between batsmen and fielders.
MCC produced their version of the Laws in 1788, the year after the club's foundation. "It was only in the 1780s that you got a move for an authoritative body to issue laws that would be adhered to by everyone," Robinson says. "And that coincides with some of the biggest matches and heaviest gambling." The sport was, in effect, trying to legislate its way out of corruption: the road to "it's not cricket" had begun.
It would be another 75 years before the first comprehensive set of football rules were drawn up. So cricket's claim to be the sport that has a standard of fair play is partly a consequence of chronology. Crucially, though, it is not the Laws alone that dictate what is cricket. As that Times report of the 1896 Varsity match said: "All things may be lawful. Yet all things are not expedient." Over the course of the 19th century, cricket also developed a so-called spirit, and it was this that cemented its reputation as the fairest of sports.
Anthony Bateman, a research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, says there are glimmers of this idea in John Nyren's The Young Cricketer's Tutor, published in 1833. Nyren describes the batsman Billy Beldam not just as the "beau idéalof grace, animation and concentrated energy," but also as possessing "sterling qualities of integrity, plain dealing and good English independence". Bateman says: "The idea was emerging that to play the game in a particular way is to be somehow linked to sound ethics."
But the man who really advanced the idea of cricket's spirit was, appropriately, a Reverend. In his book The Cricket Field, published in 1851, James Pycroft used "not cricket" for what is believed to be the first time - in a passage describing how the great batsman Fuller Pilch timidly backed away from the fearsome fast bowling of Harvey Fellows during a Gentlemen v Players game in 1849. "Why then, we will not say that anything which that hardest of hitters and thorough cricketer does is not cricket," Pycroft wrote of Pilch. "But certainly it is anything but play."
The Reverend's evangelism became a common theme in the second half of the 19th century. In 1894, the Manchester Guardian carried a report of a sermon by Archdeacon Wilson at Rochdale Parish Church, in which he told his audience: "Cricket encourages a love of fair play. It is a moral training that operates far outside the cricket field." And the poet Edward Cracroft Lefroy, himself a retired cleric, wrote that "the whole edifice of the Christian virtues could be raised on a basis of good cricket".
Malcolm says that in The Cricket Field Pycroft tried to "reinvent cricket as a rural and peaceful game". Pycroft dwelt in detail on the match-fixing and bet-rigging that dogged the early 19th century, but dismissed such scandals as a relic of "the dark days". It was a popular and influential book, with nine editions published before the end of the century. The phrase stuck. "Pycroft was making a technical point," Robinson says. "But it was a concept you could apply more widely to any action you disapproved of: 'That is not the cricket I recognise.'"
Soon writers and reporters were doing exactly that. In 1865, the Manchester Guardian used it to describe the bowling of EM Grace, WG's elder brother, in a match between Surrey and "18 gentlemen". "There were bursts of hisses from the spectators" when Grace delivered three 30-foot-high lobs in an attempt to dismiss the obstinate Harry Jupp. Offended by this ploy, Jupp allowed his undefended wicket to be knocked over by the third of them. The crowd "did not conceal their disapprobation for Mr Grace's bowling", said the paper. "They stigmatised him as an 'old woman' and his bowling as 'not cricket'."
Clearly, the Graces were no great advocates of the spirit of the game. That role fell instead to Lord Harris. He conceded his own debt to Pycroft in his 1921 book A Few Short Runs, in which he hoped younger readers would learn from his words as he himself had from The Cricket Field. Foremost among Harris' instructions was this: "That is not cricket. The brightest gem ever won by any pursuit: in constant use on the platform, in the pulpit, parliament and the press, so to dub something as not being fair, not honourable, not noble. What a tribute for a game to have won, but what a responsibility for those who play and manage it!"
For Harris, the cricket field was "God's classroom". By the time he was appointed MCC president in 1895, "it's not cricket" had acquired currency and, in the next two decades, its use grew so common it became the butt of jokes. In a 1902 court case to settle a charge of wrongful dismissal, the defence counsel, Mr Montague Shearman, made the mistake of saying the plaintiff's actions were "not cricket". The idea that the phrase could have any application beyond the field of play amused the judge. "If it were cricket they would not see Mr Shearman taking part in the matter at all," he replied. "So far as I can gather cricket was not a game played by gentlemen dressed as Mr Shearman was dressed, but by flannelled fools."
The suffragettes also adopted "it's not cricket" as a slogan, even though a group of them burned down the pavilion at the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells in 1913, acting in the belief that cricket grounds equated to male chauvinism. The phrase had become so widely used, and in such diverse contexts, it was losing its meaning.
By the late 1930s, it had been reduced to the status of a staple clue in broadsheet crossword puzzles. CLR James believed Bodyline was "the blow from which 'It isn't cricket' has never recovered". Certainly, it seems it was never used with the same conviction thereafter. Derek Birley on the other hand reckoned it finally died in 1994 with Mike Atherton and the dirt in his pocket. "'Not cricket', though ailing, was still part of the mythology of the game," Birley wrote in A Social History of English Cricket. "But Michael Atherton pricked the bubble once and for all."
Atherton finds the idea laughable. "I don't ever remember having any notion of 'it's not cricket' drilled into me," he says. "The context I'd place myself in is the northern club/league tradition, where the prevailing ethos was to do whatever you could, within the boundaries of what was regarded as acceptable." Most modern professional cricketers, you imagine, feel the same way.
"The spirit of cricket ethos is largely just paid lip service to by the players," Atherton says. "Most of them will not have read the Laws of the game." This would also mean they haven't read the preamble, which was conceived by Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter as a way of reconciling the spirit with the Laws, and officially introduced in 2000.
Atherton wonders whether this and MCC's subsequent Spirit of Cricket campaign are in fact evidence of the administrators' insecurity about their sport's status. After the match-fixing scandals of the last 20 years, cricket's reputation is as tarnished now as it has ever been. "The spirit is a necessary adjunct to the Laws," says Robinson. "But it is not necessarily an effective adjunct, because people will always try to get around it, particularly when there is so much at stake."
Given the game's often inglorious history, occasional acts of good sportsmanship, such as India's decision to recall Bell, are testament only to the character of individual players themselves, not the moral superiority of their sport. The spirit of the game is more of an aspiration than an expectation. In truth, it always has been.
Andy Bull writes about sport for the Guardian and the Observer