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Spirit Of Cricket? Do Me A Favour!

Surrey and England legend Mark Butcher stepped into the editor’s chair for the latest issue of AOC and pulled no punches in assessing the impracticalities of ‘The Spirit of Cricket’. 

Cricket is a complicated and contrary beast. It is also a game of varying and wide-ranging opinion, of prolonged tension, of satisfying release. It asks of its protagonists great feats of endurance and strength, skill and discipline, solitude and teamwork.

Cricket has always had its own sense of morality – a gentleman’s code if you will. I recall the quaint practice of ‘clapping in’ the new batsman. Lovely on the surface of course; but the seven-year-old Michael Holding in me had thoughts of rearranging the poor unfortunate’s new dental work. Cricket – like the world in which it is set – has a brutal beauty and is governed by law and order. For the most part!

All of the above musings leads me to the subject of the preamble to the laws of our game, ‘The Spirit of Cricket’. The brainchild of two eminent cricketing gentlemen, Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey, who sought to enshrine said ‘spirit’ into the game’s laws, thus “reminding players of their responsibility to ensure that the game is played in a sportsmanlike manner.”

Now I confess that, in principle, I find no offence in any of its passages and wholeheartedly support the assertion that “According to the Laws, the umpires are the sole judges of fair and unfair play.” I also applaud the point (placed last but not least at number 7 – an allrounder perhaps?) that “Captains and umpires together set the tone for the conduct of a cricket match.” What’s not to like, I hear you ask?

As I say, in principle it does what it says on the tin, setting out a Famous Five-style code of conduct that, if adhered to, will have everybody beaming over his or her Battenberg and ginger pop come suppertime.

But recent examples show that in many cases, the ‘S o C’ – as it shall henceforth be referred – works less well in practice.

1. Take Ian Bell’s run-out and subsequent reinstatement by India’s MS Dhoni at Trent Bridge in 2011. Bell erroneously thought he’d struck the final delivery of the afternoon for a boundary and – of his own accord – called time on the session, tucked his bat under his arm and headed for the dressing room. Then came the sickening realisation that the ball had been saved and was winging its way back. Bell made a couple of strides in the direction of the crease in an attempt to save himself. Realising his goose was cooked, he (rather smartly) calculated that trying to regain his ground would be an admission of guilt, so turned heel again and headed for the pavilion. Meanwhile, Abhinav Mukund received the throw, whipped off the bails and affected the run-out…

2. A year on and a few hundred miles south, Surrey’s Murali Kartik is accused of trampling over the ‘S o C’ with the controversial ‘Mankading’ of Alex Barrow during a County Championship game at Taunton. Despite a warning, the batsman continued to steal yards at the non-striker’s end and was eventually dispatched, prompting angry reaction from players and spectators alike…

3. Back to where it all began – Lord’s, and this time the final Test between England and South Africa, 2012. An incident that raised an aesthetic challenge to the ‘S o C’: the stumping of Morne Morkel by Matt Prior. Was it a brilliant piece of thinking by the world’s best keeper-batsman or did it contravene the very essence of fair play and therefore the game itself? I had cause to argue with the real-life version of my seven-year-old self – Michael Holding – over that very question. He felt it was sharp practice and I (from a safe distance) did not!

My conclusions from each of the three scenarios are these. In the case of Bell vs Dhoni, the ‘S o C’ forced the captain of India into overturning a call that he was entirely within his rights to uphold. Dead ball Law 23(b) tells you all you need to know on the subject and, in my opinion, the ‘S o C’ would have been better upheld had Bell admitted his mistake and rejected his reinstatement. The same law also covers Prior vs Morkel, and the South African’s cricketing instinct would have told him that the error was his and his alone.

Kartik vs Barrow is also covered by the laws in the Fair and Unfair Play section, Law 42 15/16. As Kartik himself opined in the aftermath of the incident, “Everyone get a life please… if a batsman is out on a stroll in spite of being warned, does that count as being in the spirit of the game?”

I conclude that the Spirit of Cricket is a commendable notion but is not without significant flaws in its interpretation. The Laws of cricket are comprehensive and most of the recent wrangles have come about because of a lack of understanding of such Laws, as opposed to massive breaches of some unrealistic utopian code.

Cricket, like life, has harsh lessons to teach. Stupidity is no defence in either!

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