Saturday, September 04, 2010

Whither the "Spirit of Cricket" now ?

We are used to living in a world where the rhetoric of slogans rarely matches the reality of experience. My old employer Shell had at least stopped using its tag line “You can be sure of Shell” a while before it became quite apparent that you couldn’t. But the LibDems shamelessly propagated their “Change That Works For You. Building a Fairer Britain” as they secretly finessed themselves closer to the Conservatives for whom, as we can now see, “fairness” is hardly a convincing battle cry. And in sport can there be a more dubious motto than that now inculcated into the Laws of the Game and presumptuously adopted by the Marylebone Cricket Club – the “Spirit of Cricket”.

The preamble to the Laws of Cricket says “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.” Fine words albeit hugely hubristic ones. The first bit of overweening pride here is the peddling of the myth that cricket in some way sets itself apart from other sports. Its appeal is “unique” and when it is played there is some sort of quasi-spiritual imperative which means that it is played is a spirit which goes beyond its laws and rules. Poppycock! Indeed there is a reasonable argument to say that professional cricket is uniquely dysfunctional compared with other sports. Take sledging for example. Few if any sports have institutionalised verbal abuse of one team’s players by those of the other as cricket has. Perhaps it is marginally less prevalent today than when Shane Warne was ritually foul-mouthing England’s batsmen. But it hasn’t gone away. Examples are legion but Matthew Hayden, A devout Catholic apparently, showed the style with his tirade at Graeme Smith when he came to the wicket a few years ago "You know, you're not fucking good enough. How the fuck are you going to handle Shane Warne when he's bowling in the rough? What the fuck are you going to do?" And former Aussie captain, Steve Waugh, publicly supported the practice of sledging giving it the fancy title of "mental disintegration". I don’t know of any other sport where sledging is an accepted part of the game – but I do know that this practice alone makes a mockery of the so-called “Spirit of Cricket”.

If on the field misbehaviour, not just sledging, in cricket is worse than in many other sports it leaders hardly set a noble example in their behaviour. When financial carrots dangle is there a cricket board Chairman who doesn’t salivate? If the “Spirit of Cricket” had meant anything in practice then the grotesque spectacle of the England and Wales Cricket Board prostrating itself in front of the gruesome “Sir” Allan Stanford would not have happened. And does anyone seriously think that “moral” considerations play any part in the decision making of the Indian Premier League – notwithstanding MCC’s absurd links with this venture? The links were lauded by Lalit Modi the League’s Chairman back in 2008 "I am happy that the Indian Premier League will adopt MCC’s doctrine on the Spirit of Cricket” Modi said at the League’s inception - and the MCC issued similarly pretentious sounding statements at the time. Mr Modi is, of course, currently suspended and answering a raft of accusations of corruption! Some spirit!

The acid test of whether the “Spirit of Cricket” actually means anything in reality is to compare behaviour on and off the field today with how things were before the whole idea was dreamed up. Is there less ball-tampering or sledging? Do batsmen “walk” more when they nick the ball and it is caught? And are cricket’s leaders more concerned with behaving in a principled way than once they were? I would argue that the reverse is the case and that the practical effect of the “Spirit of Cricket” has been zero – PR flimflam aside. This summer the MCC’s “Home of Cricket” was heavily decorated with “Spirit of Cricket” hoardings and Pakistan’s Test matches were overtly branded as “Spirit of Cricket tests”. How ironic, then, that it was at Lord’s that, in the words of ICC CEO Haroon Lorgat, a betting scam which “had the potential to be the worst corruption case in cricket since that of Hansie Cronje” took place.

Defenders of the “Spirit of Cricket” would no doubt say that the concept is aspirational - that it sets a standard of behaviour intention to which all cricketers should aspire. The problem with that is that it is little more than a vague and high-minded slogan which maybe gives a warm glow of comfort to some deluded souls but is largely ignored in reality. What really matters is having clear rules and regulations that are unequivocally stated and properly policed. The ICC does this and it will no doubt be reviewing these rules and their application in the light of the Lord’s debacle. And these rules need to be inculcated into the behaviour of all cricket’s officials not because they relate to some noble cause, like the “Spirit of Cricket”, but because they are non-negotiable conditions for participating in cricket at all. If you can’t manage your players in such a way that they don’t tamper with cricket balls, cheat, abuse and insult opponents and fix matches or incidents within matches then you don’t get a licence to play at all.

It may seem be a sad refection on the modern world that cries of "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" (which is essentially what the “Spirit of Cricket” is) fall onto deaf ears. But it is worth remembering that only 35 years after Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada, from which this line is of course taken, Douglas Jardine was ordering his bowlers to threaten Australian batsmen with intimidatory bodyline bowling. And that it wasn’t by a reference to some “Spirit of Cricket” that this practice was outlawed but by a change to the Laws of the game. “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!”