England were adamant this catch behind of Yashasvi Jaiswal had carried - but the third umpire disagreed!
The Indian cricket team had just skittled England for 81 runs to complete a 10 wicket win at Modi Stadium in February 2021. Ravichandran Ashwin, already irritated by English accusations of India doctoring their own pitches, sat at the press conference waiting for the inevitable question.
“I was wondering about the pitch. Do you think it was a good pitch for Test cricket?’ queried an English journalist.
Ashwin was ready to pounce. ‘I have a question back, what is a good cricket surface? Who defines it?’
The English journalist, perturbed, responded. ‘Well, I am the one asking the question, but I would have thought an even contest between bat and ball.’
‘Yes of course,’ Ashwin retorted, ‘The bowler was in the game, the batsman had to bat well to get runs. What makes a good surface? Who defines this? Seam on the first day, then bat well, then spin on the last few days? Come on. Who makes all these rules?’
In truth, the tense exchange was about more than the state of a cricket pitch. Rather, it was about the competing concepts of convention, culture, but most importantly control within the sport.
The Grade Cricketer’s Sam Perry, watching the exchange and aware of India’s growing political and economic influence over England’s game, nailed it: ‘That’s Lords v Mumbai. That’s WG Grace v The Asian Century. Is India cricket turning into a freakshow? Or was Herodotus right. Might is right. If India says that’s a good pitch, then that’s a good f**ken pitch.’
Ashwin and Perry’s questions about the place of power and its relationship to the game’s moral code have resurfaced with the latest incarnation of the cricketing culture war, this time in the form of the Jonny Bairstow/Alex Carey stumping.
Ah yes, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, that ethereal thumb on your conscience as you grace the cricket field. It is referred to often and loudly, whether in the backyard, at your local club competition, or on the slope of Lords.
When one seeks to explore new inventive tactics or challenge convention, it acts as a wonderful escape route for traditionalists, just like when my priest told me ‘God works in mysterious ways’ when I asked him about inconsistencies in the bible.
Admittedly, there is no physical ‘Spirit of Cricket’ guidebook, unlike the rule book which does exist in an empirical sense. But that only adds to its mystique, and thereby its sacrosanctity.
All sport has an expectation surrounding good behaviour. Accepting the umpire’s decision with good grace, acknowledging your opponents’ achievements, and refraining from personal abuse are universal notions of good sportsmanship. Worthy ones too.
However, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ is different in that it bleeds these concepts of nobility into the procedure of play itself. The provision of a runner for an injured batsman, not being able to alter your bowling style mid-run up, no ball tampering, and of course, not running out your opponent at either end when a run is not being taken, without first giving them a warning.
If you are reading through this and thinking “gees, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ seems slightly skewed in favour of the batter”, you would be right.
Come to think of it, a lot else in cricket works in their advantage. The batter will receive the benefit of the doubt in dismissals, batsman can run leg-byes despite missing the ball, batters may switch their batting stance during the bowler’s run-up.
The pattern is real because it exists by design. Rather than being handed down from the divine, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ code was dreamed up by the 19th century English gentry. It was they who enjoyed batting, and hired working-class labourers to hurl balls at them for their pleasure. ‘They have come to watch me bat, not you bowl,’ chuffed WG Grace after being clean bowled and refusing to leave his crease in one game.
The English gentry may have cooked the broth, but we all ate it. The Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad had his name painted with the brush of infamy by the Australian media in 1947/48 for running out Bill Brown at the non-strikers end for ‘backing up’ before he had bowled. It is fair to say the broad stroke brushes of underhandedness has regularly been applied to many sub-continental cricketers and teams.
Don Bradman, a lone voice at the time, did not see what all the fuss was about: “For the life of me, I can’t understand why the press questioned his sportsmanship… By backing up too far or too early, the non-striker is very obviously gaining an unfair advantage.”
The Don would not stand alone for long. With the collapse of the British Empire has come the broader questioning of such mythology. The cloak of the ‘Spirit of the Game’ that has so long disguised class and ethnic hypocrisy is falling away. Bowlers all over the world, particularly those outside England, are finally asking, why?
It is not on us to preserve your wicket for you, it is our job to get you out. “We must applaud game smarts of the individual rather than skewing it towards the spirit of the game,” remarked Ashwin on the Bairstow/Carey stumping.
The Laws of Cricket are the true source of good in the game: they ensure fairness in the contest between bat and ball, between wealthy landowner and factory worker, between Australian and West Indian. The ‘Spirit of Cricket’ in its procedural sense erodes this balance. It is subjectively applied, usually by the losing side.
The baying MCC mob appeared like the reincarnated ghosts of WG Grace, out to reclaim what was once theirs. But the 19th century miner, who toiled in the ‘dark satanic mills’ by weekday only to be humiliated by his boss on a Saturday afternoon, is now having their revenge.