Newsflash: Sports player plays sport by rules of the sport. Cue massive outrage and moral indignation.
Anyone who’s been watching county cricket in the last 24 hours will instantly recognise the situation described. Stripped down to its bare bones, the Kartik-Barrow incident in the Somerset CCC vs Surrey CCC match looks comical. What’s all the fuss about?
In fact, it gets even more ridiculous. Since the bowler had delivered a prior warning, the newsflash becomes: Sports player plays sport by rules, after giving opponent bonus chance to play fairly. And it gets worse: Sports team captain apologises for playing by the rules.
So why the vehemence? By and large, it’s that old chestnut being invoked: the Spirit of the Game.
The Spirit of the Game is an essential part of the game of Cricket, officially codified in 2000, and is a key factor in setting cricket apart as special. It outlines the general attitudes that should rule the game and guide the way it is played.
The Spirit is meant to fill in in areas where the Laws may be unclear, or where there may be room for interpretation. Think of the Laws as rules, and the Spirit as a guiding principle.
The central idea is that of “fair play”. Players, and their captains, must be seen to be acting in a gentlemanly, sportsmanlike, and fair way to their opponents. They must not act in any way that brings the game into disrepute.
There is no problem with this. Indeed, it’s a most valuable standard to have available in a world where sports scandals seem to occur on a daily basis, be they accusations of drug taking (cycling), match throwing (badminton), or spot-fixing (cricket).
Within the power of the Spirit of Cricket lies a weakness, though. When some subset of the cricket-watching community dislike a particular action, it’s all too eay to call it “unsporting” and “against the Spirit of the Game”. Despite not having solid grounds for such forthright statements, the vague appeal to the Spirit nevertheless whips up popular feeling. All too often the media jumps on the bandwagon – even if the majority of viewers don’t think there’s been a breach.
When the banner of the “Spirit of Cricket” is hijacked by non-existent problems, it counter-productively diminishes respect for the Spirit.
So was there a breach of the Spirit in this case? It’s already been established that there was no breach of the Laws themselves (the MCC Laws taken together with the ECB Playing Conditions). Yet the media coverage, by and large, sought to suggest an ungentlemanly undercurrent, representing the Surrey captain as “contrite”.
The Preamble to the Laws, that seeks to capture the Spirit in words, is in fact very short. The key sections here are:
- The Spirit of the Game involves respect for your opponents and the game’s traditional values. (Section 4)
- It is against the Spirit of the Game to indulge in cheating or any sharp practice. (Section 5)
- Each player must also avoid behaving in a manner which might bring the game into disrepute. (Section 1)
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Respect for opponents and traditional values
Traditionally, Mankading has been seen as ungentlemanly, if delivered without warning. It should be stressed that this is simply a matter of tradition: the Laws do not consider this to be an instance of unfair play. Nevertheless, tradition holds that a warning should be given first. If such a warning is given, the bowler has given the batsman a fair chance, fair signal of intent, and therefore is not acting in an unsportsmanlike fashion.
Furthermore, tradition is always a slippery concept to appeal to. Admittedly Mankading may be rare in first-class cricket, but does that automatically make it unfair? Being out “obstructing the field” is rare. That doesn’t make it unfair to appeal when a batsman is guilty of deliberate obstruction. Alternatively, imagine that over the next seventy years, being out LBW becomes extremely rare. Would it be unfair to claim such a wicket in 2082, simply because it had fallen out of tradition?
The Preamble asks players to respect the game’s traditional values, not its traditions. There is a significant difference. Traditions may change, but values should stay the same. Mankading may be non-traditional – just as switch-hitting, Twenty20, and Dilscooping are non-traditional – but it does not necessarily conflict with the game’s traditional values of sportsmanship and fair play, especially when delivered with a warning.
Cheating and sharp practice
Mankading is clearly not cheating, since the Laws expressly allow for it. Is it sharp practice? Clearly not, when it is compared with the examples of cheating and sharp practice listed by the Laws: appealing when knowing the batsman is not out, advancing on the umpire, and trying to distract an opponent. Mankading gets a clean bill here.
Bringing the game into disrepute
To accuse an action of bringing the game into disrepute is a weighty and serious claim. For it to hold any water, though, such an accusation needs to be backed up with clear reasoning. For instance, the spot fixing of Amir, Asif, and Butt clearly brought the game into disrepute. The image of cricket was sullied, as the public was no longer able to trust the contests they witnessed would be genuine battles.
So how does a Mankad bring the game into disrepute? It seems ridiculous to place Kartik’s Mankading on a similar plane to spot fixing. How can Mankading affect the public’s view of cricket? Here’s a challenge: find a member of the public, present the opening “newsflash” from the beginning of the article, and see if he/she sees anything untoward in the situation. If anything, trying to explain the situation risks lending credence to the view of many that the game of cricket is insufferably stuffy and literally ridiculous, through its suffocating insistence on pointless minutiae, and totally unsuited to the modern world of sport.
Once investigated, the grand claims of “failing to uphold the Spirit of Cricket” shrink and collapse to a feeble “but I didn’t like what he did.”
It’s a sad thought that by attempting to drag the Spirit of Cricket in where it isn’t being violated, that very attempt can contribute to a lessening of respect for that Spirit. Spectators, supporters, and the media all have a responsibility to not abuse the Spirit of the Game, and play fairly with players who are playing fairly. Captains should not be bullied into believing they have committed an error, simply because a vocal section have expressed their displeasure.
So Mankading must stay. Batsmen should be kept honest (to recycle a cliché in a different context). And both players and onlookers, in their respective ways, must respect the Spirit of the Game.