5 May 2018

THE SPIRIT OF GRACE

The spirit of cricket. Four little words – six tiny syllables – but a single concept so important, so fundamental to our sport that it was enshrined into the Laws in 2000 in the form of a ‘Preamble to the Laws’. It reads thus: ‘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 spirit of ages past

We think of the gentlemanly spirit of cricketing sportsmanship as being as old as the cricketing gentlemen themselves. Cricket in its current form began in 1864, as auspicious a year as the game has ever seen, witnessing as it did the dawn of overarm bowling, the first appearance of the Wisden almanack, and the beginning of W. G. Grace’s cricket career. How sporting and decent those Victorians were. How honourable and trustworthy. How unimpeachable in their honesty.

Total bollocks, of course. W. G. Grace was very probably the greatest and most complete cricketer the game has ever known, but he was also the most pathological and accomplished cheat. Charlie Connelly’s book Gilbert (available here) describes a notable moment in the match between Gloucestershire and Essex in 1898. Grace was 50 years old and facing the fastest bowler the game had yet produced, Charles Kortright. Grace was palpably lbw but the umpire was intimidated by cricket’s first superstar and did not raise his finger. Grace edged the following delivery behind but stood his ground and the umpire reprieved him again. The next ball sent two stumps spinning and Grace at last left the crease to Kortright’s rejoinder: ‘Surely you’re not leaving us, Doc? There’s one stump still standing.’

Grace was the pioneer of ‘not walking’, as evidenced by three oft-told stories: the dismissal from the first ball of the day (‘I never was any good at the practice ball’); the delicately dislodged bail (‘windy day today, gentlemen’); the tentatively raised finger (‘they’ve come to watch me bat, not you umpire’).

Let us walk in the spirit

‘Not walking’ is widely regarded as cheating – or at least as unsporting – despite not being a transgression of any Law. There are two essential schools of thought: the traditionally English (‘if you know you’re out, you should walk’) and the traditionally Australian (‘you do your job and let the umpire do his’ – a more refined and civilised evolution of Grace’s ‘the umpire’s decision is irrelevant’). Do we define cheating as simply breaking the rules? The Laws forbid ball tampering, so when Bancroft, Smith and Warner did that they were cheating. That much seems simple. But do we include a more nuanced definition, which includes any conscious act of dishonesty intended to gain an advantage?

Amateur cricketers often play cricket without the luxury of a dedicated umpire: the batting team’s players take turns to officiate. Clearly, a batsman who knows they’re out but doesn’t walk is transferring the responsibility to their team-mate in the white coat. There can only be one reason for not walking: you hope your team-mate will reprieve you, which is the same thing as asking your team-mate to cheat for you.

Today’s professional cricketers don’t walk. This is, on the whole, not regarded as cheating. They are professionals, this is their job, failure can have significant and negative consequences, the umpires are highly qualified and paid to be there, so let them decide. There’s a pragmatic logic to this. Here’s a textbook example: David Boon not walking in a 1989 test match at Adelaide. There’s a snick, the ball doesn’t deviate, the fielders go up, the batsman sticks around to see what happens, and gets away with it. It’s the template for not walking. 

Experience has taught us that there is a critical difference between not walking for a catch behind and not walking for a catch to slip. In the latter case, the instructive examples are Stuart Broad, Justin Langer, and A. B. de Villiers. These three were absolutely pilloried for not walking – Darren Lehmann absolutely went to town on Broad – and the c-word was trotted out repeatedly. Their crime? A thicker edge, a bigger snick, a greater deviation. Lehmann called it ‘blatant’ cheating, rather implying that cheating is a lesser offence if it’s done furtively. When professional players universally accept the principle of not walking for a catch to the keeper, but openly accuse each other of cheating when it’s a catch to the player standing next to the keeper, the spirit of cricket starts to look like a phantom: transforming, transient, translucent. It’s not a case of doing the decent thing so much as doing the decent thing only if not doing the decent thing will be your undoing. Most cricketers are not moral philosophers.

The spirit is catching

The equivalent crime for the fielding team is claiming a catch when you know the ball has bounced. Just as the batsman tries to justify not walking by claiming ‘I didn’t know whether I hit it or not’ – a disingenuous claim that pulls off the impressive trick of implying that both the speaker and the hearer have never played cricket before – the fielder can sometimes claim that they can’t tell if the ball touched the grass or not. Slow motion replays reveal this to be a persuasive point: fielders often take their eye off the ball at the last minute, and the interface between blades of grass and fleshy fingers is not as clear cut as that between hard bat and hard ball. If the fielder’s wearing the gloves – see M. S. Dhoni claiming this catch off Kevin Pietersen at Lord’s in 2011 – it becomes harder for the fielder to judge than for the umpire. 

Astonishingly – and with an impressive absence of shame – several fielders have picked the ball up off the ground and claimed it as a catch, apparently caring little about the presence of television cameras and even less about their reputations. There are some remarkable examples of this: Saleem Yousuf catching Ian Botham in 1987; Roger Harper catching Michael Bevan in 1996; Ahmed Shehzad catching Lahiru Thirimanne in 2015. Even in cricket’s complex moral maze of ‘unwritten rules’, there are times when everyone can agree on what constitutes cheating: when it’s ‘blatant’, as Lehmann would put it.

Getting in the way

The batsman’s biggest crime always used to be ‘getting in the way’ accidentally-on-purpose. An obstructive move towards the ball in play made a batsman’s behaviour look – at best – rather dubious (take a look at this subtle but significant move from Rod Marsh). The worst instances could leave commentators speechless (such as this audacious bout of criminality from Mohammad Yousuf) but the batsman always got away with it.

In the last twelve months, the International Cricket Council has tried to clamp down on ‘getting in the way’. Three batsmen – Alex Ross of Brisbane Heat and Ben Stokes and Jason Roy of England – have been nailed by the umpires for only very slight obstructions. The International Cricket Council has clearly (and recently) asked its umpires to apply the rule with considerable exactitude and strictness. The three dismissals created an inordinate amount of publicity. Obstructing the field is no more a wicket than lbw or caught behind, but when someone is given out for obstruction it’s almost as though they’ve been ‘accused of cheating’. Ross, Stokes and Roy might be forgiven for feeling hard done by when players in the past, such as Yousuf, got away with so much more.

It’s very rare, though, for a member of the fielding team to be penalised for obstruction. If a fielder obstructs and then runs out the batsman, it’s quite legitimate if the aim of the obstruction was to get to the ball (a classic example of this being Jeff Thomson’s run out of Derek Randall at Nottingham in 1977). But back then, it was entirely possible that bowler (such as Lance Cairns) could simply push a batsman to the ground if they were suitably riled or frustrated. Indeed, Colin Croft once did it to an umpire – physically, deliberately shoulder barging him because he had not given the decisions Croft wanted – and got away scot-free. The question of what was right and what was wrong was so ‘up in the air’ it never came down to earth.

Can we legislate morality?

Occasionally the fielding team would decide for themselves that some action of theirs was unprincipled – Daniel Vettori did this in 2012 – and in doing so they would attract praise and criticism in equal measure. The moral question was left to mob rule on one occasion, in 1999, when Australia played the West Indies in Barbados. Brendan Julian got in the way of Sherwin Campbell – not necessarily deliberately but also not entirely accidentally – and the Australian team were not inclined to invite Campbell to continue his innings. The Bridgetown crowd became so angry that the umpires had to lead the Australians from the field. 

Obstructing, catching and walking account for almost all of the moral decisions a batsman, bowler or fielder have to make – and make in a split second when they are under considerable pressure. There are a couple of outliers worth mentioning. Every now and then a fielding team manages to transgress cricket’s ‘unwritten rules’ more than once during a single play. 

Mohammad Nabi managed to lie about saving a boundary and run out a batsman who thought the ball was dead in a match against Ireland in 2016. That would certainly fall into Lehmann’s category of ‘blatant cheating’ (the kind of cheating he believes is wrong). The greatest example of malevolent cunning, though, comes from Australia. In the field in Colombo during March 2004, Adam Gilchrist noticed that the bail had come off. He enquired of the umpires whether the batsman might be out hit wicket. There was a lengthy discussion. Shane Warne helpfully added ‘nobody else was near it, I just saw a bail on the ground.’ It transpired that one of the Australian fielders had flicked the bail off surreptitiously a few moments before. Crafty, eh? And not blatant at all. Lehmann would approve. A pity he’s resigned on account of his team’s cheating. His successor? Justin Langer (the bail-flicker himself).

The spirit of cricket may exist in theory – and even on paper since 2000 – but the idea of what constitutes an actual breach remains as nebulous as it was in the age of W. G. Grace. But every so often – not often, but every so – the spirit of cricket is personified in the actions of a player who does something undeniably noble. When Adam Gilchrist walked in the World Cup semi final. When Imran Khan reprieved Kris Srikkanth. When Marvan Atapattu brought back Andrew Symonds. These moments are rare and valuable. They prove that the spirit of cricket can be kept alive in the 21st century by what we choose to do, if we choose to do it. W. G. Grace sure as hell wouldn’t.

1 comment:

  1. absolutely love this. Brilliantly written and well thought-out. I look forward to reading more of your stuff! might just end up making an account for this whole blog commenting thing then. we'll see. cheers and best wishes from Pakistan :)

    ReplyDelete