By Vaughan Cruickshank
The second Ashes Test ended in tense scenes on Sunday following the controversial dismissal of English batsman Jonny Bairstow. His stumping infuriated a pro-England crowd at the famous Lord’s ground and divided the cricketing world.
While the Australians would no doubt have preferred to win with less controversy, did they actually do anything wrong?
In answer to that question, it’s widely accepted, even by the English team, that his dismissal was within the laws of cricket. But critics then invoked the “spirit of cricket” to suggest the Australians should not have asked for the dismissal to be upheld. So what is the difference?
The laws of cricket detail the rules of the game of cricket worldwide. They have been owned and maintained by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in London for over 200 years.
The rules are clear and the many English fans and past players, along with the current captain and coach, have acknowledged the umpires were correct according to those laws.
That’s when we get to the “spirit”. Since the late 1990s, the laws of cricket have also had an introductory statement or preamble. It states that cricket should be played not only according to the laws, but also in the “spirit of cricket”“.
This preamble is aimed at reminding players and officials of their responsibility for ensuring cricket is played in a truly sportsmanlike manner.
The two captains have the main responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play is upheld. This primarily involves making sure players show respect for other players, officials and the traditional values of cricket. It is against the spirit of the game to do things such as dispute an umpire’s decision, verbally or physically abuse a player or umpire, or cheat.
The problem is the “spirit of cricket” is a subjective and slightly hazy concept. Respected English cricket writers have even suggested it has not existed since 1882, using an example of conduct by the “father of cricket”, W.G. Grace himself.
While cricket is united under its laws, cricket is a global game and the idea of the “spirit” differs around the world. Consequently, opinions about Bairstow’s dismissal have been highly polarised. Many English players and fans are very angry at what has occurred, accusing Australia of going against the “spirit of cricket”. The fact they narrowly lost the match no doubt intensified this feeling.
Their anger is reflected in the front-page stories in numerous English newspapers and in social media posts. Twitter has had tens of thousands of tweets under trending hashtags such as #Ashes, #Bairstow and #SpiritofCricket.
Interestingly, a look at these hashtags also reveal numerous accusations of hypocrisy by the English, backed up with examples of England’s questionable, and sometimes very similar, conduct. These examples have included central figures such as English players Stuart Broad, Jonny Bairstow and coach Brendon McCullum.
Additionally, the only player who has been fined for displaying conduct contrary to the spirit of the game in this Ashes series is English player Moeen Ali.
Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting noted that a key part of the spirit of cricket was respecting the umpire’s decision, which in this instance he said the English players, fans and press had not. Indeed, several MCC members have been suspended over their abuse of Australian cricketers returning to their dressing room.
Perhaps the key lesson that both sides could learn can be encapsulated in the old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, particularly in the modern age when evidence can be quickly found on the internet.
Neither country has a clean slate when it comes to the “spirit of cricket”. Both should be careful about trying to take the moral high ground. Trevor Chappell’s underarm bowl is one of the most infamous Australian examples, still remembered over 40 years later.
Bairstow’s dismissal is the most recent controversy and unlikely to be the last.
As the Australian team heads to Leeds for the third Test starting on Thursday, there are concerns tensions could boil over, on and off the field. Leeds is known for its raucous atmosphere. Cricket Australia has increased security for the Australian team and reportedly told players to remain extra vigilant when dining out in restaurants during the remaining weeks of the Ashes.
We may never get complete agreement on the “spirit of cricket” and whether the Australians breached it on this occasion. Perhaps the closest we can get is to agree with former Australian bowler and Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie, who believes that
by playing within the laws of the game you are playing within the spirit of the game.
Let’s hope the remainder of the series sees a cooling of tensions and more focus on the last three Tests being played hard but fair, without reigniting “spirit of cricket” debates that no one wins.