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Just not cricket

The stumping of Bairstow was within the rules. But was it in the spirit of the game?

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every year, a celebrated cricket figure is invited by the MCC to give the Colin Cowdrey lecture on the spirit of the game. 

Cowdrey, the epitome of the sporting gentleman, was an apt choice. This was the man who, during the 1963 Lord’s test against the West Indies, had his arm broken by a searing bouncer. During the final over of the match, with England nine wickets down, needing six to win, or to survive two balls for the draw, Cowdrey emerged to bat with a glove on one hand and a plaster cast on the other.

Eleven years later, with England suffering an injury crisis during their tour of Australia, Cowdrey, aged 41, rather rotund, and having played his last test 42 months earlier, was called up. He had scored 100 first class hundreds, and had, unlike anybody else at the time, played in more than 100 test matches. But he was ageing, and cricket was changing. The Australian attack was led by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, all hair and chest, who had physically battered England in the first test. 

Thomson remembers he was all “revved up and I just wanted to kill somebody”. But when the old man came to the crease, Aussie aggression was met with old-school English manners. “Good morning, my name’s Cowdrey,” said Colin. “Mr Thomson, I believe. It’s so good to meet you.” Thomson replied, “That’s not going to help you, Fatso, now piss off.”

This was the game when David Lloyd was smashed in the box by Thomson, causing Lloyd to retire hurt with what he called his “crisis in the Balkans”. When Lloyd returned to the crease the next day, Thomson hit him in the neck first ball, and snarled, “G’day, you Pommie bastard.”

So the spirit of cricket can be a complex thing

So the spirit of cricket can be a complex thing. The game can be played hard — ferociously hard — but there are codes, norms and hypocrisies. The notorious Bodyline series — when to counter the great Sir Donald Bradman, English quicks bowled at Australian batsmen rather than the stumps — prompted a diplomatic incident and questions in Parliament.

The later fashion for aggressive fast bowling led to restrictions in the number of short balls that could be bowled per over, and an informal moral code that bowlers with limited batting skills should not face intimidatory bouncers. Perhaps it was the widespread adoption of batting helmets and other protective equipment or the improvement in batting among tailenders, but the moral code gave way some time ago.

Other norms have changed too. Or have they? Some like to believe in a golden age when batsmen “walked”, accepting they were out even after a faint edge that an umpire might not have noticed. Technology now means a bowling team can review a decision they believe the umpire has got wrong. But with the number of reviews limited, and some decisions, such as a grassed catch, still difficult to get right even with TV replays, a batsman who refuses to walk can still cause controversy.

The notorious edge by Stuart Broad against Australia ten years ago is a case in point. Ashton Agar bowled, Broad edged, the ball deflected off wicketkeeper Brad Haddin’s glove and was caught at first slip by Michael Clarke. The Aussies celebrated. Broad stood still. The umpire, Aleem Dar, said not out. The Aussies had used their reviews, and Broad survived. The incident was seen in Australia as an example of English double standards. Broad, like many batsmen before him, insisted it was up to the umpire to give him out.

Some actions remain far beyond the pale, however. To Mankad somebody is when a bowler runs out a non-striking batsman who has left the crease as the bowler is in the delivery stride. It is within the laws of the game, but it has been considered verboten ever since Vinoo Mankad ran out Bill Brown in the late forties, and the Australian public and media were apoplectic.

Which leads to the controversies of this summer. The stumping by Alex Carey of Jonny Bairstow at Lord’s was not dissimilar to a Mankad. Bairstow left a bouncer from Cameron Green and, believing the ball was dead, walked down the wicket as batsmen often do. Carey, however, threw down the stumps and the umpire, considering the ball still live, gave Bairstow out. Like a Mankad, this was within the laws, but was it within the spirit of the game? The Aussies thought so. Your English writer thinks not — since there was no contest of skill to get Bairstow out.

More difficult still was the report, commissioned by the English Cricket Board, into “equity” in the game, which declared cricket racist, sexist and snobbish. Nobody can claim that bigotry has been expunged entirely from the game, just as it has not in wider society. But to declare the sport as a whole guilty of systemic sins invented by left-wing American critical race and gender theorists is to tell a lie. It is to denigrate the many thousands of custodians who give their time — coaching kids, running clubs, managing grounds — to hand the sport they love on to the next generation.

Sometimes the spirit of cricket can be contested. But to write off those armies of volunteers, mums and dads and wizened old-timers? That’s just not cricket. 

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