“Get ready for a broken F*&$!@% arm!” barks Aussie skipper Michael Clarke at bemused English bowler James Anderson in the latter part of the first Ashes test in 2015.
With those aggressive and crushing words a fire was lit between two of the longest standing rivals in cricket history. Never before had such volatile language been heard and transmitted to households across the world.
Cricket has long been valued and respected as a gentleman’s game, with honour being given to the laws of cricket as well as in the way it is supposed to be played. Of course that can be open to interpretation.
The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s is the spiritual home of cricket and custodian of the Laws of Cricket. Within its Laws is a ‘Spirit of Cricket’ preamble, which seeks to define how the game is intended to be played. The preamble states, in part:
“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 major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.”
What is the ‘Spirit of Cricket’? In basic terms it involves respect for opponents, the umpires, the team captain, and the game’s traditional values. According to The Laws, it’s against the Spirit of Cricket to dispute any decision made by the umpire with either word or gesture, to direct abusive language towards a player or umpire, or to indulge in cheating or any sharp practice to distract an opposition player.
So where does that leave Clarke’s outburst against Anderson?
The 2017 test series between arch-rivals Australia and India in March reopened discussion about the spirit of cricket. Cheating, swearing, and mental degradation on the field were practised by both sides.
Indian captain Virat Kohli said at the series’ conclusion he was no longer “friends” with Australian players, and that his relationship with the players had changed. “No, it has changed … it has changed for sure. As I said, in the heat of the battle you want to be competitive but I’ve been proven wrong.”
The test series had been hotly contested and Kohli’s comments suggested that the adage “what happens on the field, stays on the field” was no longer true, and that the spirit of the game was in jeopardy.
Former Australian bowler Geoff Lawson says the exact meaning of ‘spirit of cricket’ is hard to interpret.
“Firstly, you need to define the term,” Lawson says. “Because there is this mythical and almost hypothetical view of the spirit of cricket that everyone thinks has changed.
“Sledging and underhand tactics were around in the 1800s when the first official games were played and no one batted an eye lid. Not much has changed since then. The spirit of cricket is a great thing to aspire to, but we’ll never be perfect.”
The media’s obsession with aggression in cricket, and particularly involving the Australian team is not something new. In the 1980s and early 1990s the Australian team was heavily criticised by the press for the way it conducted itself on and off the field in what was a tumultuous period for Australia.
Former Australian Captain Allan Border (affectionately nicknamed ‘Captain Grumpy’ by the press) was as aggressive as they came on the field and his determination to win often spilled over to face-to-face confrontations that would make John McEnroe’s outbursts look like a tea party with the Queen. Border was known for getting under the skin of opposition players by sledging, tactics that were adopted by his fellow players who thrived in the gladiatorial environment. It has been the norm ever since for Australian teams, including the current team led by the unassuming Steven Smith.
Kohli and the Indian cricket team aren’t alone in the battle against the spirit of the game, with reports aimed at Steven Smith and the Australian team for blatantly looking towards the dressing room with a DRS review during the third test.
Both sides failed to show the necessary respect for one another and there needs to be further training provided to players to ensure they understand the implications that not playing the game within the spirit can have.
The future of cricket still looks healthy despite the recent controversies. The game bounced back from the Bodyline series of 1932-1933 when unsportsmanlike behaviour was prevalent and injuries common. The spirit of cricket will continue to rest in the hands of the captains and until they can comprehend the importance of playing the game in the correct manner, these issues will inconsistently arise and plague cricket.
Lawson says sledging has always been and will continue to be part of the game, but there is a line you don’t cross and a show of respect to be shown once the match has finished – “unwritten rules” that Virat Kohli has missed.
“When I played cricket for both Australia and New South Wales, we would go toe-to-toe for four, five days against some very tough teams.
“Once those matches were over though, we would have a drink with the opposition, often in their dressing room, and chat about a whole range of things, it was an unwritten rule. When that isn’t happening that is a cause for concern.”