December 2006, Christchurch: Kumar Sangakkara, on 99, guides the ball to third man for a single to bring up his eleventh Test hundred. As the throw arrives from third man into the wicketkeeper’s gloves, Muttiah Muralitharan, the non-striker, leaves his crease to congratulate Sangakkara on his hundred. The New Zealand wicketkeeper reckons that the ball is still live and takes off the bails. New Zealand uphold the appeal and Muralitharan is given run-out.
September 2009, Johannesburg: Paul Collingwood sways out of the way of a short ball and, as the ball lands in the wicketkeeper’s gloves but before the umpire has called over, he wanders out of his ground. The New Zealand wicketkeeper reckons that the ball is still live and throws down the stumps. As the ball hits the stumps, Collingwood, now out of his ground, twitches involuntarily, signalling that he knows that he has blundered. New Zealand eventually withdraw the appeal and Collingwood continues his innings.
Same process, same issue, different outcome. As it happens, the New Zealand wicketkeeper in both cases was the same man, Brendon McCullum, and he acted with consistency each time. After Muralitharan was run out, McCullum was unrepentant, despite the outcry from Mahela Jayawardena, the Sri Lanka captain, who insisted that it was "not the way to play cricket".
McCullum said at the time: "After 109 Test matches, you know better than to walk out of your ground and celebrate a guy’s hundred when the ball is still alive. I’d do the same thing again."
It was a warning Collingwood had forgotten. This time, though, the New Zealand captain was not Stephen Fleming but Daniel Vettori. In 2006 Fleming upheld McCullum’s appeal. "I’m comfortable with it," he said. "The game doesn’t stop just because someone gets a hundred. It’s a misjudgment from Muralitharan."
This time, after consulting with the umpires and his team, Vettori came to a different conclusion when withdrawing the appeal against Collingwood. "Under the Laws of the game it was probably out," Vettori said. "But we have discussed the Spirit of the Game a lot lately and that was the basis for the decision."
Ah, the Spirit of the Game. In those five words lies a whole lot of confusion. The Spirit of the Game (don’t forget the capital letters, just to underline its importance) has been to the fore throughout the Champions Trophy, although it is clear that interpretations of what it means differ wildly. When Andrew Strauss recalled Angelo Mathews, the Sri Lanka all-rounder, after a collision with Graham Onions during England’s first match of the tournament, he was widely praised for acting within the Spirit of the Game.
However, Andy Flower, the England team director, thought that Strauss was wrong to recall Mathews. Flower thought it a simple case of the batsman running into the bowler, who was not trying to gain an unfair advantage in any way. Flower thought that Strauss was being overly generous. Strauss then refused Graeme Smith a runner when the South Africa captain was suffering from cramp in England’s second match. Strauss thought this a matter of conditioning and fitness; South Africa thought it a matter of the Spirit of the Game. Smith has said that it is a decision that will come back to haunt the England captain, which should keep things interesting throughout England’s forthcoming tour.
By the time Strauss was asked for his opinion of the Collingwood/McCullum run-out, you could sense his wariness and, perhaps, his confusion. "It was another grey area," Strauss said, mindful that he had been praised and vilified in the same week and that Collingwood had been criticised for not recalling Grant Elliott, the New Zealand all-rounder, in a run-out incident a year ago.
The Spirit of the Game is a grey area and asks captains to make moral judgments that sometimes are contrary to the Laws of the game. In my opinion, Strauss was wrong to recall Mathews, right not to allow Smith a runner and Vettori was wrong to withdraw the appeal against Collingwood. Collingwood was being dozy and deserved to be run out, just as Smith was not fit enough to last the course. But that is just my opinion, my interpretation of the Spirit of Cricket. Strauss saw it differently, as did Vettori to Fleming. The Spirit of Cricket demands interpretation, which, in turn, renders it worthless. One man’s sledge is another man’s aside.
The preamble to the Laws of the game invokes the Spirit of Cricket with a lot of well-meaning guff. "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," it says. But other than encouraging basic human qualities, such as showing respect for your opponents and discouraging violence on the field, nobody is left any the wiser what the Spirit of Cricket is. It is something to be nurtured and cherished, for sure, but precisely what that something is is not clear.
Partly this is because it does not ring true. Rugby union and Formula One are going through the moral crises of the moment, but cricket has had its share of controversies, enough to know that any mention of "unique" appeal is utter rubbish. Match-fixing, sledging, racism, cheating — it is all there. All you have to do is scratch away at cricket’s surface. Cricket, like other sports, is played by human beings and so it is no surprise that it is a flawed game.
The phrase "it’s not cricket" has become part of the English language. You cannot imagine anyone saying "it’s not football" or "it’s not rugby" or "it’s not Formula One". But, really, the phrase "it’s not cricket" was nothing more than a remarkably success
ful marketing strategy. It was brought into play first by the Victorians, who were keen to cleanse the game from its first match-fixing crisis in the early 19th century and who saw cricket as not so much a sport as a lesson in life — a code of morality — and latterly by the ICC, keen to exploit the opportunities offered by something it reckons differentiates cricket from other sports.
As cricket spread from its origins as an English game, it became clear that what was regarded as "not cricket" was distorted by whether you were looking through an English or, say, Australian lens. English batsmen, by and large, walked; Australians did not. Australians sledged; West Indians did not. English bowlers bowled bouncers at tailenders; Indians did not. And as cricket continues to spread itself as widely as possible, hoping to crack new frontiers in China and the United States, who is to say what the Spirit of Cricket will come to mean?
It was the late Colin Cowdrey who pushed for the Spirit of Cricket to be included as a preamble to the Laws of the game. This is fitting, really, because according to those who played with him, Cowdrey encapsulated not so much the moral certainties of the game as its grey areas.
To the public he was a noted "walker". That is to say, when he edged the ball, he walked off without waiting for the umpire’s signal. Those who played with him reckoned him to be a "selective walker". That is to say, when there was an obvious edge he walked, but when there was a tiny edge he did not. Right? Wrong? Against the Spirit of the Game? To judge from the players struggling with this notion in the Champions Trophy, nobody really knows.
In Christchurch in 2006, Muralitharan was run out according to the Laws of the game and was given out. In Johannesburg 2009, Collingwood was run out according to the Laws of the game and was given not out. To end the confusion, isn’t it time the Spirit of Cricket itself, as encapsulated in the preamble to the Laws of the game, was given out?