The Spirit of Cricket

As a member of the CA’s “Australian Cricket Family”, James Sutherland this week has been updating me with emails concerning the investigation into what transpired at Cape Town. Sutherland opened by saying that he was sorry to have subjected us to news of the Australian Captain admitting to conduct that is “outside both the Laws of our game and the Spirit of Cricket.”


For a long time, I’ve been wondering about the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. We sometimes think of cricket as having two components, its Laws and its Spirit, something like a person having a body as well as a soul. But after decades of battering: bodyline bowling; World Series Cricket; underarm bowling; match fixing; circus show T20; rampant sledging; oversized bats; and dubious reverse swing; could this Spirit have still survived anywhere, or is it just something in our memory from a by-gone era? And if alive, how is the Spirit of Cricket different from that of other sports?


For any true sport, there is necessarily the desire to compete and the goal to win. In this, cricket cannot be different. Yet in all the English speaking world, cricket is also synonymous with fair play. The Australians even boasted how they played the game “hard but fair”. Their hardness was never in question. Yet tactics such as bowling repeated bouncers at English number 11, James Anderson, during the recent Ashes series is hard, but bordering on unfair. Some of the Australian public for years have been questioning the nature of our team’s on-field conduct. Are they really playing cricket as it’s meant to be played?


Now we know. No, the Australian XI are not playing within the Spirit of the game. While individual players from other teams have been cited for ball tampering, it’s the Australians who are leading the way in conspiring, as a team, led by their captain, to gain an unfair advantage through illegally roughing up the ball. The Australian public have seen enough. There is outrage and embarrassment. Cricket Australia this week handed out punishments and promised a review of the conduct and culture of our team.


So as we reassess our values, there is no better time to ask, what are we aiming for? How should we be playing the game? How do we honour cricket’s traditions, and its true Spirit?


As a youngster I was taught that fair minded cricketers don’t ‘mankad’ when bowling; batsmen don’t take overthrows after incoming throws deflect off their pad; fielders are honest in claiming catches and signalling fours and sixes, and batsmen accept them at their word. None of these are mandated in the rules, but they are understood to be part of this sporting tradition. For it is, after all, a gentleman’s game. It’s that simple. Maybe that’s old fashioned, but I believe the more sportsmanlike conduct that can be modelled today in the international arena, under the spotlight of dozens of cameras, the more it will be imitated in the junior ranks and suburban parklands. Neither fairness, nor respect for your opponent, nor honouring the game’s traditions are in any opposition to the idea of playing it hard. It all can be achieved.


We should expect our national team to be exemplars of fairness. I still am not over the infamous underarm delivered by Greg Chappell’s team in 1981. How could any Australian captain think that that was fair? It is now being said that this incident is not as bad as ball tampering, as the delivery was legal at the time. However, it was already illegal in British competitions, and was soon proclaimed illegal worldwide as a direct result of this occurrence. The change in ruling reflects the obvious nature of what is fair and reasonable in a game of cricket. In such a case I should expect the on-field leader of cricket in Australia, that is, our captain, to be able to envisage what would be acceptable within the game’s Spirit and traditions, without waiting for a new rule to be spelled out before him.


In other words, Australians should be taking the lead in every aspect of cricket; not only batting, bowling, and fielding, but also on-field conduct. For another example of a missed opportunity, I cite the MCG Test match between Australia and the West Indies in 1984. Craig McDermott took his first Test wicket by bowling Richie Richardson with a fast, though accidental, beam ball. Richardson was not wearing a helmet at the time. The ball went directly from McDermott’s hand to Richardson’s cheekbone and then onto his stumps before ever hitting the ground.


The Australian captain, Alan Border, accepted the wicket as one of the quirks of the game. He asked McDermott to apologise to Richardson for the beam ball, which was respectful in the circumstances, but the Australian team still claimed the wicket as out, bowled. However, it would have been possible for Border to withdraw the appeal, recall Richardson and allow him to keep batting. Every cricketer knows that a beam ball delivery is unfair, and dangerously so. With more insight or clarity of thought, Alan border could have envisioned the day when the law would change to what it is now, with all beam balls called as no-balls. On that day, the game was played hard and within the rules, but the Spirit of cricket should have allowed Richardson to keep batting. Alan Border missed that opportunity to advance the game’s tradition.


In the current Test Series against South Africa, it has been reported that Australian fielders incessantly, verbally harangued incoming batsmen as they were taking guard. While I wouldn’t expect that cricket grounds will ever be quiet like cemeteries, or that all verbal interaction between teams could ever be totally proscribed, the idea of needlessly talking to a new batsman while he’s taking guard seems so childish and disrespectful that I imagine one day it could be outlawed. Any forward thinking captain would not need to wait for such a rule change, but could immediately set the tone amongst his fielding team to honour a new batsman to the crease by paying him his due respect.


I’ve given examples here relating to fairness, and respecting your opponent. One last category is simply respect for the game. Years ago I was the official scorer for a schoolboy limited overs match. At one point, a batsman dabbed the ball near his feet and set off for a quick, risky single. After a few strides, he then kicked the ball away from the incoming fielder. The fielding team appealed for interference, and the umpire quickly and correctly raised his finger – out, interference. However, before the batsmen left the ground, the fielding captain withdrew the appeal and recalled the batsman. Though the batsman was totally in the wrong, he was given a reprieve, forgiven. “Please, don’t do that again.” The fielding captain simply didn’t want the stain of an “out, interference” appearing in the score sheet of his game. Though only a schoolboy teenager, he had enough wisdom to know how to propel the game in the right direction.


I can only wish that the adults who are in charge of cricket in Australia will know how to similarly advance our great traditions, to once again fill us with the joy of true competition.



About Michael Viljoen

Michael was born in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the same as Siya Kolisi, the successful World Cup winning Springbok captain, but was raised in Melbourne with a love for Australian Rules. He has worked as a linguist in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, where he wrote a booklet on the history of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, which was translated into several Cameroonian languages.


  1. MIck Gwyther says

    Thanks for the post Michael – this spirit thing has troubled me since this blew up because I’ve never believed in the spirit of cricket. Not as a principle that all can point to and apply themselves to in each game. If it’s not mandated or written down for the universal application of all who play, then it doesn’t consistently exist as shown by the examples you have provided. This is a good time to involved everyone who loves the game to contribute to the discussion to embed what people think is this spirit into a charter for the game that becomes part of the rules.

  2. Thoughtful piece Michael. I liked your body and soul analogy for rules and spirit in sport.
    I have hated rules all my life. Guidelines and principles yes – absolutely. But life and sport are too complicated and multi-factorial to anticipate every situation and nuance.
    I hate the way the world has evolved to “what’s not proven illegal in court is by definition ok”. The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept.
    I feel very sad for Smith, Warner and Bancroft because they have had no “adults” in their life – just “enablers”. Even though they didn’t directly sanction it – Lehman and Sutherland should both be sacked – for tacitly endorsing this sort of shit for the last 5 years.
    And half the “coaches” and “high performance” flaks can go with them. Glorified valets.
    You don’t suddenly become a criminal (I should know). It’s a long slippery slope of “just getting away with it” until the behaviour is so reckless, obvious and odious it can no longer be ignored.
    “There’s a line I’ve crossed somewhere
    I left the best of me back there
    Never thought I’d end up here
    Guess all the best things disappear”
    (Lucy Kaplansky – One Good Reason)

  3. Dave Brown says

    Interesting read, thanks Michael. Buuuut, I take exception to the idea of the spirit of cricket when it only ever seems to apply in favour of the batter. Take two of your examples – the Mankad can only be achieved in the situation where the batter is seeking to take unfair advantage of leaving their crease before the ball has left the bowler’s hand (cheating). Similarly in one of the other examples, the batter kicking the ball away from the fielder, that is blatant cheating – surely any leniency should apply if the batter did not understand the rules and is sufficiently inexperienced for that to be understandable.

    It’s worthwhile noting that the spirit of the game is codified as the preamble to the laws of cricket. I think the Spirit of Cricket is reaching its use by date as the ICC seeks to incorporate some of its elements more properly in the body of the laws of the game and the Code of Conduct. I can foresee a near future where concepts of the spirit of the game are replaced by a simpler concept of respect for opponents and officials. It is then up to the officials and captains to ensure they are followed, which currently they are failing dismally at international level.

    There was a real opportunity in the summer following Phil Hughes’s death for Australia to reset the way they played their cricket but, for whatever reason, they chose not to. They are now reaping what was re-sown.

  4. Peter Hille says

    $pirit of cricket is the guiding principle for our current crop and they have bluffed the paymasters for years

  5. It’s good to see Australian cricket officialdom have followed their counterparts in England, South Africa, India and Pakistan, suspending those involved in ball tampering. Hang on, what’s that the other nations didn’t suspend the offenders, Australia is the first nation to take this decisive action.

    As is often the wont I get frustrated with the tedious innuendo that Australian cricket, cricketers, are the only ones associated with bad behaviour. The facts don’t always equate with the good story. These three players have been caught out, they’ve committed the crime, now they can do their time.

    Any how on a more positive note, currently watching the start of the test in Christchurch. We’ve just seen Boult knock over Cook. The cheesse’n’kisses is a kiwi so she’s very happy.


  6. Michael Viljoen says

    Glen, Technically, the Australian trio were given heavy sanctions by Cricket Australia not simply for ball tampering per se, but for breaking the CA Code of Conduct regarding bringing the game into disrepute. The other nations’ cricket bodies presumably didn’t think that sucking on a mint or scratching the ball with your fingernail were of the same severe nature as to warrant a punishment beyond what the ICC match referee were to impose.

  7. Michael Viljoen says

    I agree that the mankad situation may often arise when batsman are unfairly trying to steal ground, but not always. There is the case where the bowler bluffs the non-striker, making him believe he will bowl the ball as per normal, and the non-striker leaves his crease only after the ball would normally have been delivered. Then the bowler whips off the bails.

    There was quite a controversial mankad example at the U19 World Cup in 2016, when the West Indies dramatically beat Zimbabwe (& subsequently won the Cup) after using a mankad to take the last wicket of the match.

    Google ‘U19 West Indies Zimbabwe mankad’, and you’ll find the video. You can make up your own mind as to who was trying to cheat, the bowler or the batsman. Several commentators, including Darren Lehmann, said that what the West Indies did was unsportsmanlike.

    With the case of the batsman who kicked the ball away from the incoming fielder, there is no doubt that this was blatantly against the rules. He deserved to be given out. But the fielding captain saw it as an opportunity to use the moment as an educational experience. As you say, the batsman may have been a young, inexperienced player.

    That fielding captain rose above to show the lesser player an example of proper civil conduct. But there are times when the bare rules should strictly apply. Every situation is different. As Peter noted above, we can’t make rules for every situation and nuance, or the rule book would end up as heavy as a telephone book.

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