Spirit of the Age

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

Jonny Bairstow faced up to the final ball of Cameron Green’s eighth over. It was predictably short and Bairstow ducked under it. He then made a perfunctory mark on his crease with his boot and without looking back, moved forward to have a discussion with his partner Ben Stokes, as the square leg umpire moved forward to take his position for the new over. As these things were happening wicketkeeper Alex Carey had received the ball and, in the same movement, underarmed the ball into the stumps. The Australians descended like a pack of hounds on the middle while Bairstow stood in a state of some bewilderment. The matter was referred to the TV umpire, who made the only possible decision in the circumstances, namely Out.

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The issue was whether the ball was dead. Bairstow, if he thought about the issue at all, seemed to assume it was. But it wasn’t. You could say this was school third eleven stuff; everyone knows you have to stay in your ground. Suppose a spinner had been bowling, with the keeper standing up; would Bairstow have moved out of his ground in the same way? There are not separate Laws for stumping off fast and slow bowlers.

I was in the Bowlers’ Bar in the Pavilion at the time, watching on television. I found myself standing next to the distinguished commentator and former cricketer Ravi Shastri. I asked him what he thought. “He moved out too soon”, Shastri said. There is nothing more to be said really. (I also asked him who he fancied for the men’s 50-over World Cup. He said, England, Australia, India, in that order: you saw it here first.)

Having established, as all knowledgeable people agreed, that Bairstow was undoubtedly out, it was also possible to think that, in some way, “it didn’t feel right”.

This was the expression used by the Indian captain M S Dhoni in the wake of a not dissimilar incident during the second Test against England at Trent Bridge in 2011. It was not just the last ball of the over but the last ball before tea. Eoin Morgan hit the ball towards the midwicket boundary and the batsmen ran. There was some doubt about whether the ball had crossed the rope. Ian Bell, assuming it had, set off for the pavilion. The ball, meanwhile, was returned to the middle, the stumps broken and Bell, clearly out of his ground, given out.

Outrage among home fans predictably followed. The situation had certain things in common with Lord’s 2023. Both Bell and Bairstow were clearly at fault; “dozy” was the commonest and most appropriate description of the latter. That said, neither of them was trying to gain an unfair advantage. In other respects the situations were very different. At Trent Bridge England in their second innings were well ahead in a game they were to win by 319 runs. Crucially the tea interval meant that “diplomacy” played a part. Captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower visited the Indian dressing-room, and Dhoni withdrew the appeal: a triumph for the “spirit of cricket”.

At Lord’s it was very different. England’s hopes of winning the match clearly rested on this partnership between Stokes and Bairstow; everybody on the ground knew that. If the Australian captain Pat Cummins was going to withdraw the appeal it had to happen there and then (the Trent Bridge diplomatic solution was in blatant disregard of the Law regarding the withdrawal of appeals.) What was Cummins supposed to do? Stokes and Brendon McCullum were quick to evoke the “spirit of cricket”, each suggesting that, had he been confronted with the same situation, he would have “done things differently”. Easy to say, with all respect. When you have the responsibility of making the decision, with seconds to consider – before the batter has left the field of play – and the stakes so high, it is not so easy.

It was also hard to ignore the fact that twice in the current game Bairstow himself had made unsuccessful attempts to dismiss Australian batters in a similar way. Replay footage also showed him wandering out of his ground several times. Alastair Cook suggested he should have been warned before dismissal was attempted.

It is easy to raise the issue of the spirit of cricket when something happens that you don’t like. Oddly enough another incident had occurred late on the fourth evening which caused some excitement. Mitchell Starc held a running catch to dismiss Ben Duckett on the fine leg boundary. He took the ball in mid-air but turned his wrists to protect his fall and the ball clearly touched the ground. Duckett was actually on his way back to the Pavilion when he was told to wait; the decision was that there was no catch. There was much agonising among Australian pundits about potential inconsistencies regarding the interpretation of the relevant law; there was a feeling that Starc was “in control” of the catch for longer than the average slip fielder.

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The spirit of cricket is rarely something you see in action, as opposed to hearing its breach being complained about. In the first Ashes Test of 1964, at Trent Bridge, Geoff Boycott, in his first Test, was opening the batting with the all-rounder Fred Titmus. The pair went for a quick single. The big fast bowler, Neil Hawke, moving quickly to retrieve the ball, collided with Titmus and sent him flying. The ball was returned to the keeper, Wally Grout, who declined to run Titmus out. John Clarke, in his book on the series, commented as follows: “[Grout] received a fair fan mail …for this piece of sportsmanship. But had he indeed made and claimed the run-out, the name of Australian sportsmanship and the good name of cricket would have been dealt a bitter blow.” Of course the world is a different place now. The considerations raised by Clarke seemed to cut very little ice with England captain Paul Collingwood when his side were playing an ODI against New Zealand at The Oval in 2008. Grant Elliott was run out after colliding with bowler Ryan Sidebottom and was left prostrate. The umpires specifically asked Collingwood if he wanted to withdraw the appeal. To the visitors’ fury, he declined. Happily, New Zealand won a very tight match. Collingwood has since expressed regret about the decision. The Spirit of Cricket had been issued as a preamble to the Laws in 2000.

Reverting to Lord’s, the atmosphere at the ground immediately became more charged after Bairstow’s dismissal. Constant booing directed mostly at Cummins and Carey – became a feature, as did the endlessly chanted “Same old Aussies – always cheating”. I may be wrong, but this did not appear to be the work of the Barmy Army; it was more like a football crowd. (The Army’s presence could be detected in the slightly more sophisticated “Crying on the telly, we saw you crying on the telly”, to the tune of Guantanamera, directed, like much else, at Steve Smith.).

That is not to suggest that there was no booing before the final day. Smith came out to bat on the first day to a chorus of boos from around the ground. I found this disappointing and pathetic. Smith is one of the truly great cricketers of our time and deserves to be greeted as such. On the second day, when I was watching from the Warner Stand, Smith came to field on the boundary. A shout of “cheat, cheat, cheat” marked his arrival. On the fifth day Smith was named player of the match – Australia did win but Stokes’ innings was surely more memorable. Anyway, he was interviewed by Mike Atherton on the outfield in front of the Pavilion. Standing on the balcony of the Pavilion it was impossible to hear the interview because of the incessant booing.

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This is all presumably to do with “Sandpapergate”, which happened about five years ago. Smith, and his fellow perpetrators, were banned for a year for their involvement, in Smith’s case as captain, in ball-tampering. Previous offenders had usually got away with being banned for a game or two. Smith certainly deserved sanction for sheer stupidity and a pair of cringe-worthy and at least partly duplicitous press conferences, but, really, isn’t it time to move on?

Of course England supporters are not alone in this. I remember Stuart Broad being constantly booed in Adelaide in 2010-11. This was because, in a tight Test match in the 2009 Ashes, he had declined to walk after being given not out having virtually clobbered a ball into the slip cordon. Broad, whose appreciation of the spirit of cricket seems as sound as his judgement of when to review, took the same view as Cummins at Lord’s: it’s the umpire’s job to decide.

You can’t blame the crowd for chanting and booing. It’s a sort of outdoor equivalent of social media, or a phone-in; everyone must be allowed to express an opinion, however ill-informed, ignorant or malevolent. What was really shocking was the behaviour of MCC members.

To understand this you have to realise what a privilege it is to be a member of MCC. Not surprisingly you can watch the game from the Pavilion which is located directly behind the bowler’s arm when the bowling is from that end. Lord’s consequently has what must be the smallest sightscreens in international cricket, which nonetheless necessarily obscure part of the view from the Long Room, depending on where the wicket is located. There are viewing areas, bars and restaurants at different locations, and grand staircases leading from the bottom to the top of the building.

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The dressing rooms, home and away, are located in the Pavilion. Players make their way between their respective dressing rooms and the field of play by means of the staircase – which stewards do their best to clear at the relevant time – and the grandeur of the Long Room, where a roped-off corridor is created for the players.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, or where you are, there is something exciting about watching the cricketers enter and leave the field of play. At Lord’s the self-proclaimed home of cricket, the walk through the Long Room, through the glass doors, down the steps, through the gate and on to the field is an eloquent statement about the nature of the game. And as a member of MCC you can stand there and watch the players pass by so close you can almost touch them. This is a very unusual thing in professional sport. And, of course, you applaud them.

There is another thing which needs to be borne in mind when considering what happened at Lord’s on that memorable day. MCC is of course a private members’ club. The members are in the Pavilion because they are entitled to be there. The players and support staff are not members, not even the England ones. They are guests. The Australian team had come a very long way to be guests of MCC.

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I was in the Long Room as the players came off the field for lunch. I was genuinely shocked by the reception given to the Australian players as they went through the Long Room. To be fair I think a lot of members present were equally shocked. But a substantial minority booed their guests from Down Under. (I think the exchange of views involving Usman Khawaja occurred on the staircase rather than in the Long Room.)

MCC have issued an unreserved apology to the Australian team. There could still be repercussions. Steve Harmison has said that future Australian teams would be perfectly entitled to demand private access to and from the field of play. It is a pity members can’t be vetted, to remove those who don’t merit membership of the world’s premier cricket club. At least the admission process has changed, with candidates now being interviewed.

Amidst all the furore, the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia felt it necessary to get involved.One would have thought Rishi Sunak had enough on his plate without getting involved in a pointless argument about cricket which he is not going to win. But one of his predecessors did have something to say. John Major, a cricket person if ever there was one, said that there had only been one breach of the spirit of cricket during the Lord’s Test, and it had been committed by MCC members in the Pavilion.

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