“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.”
So opens the Laws of Cricket, the code by which the game is played. It takes 402 words to explain the way in which players should conduct themselves in the “Preamble” to the law book, but really you could have done so in just four; “Don’t be a dick.”
For all the high-minded language and aspirational ideals, what the Spirit of Cricket preamble is telling people is they should behave like decent human beings. Abusing opponents and umpires isn’t acceptable, appealing when you know for certain that someone isn’t out is not on, seeking to distract an opponent is something you shouldn’t do.
It is all so bland and self-evident that you wonder why there was ever the need to write it down. The fact that no other sport has felt the need to bother suggests cricket has more of a problem with poor behaviour rather than less. It is like a flashy sign telling everyone that there is nothing to see. The truth is that the Spirit of Cricket as written down in those 402 words is breached in every game of cricket that is played professionally and plenty that are enjoyed at lower levels.
Players will routinely appeal knowing someone isn’t out in the hope of kidding the umpire into not giving a wide. There is rarely a cricket match that is played where there are not angry and abusive words that are exchanged between players. All too often a wicketkeeper will be speaking to the striking batsman before the ball is bowled in an attempt to distract him. We are told that cricket is a paragon of purity when in fact it fails in maintaining the standards it has set out for itself on a daily basis.
Last night Josh Hazlewood appealed for LBW when he bowled a brilliant in-swinging yorker. Umpire Ranmore Martinesz gave it not out, the Australians reviewed the decision. Richard Illingworth, the third umpire, spotted a thin inside edge on hot-spot and upheld the original call.
At that point all hell broke loose. Hazlewood ran towards the Martinesz asking; “who the f*ck is the third umpire?” It was a question that was clearly heard in the stump microphone.
It was ugly stuff, and a clear contravention of the Spirit of Cricket as described in the law book. Despite this there were many that were happy to jump to the defence of Hazlewood. Mitchell Johnson was one of those, tweeting that the problem wasn’t so much that the abuse of an official happened, but more that it was overheard.
“It's time for the stump mikes [sic] to be turned off. Sure, we have all said a swear word when frustrated,” Johnson wrote. He then added in a tweet to journalist, Ben Dorries, that is was just a matter of emotions running high. “Get a grip mate! I'm sure a bit of emotion in the game isn't harmful. All teams show it in their own way.”
The real flaw in this argument is that there is a clear distinction between swearing in general and swearing at someone in particular but it is also interesting that so many cricketers are quick to defend this kind of behaviour.
For many it is just part of the game and they may have a point. A few angry words in the heat of the moment are not really that big a deal, especially if that is between players rather than directed at officials.
But this is cricket, the game that we are told is above all of this stuff. A sport that owes much of its unique appeal to the spirit in which it is played. A game so synonymous with the idea of fair play that Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, could use the term “just not cricket” to assembled delegates at the United Nations and have them know that he met something that was dishonest. Surely we should not be accepting of this kind of language and behaviour.
The issue with the idea of the Spirit of Cricket is that no one really knows what it means, and very rarely is any reference made to what is written down. At various times we are told that not walking when you have hit the ball is wrong, that running out a non-striker before the ball is bowled is heinous or that hitting a ball that is rolling along the ground after a poor ball is awful. None of those things are written down anywhere but are roundly condemned in some quarters, but far from all.
Hazlewood has been fined 15% of his match fee for his outburst, a small amount but one that fits in with the code of conduct laid out for players. What is certain is that the dissent that we saw from Hazlewood and his captain Steve Smith was ugly and unnecessary, and it was right that Hazlewood should be punished. What is also certain is that this kind of exchange is far from rare.
Perhaps cricket should look at sorting out the way its players behave before attempting to suggest that it is a sport that is unique in the way that it is played. One way cricket can combat the issue of player’s abusing each other or umpires is to not turn off the microphones as Johnson suggests but rather do the opposite. Turn them all the way up and let the players know we are listening, that would go a long way towards making them think before they speak.
It would also help if those that love the sport began to realise that it is in no way unique in expecting players to behave responsibly and far from unique in having them fail to do so.