What does it mean? What does it actually stand for? What is and is not in the spirit of the game?
It has been striking, in the wake of the fall-out from the Sydney Test, when Australia’s Tim Paine and Steve Smith hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, how opinions differ in this regard.
Although most agreed that Paine’s language towards India’s Ravi Ashwin was not good (he called him a d***head and a goose as Australia laboured in vain for victory on the final day), others felt that no line was crossed and that such eruptions are “part and parcel”.
Others pointed out that much worse things are said on the field, which they assuredly are, and that too much was made of the remarks picked up on the stump microphone.
Similarly, for everyone who criticised Smith for scuffing up the crease line with his boot while India were batting in the final innings, there was someone else quick to suggest that it was much ado about nothing and that no gamesmanship or cheating was involved.
Smith, they said, was simply “shadow batting” rather than deliberately erasing the guard of the batsman, which is what many took him to be doing after viewing the footage, and that he was instead being victimised for previous offences – specifically his involvement in the ball-tampering scandal of 2018.
As ever, when these sorts of things happen, one finds that the critics and apologists often fall into two camps.
The apologists are very often current players or recently retired players, who may or may not be best placed to cast the first stone, while those players who have been retired a bit longer, or certainly much longer, along with older generations of cricket fans, are often the most vocal in terms of criticising personal abuse/sledging.
To my mind, as one who sees absolutely no reason why international cricket cannot be played in an atmosphere of civility and respect as well as fierce competitiveness (exhibit A, Kane Williamson, pictured), I have long felt that current or recently retired players are not the best arbiters of the way in which the sport should be played – ie, in what spirit.
Indeed, I noticed that some current players, in response to Paine’s poor language, suggested on social media that if people didn’t like it, they should simply turn down the stump microphones.
I agree that stump microphones are singularly unhelpful (would you want a microphone on your shop floor?), but that is missing the point.
The truism that peers do not call out their peers is long established (imagine the furore if a current England player had called out Paine), and there is little doubt that if cricket was serious about stamping out sledging, the umpires and authorities would take much greater action than they presently do.
Instead, player power is now perhaps too strong to force their hand, just as it is in football, where things have got so bad that you are probably more likely to be sent off for not using foul and abusive language towards the match officials than the other way round.
It is the same with gamesmanship/cheating.
To my mind, Smith had no business being anywhere near the crease line in the last innings of a match in which he was not going to be batting again.
Ditto (and just in case anyone accuses me of being anti-Australian), I have always contended that when Stuart Broad failed to walk in the Trent Bridge Ashes Test of 2013 when he edged the ball to slip, that his actions went beyond what might be classed as “gamesmanship”.
I am not calling Broad a cheat and have nothing against him whatsoever, but if you palpably edge the ball to slip and do not walk it is a poor look for the sport and, in my view, it brings it into a form of disrepute.
Would I have had the same problem with it had Broad got the faintest of feathers to the ball and been caught behind, the incident missed by everyone else apart from him? No.
For every time that a batsman gets a poor decision, he should not lose too much sleep over that sort of thing, although I admire enormously people such as Adam Gilchrist who always felt that it his duty to walk, the great Australian displaying the true “spirit of cricket”, whatever that may be.
It is, essentially, a matter of commonsense and simple good sportsmanship.
Do we really want to see players standing their ground when they’ve edged to slip, or scuffing up someone’s crease? I would say not. Do we really want to see captains calling other players a “d***head” on the field during a procession of unprovoked “trash talk”? Again, I would say not.
Sometimes, players are so institutionalised that they cannot see the wider picture and context of their actions.
If Williamson and New Zealand can uphold “the spirit of cricket”, so can everyone else.