The thump of humbug on willow

Often invoked but harder to pin down, the Spirit of Cricket is a useless term used to hide a multitude of sins.

By Mike Marqusee | July 5, 2011

A day after Kumar Sangakkara delivered the 11th MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, becoming the first speaker to receive a standing ovation since Desmond Tutu's speech in 2008; we look back at writer and political activist Mike Marqusee's 2006 review of Martin Crowe's infamous speech at Lord's, where Crowe used the opportunity to defame Test cricket's greatest bowler Muttiah Muralitharan.

Muttiah Muralitharan
Former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe used the 2006 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture to defame Muttiah Muralitharan. AFP/File//Ishara S. KODIKARA.

Martin Crowe's recent lecture at Lord's - the sixth annual Cowdrey lecture - was formally dedicated to the Spirit of Cricket. As I'm always wary when this term is invoked, I wasn't entirely shocked to find Crowe - former New Zealand captain, now a Rupert Murdoch employee - demonstrating this spirit by defaming one of contemporary cricket's great and admirable figures, Muttiah Muralitharan.

All sports claim to have a special ethos, but none makes such great play of it as cricket. The Victorians loaded the game with an ideology in which the "cricket" in "it isn't cricket" came to stand for a higher code transcending the explicit laws of the game. However, it was a code whose content was always difficult to define, and which over the years has been used to cloak a multitude of sins.

For generations, the Spirit of Cricket was said to justify English cricket's class discrimination between amateurs and professionals. It was also a commonplace in the rhetoric of empire, and for decades served as a last resort for those who opposed the boycott of apartheid South Africa. "I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe, " Robert Mugabe declared in 1984. "I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen." In 1987, another dictator, General Zia, summoned the Spirit of Cricket in his peace talks with India, even as he was repressing calls for democracy at home.

The demand for a standard of behaviour above and beyond the laws is, paradoxically, written into the Laws themselves. Law 1.4 states: "Captains are responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the spirit and traditions of the game as well as within the Laws."

As big-time cricket mutated under the impact of market forces, this came to seem inadequate. So in 2000, a Preamble on the Spirit of Cricket was formally added. Much of it is tautological ("The spirit of the game involves respect for ... the game's traditional values"), and much of it proves, on inspection, less clear-cut than it seems. ("Tampering with the ball" is declared unacceptable, but in fact the latitude allowed for influencing the surface of the ball is far greater in cricket than in any other sport.)

It is also said to be against the Spirit of Cricket "to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out". That stricture is never applied simply because it can't be. Like other laws of the game, it rests on an unreal conception of the human mind. Cricketers, like the rest of us, hold more than one idea in their head at a time; the line between knowing when the batsman is out and hoping he is out is impossible to draw, and anyway, why should it be the player's job to draw it? It's up to the umpire to "know" whether the batsman's out.

Cricket, like tennis, demands restraint in self-expression. "Criticising by word or action the decision of an umpire, or showing dissent" is prohibited. So it's not just that the umpire's word is final, but that it must be accepted, or be seen to be accepted, as right and just. Having watched the football World Cup, I'm thankful for this restriction. But I don't think it's a moral issue. My objection to the theatrics of the footballers is not that they are permitted to challenge authority in plain sight but that so much of it is a waste of time - childish and implausible. None the less, here, too, cricketers are asked to chart a straight line through multi-dimensional territory. When does disappointment turn into dissent?

The preamble prohibits "unfair play". But in the end, if you want to know what constitutes unfair play, you have to skip from the platitudes of the preamble to the gritty detail of Law 42, the last, longest and most frequently amended of the game's statutes. It consumes 13 of the 93 pages of the Laws, as published by the MCC. By contrast, the LBW law, supposed to be demandingly complex, takes up only one page.

We come back to Crowe's speech, where he declared his "zero tolerance" for "chucking" (failing to bowl the ball with a straight arm) and singled out Muralitharan as the prime culprit: "If with the naked eye a bowler is clearly chucking - even by one degree - he should be chucked out. ... Having been dubiously bowled first ball in a test by a certain Sri Lankan bowler ... I've had more than enough of this aspect of the game."

If this is the Spirit of Cricket, it seems extraordinarily mean-spirited. Murali has willingly subjected himself to more tests and examinations than any bowler in history. These have shown to all but the determinedly prejudiced that he is not a chucker. Judged by the standards of the preamble, Crowe is showing dissent: he refuses to accept the decision of the designated authority as final.

He also refuses to acknowledge that the evidence of the naked eye is problematic. (Welcome, Martin, to the 19th century!). Unusually, the ICC felt compelled to reply to Crowe's lecture, noting that the new law permitting a 15-degree flex had been introduced in response to scientific research: "Some bowlers, even those never suspected of having flawed actions, were found likely to be straightening their arms by 11 or 12 degrees. And at the same time, some bowlers that may appear to be throwing may be hyper-extending, or bowl with permanently bent elbows" (Murali falls into the latter category). The ICC may not have come up with the right answer to the chucking dilemma but they were asking necessary questions; all Crowe can do is stomp his feet and repeat, in defiance of the evidence, that it's all quite obvious. It's not.

Crowe's complaint about Murali was of a piece with some of his other whines: "Let's face it - Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are being kept on the international stage for political reasons ... Talking of politics, why were so few questions raised about the way the Asian subcontinent has taken a stranglehold on World cricket?"

For Crowe, "politics" is a netherworld of double talk and deal-making, the antithesis of the Spirit of Cricket. But without "politics", there would be no Test cricket and no ICC, which was founded as the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909 partly to facilitate the integration of South Africa into the empire following the trauma of the Boer Wars.

The decision to grant New Zealand Test status in 1927 was also disputed, at least by the Australians, who refused to play against their neighbours for decades. Rather than rail against "politics", it would have been more useful to ask why cricket has no system of promotion and relegation to Test status, and whether such a thing could be contrived. Outside of that, the inclusion or exclusion of any country will continue to be, as it has always been, a matter of "politics" - ie subject to economic, democratic and diplomatic pressures.

While disparaging Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Crowe lauds 'Twenty20' as the way to "grow the game globally" particularly in "large untapped markets like China and the US." Whatever its short-term commercial advantages, Twenty-20 squeezes cricket to bite size, and in doing so sacrifices much of what actually makes the game distinctive - never mind what it may do to its ineffable spirit.

Three years ago, Crowe got into trouble for writing: "Not many Maori make good cricketers because they don't have the patience or the temperament to play through a whole day, let alone over a Test match." He was forced to apologise for the remark.

So I won't be the only one disinclined to accept lectures from Crowe about either "politics" or the Spirit of Cricket. In any case, as will be clear from the above, I think the term is useless. That's not to deny that the game is indeed more than the sum of its laws: it is everything that history has made it. But the Spirit of Cricket, as it is lived by players and spectators, has always involved, along with camaraderie, large doses of competitive zeal, aggression and rivalry. As the late Fred Trueman once said: "Use every weapon within the rules, and stretch the rules to breaking point."

Like most sports fans, I want to see players treat opponents with respect. I like it when crowds acknowledge fine play on both sides. Partisanship and the will to dominate are as much part of cricket as any other game and require no justification: they are built into competitive sport However, I do like to see them tempered, not by some lofty unreal code, but by a sound enjoyment of the game for what it is and an awareness of what it is not.

This article originally appeared on the The Guardian on July 17, 2006. It is republished here with permission from the author.


Neil W's picture

Martin Crowe is an unstable individual. He said he was going to come out of retirement this year in May to play first class cricket to score 392 runs he needed to pass 20,000 first class runs.

"The 48-year-old, who retired from cricket in 1996, will play club cricket with the aim of earning a recall to the Auckland first team.

"Crowe is 392 runs short of 20,000 first-class runs and said that has played a part in his planned return."

Anonymous's picture

This is incredibly well written. What a loser Crowe is.

Anonymous's picture

At least the MCC put it right and didn't allow any buffoons like Crowe back on their stage. I'm sure they regret ever allowing Crowe to speak there.

Merlin's picture
Member since:
7 December 2008
Last activity:
3 years 22 weeks

Wonderful article. Since Crowe's rant, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have become more competent than New Zealand and changes to throwing laws have not destroyed the game. He should jump off a cliff.

(Last edited by Merlin on July 5, 2011 - 19:37)
Confused's picture

Martin Crowe was one of the greatest eye-pleasing batsmen on the one hand, and a moronic scumbag on the other. No Perry Mason is Crowe obviously. But it is also intriguing as to why none of the media picked up on a monumental contradiction that Crowe perpetuated more than once. A contradiction that showed that not only is Crowe a complete fool, but a nasty piece of work with an agenda on his mind.

As stated above, this is what Crowe specifically said about Murali in his Lords speech which was in July of 2006.

"... Having been dubiously bowled first ball in a test by a certain Sri Lankan bowler ...."

'Dubiously bowled first ball in a Test' was in Dec 1992 just 3 months after Murali made his debut and this was only his 3rd Test. And as we all know, Murali only bowled offies for the greater part of the first half of his career.

So, in effect, Crowe is stating that this ball that bowled him (which would have been an offie) was dubious.

However, five months after his Lord's speech, this is what Crowe had to say when targetting Murali's doosra.

"I have no worries over his offspinner whatsoever," Crowe told The Dominion Post, a New Zealand daily. "It's the doosra which he now bowls more and more, often up to 50% in a given spell, which needs further clarification.

If this scumbag had no worries about Murali's offspinner "whatsoever", why was he tarnishing Murali at a spirit of cricket speech mind you, by claiming that he was bowled by a "dubious ball", which undoubtedly was an offie - the type of delivery for which he had "no worries". Disgusting stuff.

Full article here

AD Alwis 's picture

Marvellous article! I salute Marqusee for this.

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