On the spirit of the game

It’s perhaps off-brand for a tweedy academic, but I love sports. In particular, I am obsessed with cricket, the sport I grew up playing as a child in India and Jamaica before we moved to Texas. My father played cricket competitively through college and taught me the sport. Our backyard cricket games – war between hard cherry-red ball and long paddle-shaped bat – continued for a while after we moved to the US, but in the absence of cricket culture, our interests inevitably changed and we shot hoops instead. In the evenings at home, we became Houston Rockets fans, starting in the glory days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on through the era of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall Chinese superstar who helped bring about the NBA as global phenomenon.

In a funny reversal, when I went to Oxford, I ended up living next to my college’s cricket pitch. (By contrast, I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a basketball hoop in England.) From the kitchen window on the second – that is, the third – floor of my building, I could see the far side of the ground slope awkwardly down where the Royalists had thrown up earthworks in defense of King Charles, who had made Oxford his capital in the mid-1640s. While my childhood skills were far too rusty for me to aim to play seriously – I joined the croquet team instead – I enjoyed watching matches that spring and summer out the window and on the kitchen television. Those months of contemplative absorption are why, despite my Indian heritage and growing up partly in the West Indies, the international cricket team I support is England.

Cricket’s origin on the village greens of England and its dissemination through empire have left the game resolutely associated with the Commonwealth, from which most of the world’s best sides comes (the Dutch are an interesting exception). Yet international cricket – in fact, international sports in general – arguably began with a North American cricket game, when the US and Canada played a game in lower Manhattan in 1844 (Canada narrowly won a low-scoring affair). A few years later, on the eve of the US Civil War, the best players from England, led by George Parr, toured Canada and the United States. The first match was played in Montreal in late September 1859, the second the following week in Hoboken, New Jersey, at Elysian Fields, where baseball also got its start as an organized sport in 1845. Despite these near-simultaneous origins, baseball won out over here.

For over a century, the chief international rivalry in cricket was that between Australia and England, typically contested in five-plus-day-long ‘Test matches’, where concentration and strategy matter as much as fitness and athleticism, though no side can prevail without all of these. In the past few years, however, the center of gravity of the game has firmly shifted to India, a country where cricket has few competitors for high-level sporting attention, perhaps because the game can so easily be played with tape-covered tennis balls in urban alleyways. At the same time, the sport has discovered a marketable, broadcast-ready version: so-called Twenty 20 or T20 fixtures, where each side gets 20 ‘overs’ (sets of six balls delivered by a single bowler to the opposition’s batters) to score as many runs as they can. While watching a Test match can use up 30-plus hours over nearly a week, a T20 game – depending on how many lucrative ad breaks the sponsors demand – can be over in a baseball-like three hours.

These changes have gone together. India currently has the best Test side in the world, but it also has the world’s flashiest franchise T20 tournament, the Indian Premiere League or IPL, with million-dollar player salaries and billion-dollar TV contracts. The IPL recently resumed in the UAE after the Covid surge in India this Spring disrupted the season. International cricketers, none more important than the Indian captain Virat Kohli, continue to insist on the primacy of Test cricket. Yet in the IPL, players on the domestic circuit in India sit side-by-side in their dugouts (another T20 borrowing from baseball) with internationals from every country, and the passions aroused by franchise cricket seem to easily rival the patriotic impulses that drive the international game.

I find this new polarity – between India and the rest of the world – fascinating. Cricket is a game of fictions. It is coming to grips with the fact that only some people have gotten to be its story-tellers.

One of those fictions is that, well into the second half of the 20th century, there was no official ‘England’ team. English cricketers competed under the banner of the Marylebone Cricket Club, in theory one club among many, but the one that controlled the Laws of Cricket over which it still holds the copyright. Power aside, the MCC also continues to play an outsize role in the imagination of cricket, and its ground Lord’s – the soi-disant Home of Cricket – has a significance bordering on sacredness in the minds of cricketers English and otherwise. To appear on the Honours Boards at Lord’s, which mark significant achievements in international matches, is to secure one’s legacy. Among its activities, the MCC sponsors an annual lecture on ‘The Spirit of Cricket’, a reference to the unwritten laws of the game that players tend to take very seriously. Playing cricket ‘in the spirit of the game’ is taught worldwide alongside techniques for leg-spin bowling and making catches on the boundary rope.

But what is the point of having unwritten laws at all? That’s the question Ravichandran Ashwin has been asking in recent years. Ashwin certainly has the standing to ask, as an all-time great spin bowler for India in Test cricket and a handy player in other formats, including T20. Unusually for an active player, he’s also a cricket journalist, with a popular YouTube channel where he interviews fellow players and others involved in the game. In a recent match, Ashwin sparked a controversy when he pinched an extra run after a ball thrown in by a fielder hit his batting partner, something many players customarily do not do. Yet running aggressively is a feature of T20 cricket, where games are decided on narrow margins. Ashwin ended up arguing on-field with England’s Eoin Morgan and New Zealand’s Tim Southee, saying later that he didn’t know the ball had ricocheted, while insisting it would be fair to take the run if it had. A run is a run, Ashwin reasoned. And if the practice was unfair, why was it allowed under the official written laws of the game?

The details of this spat aren’t what I’m interested in here. What I want to dwell on is Ashwin’s further claim that the ‘spirit of the game’ is a useless standard because players from different parts of the world inevitably see things differently. In his post-match statement on Twitter, Ashwin seemed to be arguing for a sort of pluralism: if players from England or New Zealand – who tend to talk about the ‘spirit of the game’ more than players from Asia – see things one way, that’s fine, provided they allow others the same courtesy.

Commentators pointed out that the 2019 World Cup Final (a 50-over-a-side contest), saw England declared the winners over New Zealand when a ball thrown in by a fielder hit Ben Stokes’s bat and deflected all the way to the boundary line. Stokes – a Kiwi by birth but trained in Durham and a leading player for England – might have chosen not to run, but the official laws of the game say that runs are runs, just as Ashwin contends, and when the ball crosses the boundary, the runs are awarded automatically. The irony is that, in the World Cup match, the umpires miscounted and awarded an extra run to England amid the chaos of the deflection, which ended up making the difference in the match. Eoin Morgan, who argued with Ashwin on the field at the IPL, was, on that occasion, the winning captain.

One way to understand Ashwin’s view is on the model of aesthetic judgments of taste: the ‘spirit of the game’ might seem like a moral standard that stands over and above the official laws, but in fact (on this view) it turns out to be a stylistic sensibility; and in such matters – the proverbial gustibus – disputation is useless. From the inside, of course, a style of play will be experienced as a kind of regulative principle, but when styles clash, we can see that others are as attached to their view of things as we are to ours. Franchise cricket is intriguing precisely because players who learned the game in disparate circumstances must learn to play together – and they inevitably learn from one another, even as captains and coaches set the tone.

Another way of reading Ashwin’s post-match remarks rests instead on his claim that ‘an extra run […] can make your career’. Here, Ashwin seems to defending a more hard-nosed and less-pluralistic approach: in a competitive and high-stakes game, you are entitled to every advantage that is strictly legal. The old-fashioned ideal of cricket as a gentleman’s game – which arose not as a reference to gentility in behavior but rather the idea that professionalism was vulgar – meanwhile is a moralistic fantasy. In fact, cricketers would be letting down their team and their supporters if they let such ideals get in their way. Ashwin, of course, acknowledges the importance of fair play and even courtesy toward the opposition off the field of play. But on-field, the duty of professionalism demands a certain ruthlessness.

Each of these visions of cricket points to a distinct conception of what sports – and games more generally – are for and what place they ought to have in our lives. One view is that games, like other joint activities, foster distinct virtues. In particular, competitive sports help us to relate better to our natural desire for domination, what Augustine called the libido dominandi, which stands opposed to justice. The good of a fair victory achieved through skill fosters respect precisely because we must see our opponents as doing just what we are rather than as mere obstacles, to which fairness could not be owed. But one can also see sports matches as a context for individual and collective expression, reflecting idiosyncratic preferences. Finally, for professional players, sports are a career.

I suspect that the competing ideals identified by Ashwin – the amateur spirit of the gentlemen’s game and the professionalism of the modern cricketer – will persist side-by-side as long as players divide their time between representative national sides and league-based franchises. On the village green, where only a round of pints at the pub and not millions of dollars depend on the outcome of a match, it would be regrettable to see a more ruthless style of play emerge. Yet equally, the new globalized and franchise-driven culture of cricket, centered on India and the IPL, offers those of us with divided loyalties the simple pleasure of seeing our favorite cricketers play alongside one another and perhaps, when all goes well, a vision of shared endeavor beyond national boundaries.