Rules of the Game vs the Spirit of Sport

An assessment of a major sporting controversy, and an investigation into the business of professional sport. Is there still room for the“spirit” of the game?

Published: Jul 16, 2023  |  

Investigative journalist and writer


“I would have… had a deep think about the whole spirit of the game. For Australia, it was the match-winning moment. Would I want to win a game in that manner? The answer for me is no.”

So spoke England test cricket captain and leader, Ben Stokes, after his side lost to Australia at Lord’s on 2 July to go 2-0 behind in The Ashes: The sport’s most prestigious matches.

According to Stokes, the Lord’s test hinged on an already infamous incident. With England’s run-chase of 371 finely poised at 193 for five wickets (out of ten), Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey stumped England batsman Jonny Bairstow in dramatic—some say deeply unsportsmanlike—fashion.

Bairstow ducked a bouncer from Australian bowler Cameron Green and, attempting no run, allowed the ball to fly through to Carey behind the stumps. It was the end of the over, when bowlers and umpires change ends. So Bairstow instinctively scratched his batting mark with his foot inside the crease—where a batter is safe—and strode purposefully towards his team-mate at the other end of the pitch to talk tactics. Leaving his crease (and safety) in the process.

But the umpire had not called “over” to officially end the passage of play—they often take a few seconds to do so. Quick-thinking Carey, having observed Bairstow’s tendency to depart his crease quickly between deliveries, collected the ball after it passed the batsman and, in a split second, hurled it accurately at the stumps.

Carey claimed the ball was not effectively “dead”, as most deliveries that pass through to the keeper are after a few seconds (providing the batsman is not attempting a run), because he caught the ball and threw down the stumps in one smooth movement. By taking the decision to appeal to the umpire for a dismissal, Carey forced officials to apply the letter of the laws (rules) which govern cricket. And under those rules, the umpire had no choice but to give Bairstow out.

To the untrained eye, the whole incident seemed innocuous. But in the world of professional cricket—where how you play the sport still matters to many people—all hell broke loose! 

It was as though war had been declared. Prime ministers have since commented on the incident, media coverage in both countries has defaulted to shameless nationalism and mockery of the other side, and the row over who was right exploded.

England eventually lost the match by 43 runs—a reasonably narrow margin and a result which, arguably, might have gone in England’s favour if Bairstow had not been given out.

The incident also quickly spilled over inside the ground. Lord’s usually respectful crowd booed the excellent Australian side. As the Aussie players made their way back to their dressing room, several furious members of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which owns Lord’s as the spiritual home of cricket, also confronted the men from Down Under.

Why the fuss? Because, depending on your point of view, Carey and his team-mates had breached that most complex and ethereal of concepts: The “spirit” of cricket or professional sport.

As with its distant cousin baseball in the United States, the gentlemanly sport of cricket is awash with unwritten rules about how to play the game in a sporting manner. One such unwritten practice, many current and former players argue, is that wicketkeepers don’t generally stump batsmen who are not attempting to gain an advantage (a run) when they leave their crease at the end of a delivery (they may, of course, be “stumped” or run out while the ball is more obviously still in play).

This contrasts with “Mankad” controversies, which occur when the non-striking batsman leaves his crease before a bowler has delivered the ball—to try to sneak a quick run, thereby gaining an advantage.

But there is a fine line between what constitutes a ball still in play after it is bowled and what constitutes a dead ball. Carey and his captain, Pat Cummins, are adamant that the ball never settled in the wicketkeeper’s gloves for any length of time (accepted as an indicator of a dead ball).

Under the letter of the law, Carey was right. But as many ex-cricketers testified in the stormy aftermath, over the course of a five-day test match wicketkeepers often have opportunities to stump batters in similar circumstances. They just choose not to, because it may be considered unsportsmanlike. Or “just not cricket!”

Stokesians claim it is the equivalent of a bunt to break up a no-hitter in baseball, or hitting on the break in boxing as the referee steps in: That split-second moment where the expectation is that you will act in a gentlemanly, respectful manner despite the gladiatorial competition.

Team Carey disagree. They cite professional sport’s oft-repeated mantra of “playing to the whistle”: Awaiting the referee’s official acknowledgment of a dead ball.

And therein lies the problem. The strict laws (rules) which govern cricket support Carey. But the unwritten rules—those upholding the supposed “spirit of cricket”, seemingly support Bairstow. Hence, Stokes’ statement that he would not like to win such an important game “in that manner”.

I sympathize with both sides of the argument. In life, especially in business, we’re governed by laws, rules, and practices and we generally know where the boundaries are and stick to them. But every now and then something comes up which—while legal or within the rules—looks and feels immoral, sneaky, or underhand. Those moments test our moral fiber.

That’s what I love about professional sports, business, and leadership. There are rules which govern our behaviors. Some are codified, others not. How we behave matters, yet it is still often open to interpretation.

The ultimate question is: What behaviors matter most—and why? I’m still not sure I have all the answers. 

Does anybody?

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