Picture the scene, Pat Cummins hauls himself into bed after a gruelling test match victory against England at Lord’s. Just as he is dozing off to sleep, he hears the jangling of chains, before a ghostly apparition appears at the end of his bed.
Peering through the darkness, he can make out a rotund, bearded figure, in a cloth cap and white flannels, holding a cricket bat. It is the Spirit of Cricket, taking the form of WG Grace, sent to show Pat the error of his ways.
The Spirit of Cricket
Everyone’s favourite phrase is back with a vengeance. Recently reserved mainly for incidents where the non-striker is run out by the bowler, the Spirit of Cricket seems to hold a special place in the hearts of fans of tradition within cricket.
For those who missed yesterday’s play, England and Australia played out a classic test match at Lord’s which saw a string of magnificent performances. Steve Smith’s imperious first innings century, Mitchell Starc’s unplayable fast bowling on the evening of the 4th day and Ben Duckett’s two battling half centuries.
That is not to mention Ben Stokes staging his own attempt at time travel, by coming agonisingly close to repeating and surpassing his heroics at Headingley in 2019. His innings was multi-faceted, unlike the caricature of Bazball as all-out attack. Stokes’ innings was watchful at the start, brave in the face of hostile bowling, before going through the gears, launching 9 sixes into the stands, which at one point looked like taking the game away from Australia. Stokes eventually fell on his sword, lightening did not strike twice.
Controversial Bairstow Stumping
But these heroic individual contributions will all be overshadowed by a controversial moment, which has seen the series burst into flames. As Jonny Bairstow ducked under a bouncer from the last ball of the over, he assumed the ball was dead and set off down the wicket to talk to Stokes. As soon as the ball hit the gloves of wicketkeeper Alex Carey, he threw the ball at the stumps, stumping Bairstow and releasing the spectre of the Spirit of Cricket in the process. Carey’s actions were perfectly legal, but many felt the decision to uphold the decision was unsporting. An act of deviance, rather than criminality, to swing a tight game in their favour.
Depending on which side of the debate you listen to, the moment was either shameful cheating or sharp practice. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. I am inclined to agree with Ben Stokes’ post-match comments that it is not how he would want to win a game, but this was a game in which Australia showed how ruthless they really are.
This is a team of wolves in sheep’s clothing. All the talk after the first day of this test was about how the two teams were too friendly and how this was an Australia team full of “good blokes”. Few of the partisan crowd at Lord’s on Sunday afternoon left with that impression. This is a team who have shown over the years that they are here to win at all costs and they are now 2-0 up in the Ashes.
For England this is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Talk is cheap, and few believe the mantra that they would rather be entertaining losers than boring winners. But as things stand, they are 2-0 down in a 5-match series, having lost two games that had multiple opportunities to win. A team more worried about the spirit of the game than the result. This is the sternest test of the Stokes / McCullum era – the first time they have suffered back-to-back defeats and staring down the barrel of a first series defeat.
Difficult Week for English Cricket
The truth is, this has been one of the worst weeks English cricket has suffered in recent memory. A total of 4 defeats for both the Men’s and Women’s teams in their respective Ashes series and the damning ICEC report, which casts a long shadow over the whole structure of the sport. Made worse today by scenes of boorish MCC members abusing the Australian team as they walked through the long room at lunch.
This was backed up by a chorus of commentators and journalists claiming the hostility at Lord’s was down to cheap tickets which meant there were “people who wouldn’t usually be at Lord’s” in attendance. In a week where the lack of diversity and the issue of classism in English cricket has been in the spotlight, the dog whistles rang out. Blame the plebs in the cheap seats, while the members get up to no good.
It feels like English cricket is trapped in something of a death spiral – the old establishment vs the forces of change, played out by a team hoping to change the face of cricket, whilst being beaten by the very nature of the game. English cricket needs some positive news and a win at Headingley would be a good start. But this intrinsic tension within English cricket will rumble on for some time.
So when the Spirit of Cricket in WG Grace and Pat Cummins are eye to eye and Cummins is asked to atone for his crimes against the Spirit of Cricket, Cummins will surely believe he has no case to answer.
After all, the English cricketing establishment is currently in no position to be lecturing others on what constitutes fair play.
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