Jonny Bairstow
England's Jonny Bairstow speaks to Australia’s Travis Head after being run out by Alex Carey in the second Test of the Ashes cricket series on July 2, 2023. The dismissal sparked angry debates on the spirit of the games. Image Credit: Reuters

Why is Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal at Lord’s on Sunday raising hackles? Nobody disputes that the England batter was out when Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey threw down the stumps as Bairstow went down the pitch for a spot of gardening. If it’s out, what’s the problem? Oh, it went against the spirit of cricket, the English say.

Now, what’s the spirit of cricket? That’s got more to do with playing fair rather than playing hard. The main idea is to foster respect between rival players and ensure the game’s conduct remains unaffected. Remember, cricket used to be called the gentleman’s game.

Well, that’s the past. How can you call it a gentleman’s game when fast bowlers try to knock the head off batters? And when the fielding team are not averse to using expletives or questioning the parentage of batters. These days, anything and everything is used to win games.

Bodyline, Sandpapergate and other sordid sagas

Remember the Bodyline Series of 1932-33, the John Lever Vaseline episode of 1977, and the Australian ball-tampering scandal in 2018, known as the Sandpapergate scandal. All these sordid sagas stem from a win-at-all-cost attitude. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but it shouldn’t be confused with an aggressive approach that allows no compromise.

Playing hard is the mantra now. No quarter is given, and none asked. That’s the competitive nature of the sport, and cricket is no exception. But now and then, the spirit of the game is brought up during a contentious dismissal.

In cricket, there are the laws of the game, and then there’s the spirit of the game. You could be right according to the laws of the game, and if the manner of play doesn’t fit the fair play mould, it’s deemed to be against the spirit of the game.

It’s a grey area. A legal dismissal can be interpreted as contravening the spirit of the game. Who decides that? That’s precisely what happened in the second innings of the second Ashes Test.

Australian captain Pat Cummins feels the Bairstow dismissal was legitimate and was given out by the umpires. He even said the dismissal was premeditated since Carey had watched Bairstow go on walkabouts after each delivery. He merely executed a plan: caught the ball and threw down the stumps in one motion before the end of over was signalled. There was enough time for the umpires to call Over, so the ball was very much “live”.

England captain Ben Stokes admits that Bairstow was out but is adamant that the dismissal went against the spirit of the game. He wouldn’t have done it, Stokes added. Well, Stokes can do whatever he likes, but that doesn’t mean he and his team have no right to pillory the Australians. After all, Bairstow tried to do something similar against Marnus Labuschagne of Day 3 of the Test. Was that in line with the game’s spirit?

What really went against the spirit of the game was the reprehensible reaction of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members in the hallowed Long Room at the Lord’s pavilion. Some angry members are reported to have abused and even had physical contact with some Australian players as they made their way to the dressing room.

Now, that’s a red line. Appalling behaviour from the venerable members! Even if the memberships of the three offenders are revoked (it’s suspended now), that will remain a stain on MCC members. And the incident will surface every time the spirit-of-the-game excuse is trotted out.

Cricket website ESPN Cricinfo says there have been similar run-outs in the recent past, including England player Ollie Pope’s to dismiss New Zealand’s Colin de Grandhomme at Lord’s in 2022 and Ireland’s Andy Balbirnie running out the UAE’s Muhammad Wasim at the 2023 World Cup Qualifier in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. None of these appeals were withdrawn, and the decisions stayed.

In 2011, under pressure from the England camp, Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was forced to recall Ian Bell, who had walked before the ball was dead during the Trent Bridge Test. That’s yet another instance of a batter's stupidity condoned by the spirit of the game.

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England’s coach Brendon McCullum from New Zealand has also voiced his displeasure at the Bairstow dismissal, forgetting that he had done something similar against Zimbabwe in 2005 and Sri Lanka the following year. True, McCullum apologised to Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan 10 years later, but the damage was done. Too late to uphold the spirit of the game!

Not many remember how G.R. Vishwanath did it in 1980. He recalled Bob Taylor, who was adjudged to have caught behind, and the England batter went on to forge a partnership with Ian Botham that won the Golden Jubilee Test in Mumbai. That’s how you keep the cricket spirit alive. How many international captains would do that now? I don’t think Stokes would have done something like that.

The spirit of cricket should be upheld by uniformly applying the game’s laws. A dismissal is legit so long as it conforms to the letter of the law. As for the spirit of the game, let’s leave it to the players and their conscience.