England’s Jonny Bairstow reacts after being run out by Australia’s Alex Carey as Ben Stokes looks on, in the second Test at Lord’s, London, on July 2, 2023. The dismissal sparked questions of fair play. Image Credit: Reuters

Lord’s, the hallowed turf in cricket, was hosting the Ashes — the oldest rivalry. England were chasing 371 runs for victory over Australia in the second Test.

It was no easy task. To win, England needed to pull off the highest run chase at Lord’s, the third-highest in England and the 10th-highest in history.

England had knocked off 193 runs but lost five wickets in the process. Captain Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, the last recognised pair of batters, were at the crease with victory 178 runs away.

A good partnership was required to push England towards a win that would have squared the series 1-1. And Australia needed a wicket to avert that. The wicket came in a controversial manner.

Anatomy of Bairstow dismissal

Bairstow ducked underneath a short ball from Cameron Green, which sailed over his head to wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Bairstow marked the crease with his boot and walked down the pitch towards Stokes at the non-striker’s end, ostensibly thinking it was the end of the over.

Unknown to Bairstow, Carey collected the ball and threw down the stumps in one motion with the batter outside the crease. Onfield umpires referred the decision to TV umpire Marais Erasmus who gave the batter out: stumped.

Boos rang out around Lord’s as a shocked and angry Bairstow stomped off. Pandemonium erupted on social media with the Australians accused of cheating, and questions on the spirit of cricket arose.

Was Bairstow out?

In the commentary box, former Australian captain Mark Taylor called it out and accused Bairstow of dozy cricket. Former England white-ball cricket captain Eoin Morgan concurred. But captain Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum insisted they wouldn’t want to win games like that.

Was Bairstow out? He was. Stokes agreed. No doubt about that. If it’s a legitimate dismissal, what is the brouhaha around it?

Apparently, it was in breach of the game’s spirit. That raises the question of what’s the spirit of cricket.

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.


When the current Code of Laws was introduced in 2000, it included, for the first time, a preamble on the spirit of cricket. “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

The inclusion of the preamble was engineered by two former England captains, Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter, to ensure fair play, reminding captains, players and umpires to respect and uphold the spirit of cricket. Their intentions are no doubt honourable, given that cricket is considered a gentleman’s game.

But is cricket still a gentleman’s game? Are all the teams upholding the spirit of cricket? No. Not really.

If that were the case, there would be no sledging, which most teams employ to get under the skin of batters to wreck their concentration. What about persistent short-pitched bowling? A bouncer is a legitimate weapon in a fast bowler’s arsenal, but to abuse it is certainly not in keeping with the game’s spirit.

The bouncer barrage continues

Even tailend batters are not spared. There was an unwritten code that non-recognised batters should not be subjected to a bouncer attack. That’s no longer the case. Every batter is fair game for a short-ball barrage.

If a team adheres to the spirit of cricket, batters should walk when they edge the ball. That’s all too rare. The last batter who walked was Adam Gilchrist, and his decision was not looked upon favourably by many of his Australian teammates.

There are times when a batsman is adjudged to have caught behind, even when his flailing bat would have missed the ball. Umpires, after all, are human. Today, batters can review the decision. But earlier, they had to accept the decision, even if it was wrong. And not many captains recalled the batters.

Vishwanath, the gentleman captain

G.R. Vishwanath did just that in 1980. The Indian captain recalled Bob Taylor, who was given out, caught behind. Taylor went on to string together a partnership with Ian Botham that won the Golden Jubilee Test for England in Mumbai.

How many cricket aficionados remember that? Not many.

The spirit of cricket raises its head whenever a bowler runs out a non-striker at the end of his delivery stride. It used to be called Mankading. Now it’s merely called run out, liberating Vinoo Mankad of the ignominy of being attached to the mode of dismissal (He effected the dismissal first in a Test match).

Why is this run-out considered taboo? Clearly, the batter is cheating: he or she intends to run only 18 yards instead of 22 by backing up long before the ball is delivered. Instead of penalising the batter, the bowler is hauled over the coals for the dismissal. How’s that fair play?

What Rishi Sunak said

If that’s against the spirit of cricket, even the dismissal of handling the ball should also be considered as such. Handling the Ball is now moved under the section of Obstructing the Field in the updated laws of cricket.

No batter handles the ball intentionally. It’s sheer instinct. More so when the ball veers towards the stumps. India’s Mohinder Amarnath (vs Australia, 1986), England’s Graham Gooch (vs Australia, 1993) and Steve Waugh (vs India, 2001) did just that. Australia’s Andrew Hilditch (vs Pakistan, 1979) was at the non-striker’s end when he caught the ball and handed it to the bowler.

If the spirit of cricket matters, these dismissals shouldn’t have happened. But they do. This means the spirit of cricket is invoked when your team is at the receiving end.

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Bairstow’s dismissal was crucial, as England lost the Test by 43 runs and went down 2-0 in the series. That seemed to have amplified the issue, with even former players offering their opinions. Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom and Anthony Albanese of Australia have also weighed in, taking their team’s sides.

Stokes admits Bairstow was out but insists that he wouldn’t go down the route in quest of victory, although Australian captain Pat Cummins defended his decision to appeal for the wicket. The laws say Cummins is correct, but Stokes says it’s against the spirit of cricket.

If the roles were reversed, would Stokes recall the batter? Bairstow reportedly attempted similar dismissals against Marnus Labuchagne and Travis Head. Let’s see if the England wicketkeeper does it again.

The spirit of cricket remains a mirage.