Cricket Comment: Clarke’s Ashes sledging row highlights silence surrounding the Spirit of Cricket

Former batsman and son of England great Colin Cowdrey calls for change

BACK in 1998 I attended the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League in Bangalore. My brother Jeremy had put together a plan to get Lalit Modi, the commissioner of the IPL, to embrace the Spirit of Cricket.

I had dinner with cricketer turned writer Simon Hughes the night before the match. I have huge respect for Simon not only as a journalist but also as a human being. When I told him the IPL had invited me out to celebrate the Spirit of Cricket his response was one of those moments I will never forget. “What a load of rubbish,” he said. “What right has cricket to be different to society? Society has moved on and cricket has moved on with it.”

It certainly got me thinking. If a man I respect feels this way, then have I got it all wrong?

Last week during the first Ashes Test I was reminded of that night in Bangalore when Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, was fined 20 per cent of his match fee for suggesting to England’s Jimmy Anderson that he was about to get his arm broken.

It was a sad episode – sadder for the fact that it was played out live on television. I, like many other cricket fans, rejoiced when Clarke played such a thrilling innings at Brisbane following a first innings failure.

Former and current Test players were quick to lay the blame at the foot of the poor man whose job seems to be turning down the stump microphone after each ball. More depressing is the constant stream of former players who seem to think that it is all part of the game and adds to the excitement.

There also seems to be a lot of former players suggesting that the sledging was just the same in WG Grace’s day. Really? How do they know? Back to that moving line of acceptability – and therein lies the problem. I disagree with Simon Hughes; I believe cricket has the capacity to not just accept society dictates the way the game is played.

Rugby has stood proud against such a notion. The cornerstone of the Rugby Football Union’s ‘This is Rugby’ initiative is respect. To their eternal credit they financed an aggressive marketing campaign to highlight the message. I doubt there is a rugby club that does not carry the RFU message on their walls. No surprise then that there is now a zero-tolerance policy in respect of players’ behaviour towards referees and opponents.

They have managed with a firm stance to preserve the traditions of the game; a brutal game but brilliantly governed. The MCC, the guardians of cricket’s rules, conversely, have employed a “well-kept secret” methodology to their own Spirit of Cricket initiative. This has led to many who should know suggesting that they have no idea what it stands for.

I’ll tell you what it stands for, as my late father was one of those involved in its formulation.

It was everything about keeping that line of acceptability in the right place. It was everything about respect. It was never there to discourage hard-fought competitive cricket – the way it should be played. It was there to prohibit the “breaking arm” behaviour.

What it ultimately stood for in my father’s vision was Test cricketers respecting that they were very privileged. That privilege had one rider: to at all times remember that millions of young cricketers worship them and endeavour to emulate their every move.

That’s why Clarke’s comments to Anderson went way beyond that line of acceptability – way beyond. As I sat watching with my 14-year-old son, what was I supposed to say to him? That’s life, son – it’s the way society is?

I sincerely hope the International Cricket Council one day take over the Spirit of Cricket from the MCC to ensure the next generation of cricketers grow up to believe that the game does still uphold the traditions and values and that there are limits. One day the ICC will ensure that there is not a school or club pavilion in Britain that does not have the message of the Spirit of Cricket emblazoned on the walls. When that happens that line of acceptability will be back to where it should be.