Let’s expect a lot, but not too much: Brearley

Let’s expect a lot, but not too much: Brearley

In Spirit of Cricket, Brearley brings the threads together, occasionally travelling outside the game into the realms of literature, philosophy and psychology to borrow concepts that are both relevant and explanatory.

When, at the turn of the century, it was decided to add a 417-word ‘Preamble’ to the Laws of cricket, I felt uncomfortable. The intentions were good, but the idea that those who played the game needed to be told such things as “it is against the spirit of the game to indulge in cheating” seemed ridiculous. It was like adding, “It is not good manners to murder your neighbour” to the criminal code.

This was the ‘spirit’ of the game — every schoolboy is taught that you played within the written laws and the unwritten spirit, except that it was now decided to write down the spirit, thereby somehow diminishing it. You cannot build a fence around intent.

It was possible to conclude that the Laws defined the game itself while the spirit was the code by which the individuals who played it were judged.

Mike Atherton initially called the spirit “a lot of meaningless guff,” but few players or writers have explored the idea in detail. Till now, that is, when Mike Brearley, the sage of the game, has done so in his Spirit of Cricket.

Brearley has written about how the concept worried him. “I used to question the notion of the spirit of cricket,” he says, “I was worried that it was nebulous and I felt that those who advocated it most strongly tended to sound patronising or pompous.” Many of the ‘traditions of the game’, he says, “are not worthy of respect.”

In Spirit of Cricket, Brearley brings the threads together, occasionally travelling outside the game into the realms of literature, philosophy and psychology to borrow concepts that are both relevant and explanatory. The book is subtitled Reflections on Play and Life.

Reading Spirit of Cricket gave me a feeling of completion, as if there is nothing more to be said on the subject. Few books, cricket or otherwise, inspire this sense of completeness. And it has been done without preaching, without getting technical, without holding back on his own self-doubts. It is quite an achievement. There are risks in the (game’s) fantasy of purity and peacefulness,” writes Brearley; it is rugged, hard, passionate and urban. Harold Pinter called it, “a wonderfully civilised act of warfare” and a “very violent game.”


If the spirit is vague, the Laws tend to be too. They are a mixture of rules and playing conditions written by different organisations — the Marylebone Cricket Club, the International Cricket Council, the national bodies all add to them. By ‘spirit’, Brearley largely means ‘fairness’, a word unlikely to annoy those who get worked up by ‘spirit’. The spirit, admits Brearley, is meant to be vague, offering pointers rather than solutions to specific issues.

The conflict with Laws arises because “We are happier with precision (and) inclined to view the material and the measurable as more real than the often unmeasurable emotional/mental.” There is the suggestion that the ‘spirit’ alters with time and circumstance. Brearley’s objection to Bodyline, for instance, is not based on moral grounds — “I am conflicted about Bodyline,” he says, “Like Greg Chappell I have a sneaking regard for what Jardine did” — but on the physical danger during an era when the batsmen were not well protected, and because the tactic was “too ruthless.” But he admits Bodyline, which involved fast bowlers aiming at the batsmen’s body with a packed leg side field, was “against the spirit of cricket.”

Atherton (in a chapter where other writers speak on the issue) has this to say: “One man’s spirit of cricket is far removed from another’s.

“As the game spreads — Afghanistan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, America etc. — local customs will alter what has been traditionally accepted as the spirit of cricket, rendering it utterly changed from its original conception to the point where it becomes almost meaningless.”

No longer an English game

Cricket is no longer an English game alone, and will have to accept that cultural (or even moral) relativism might render redundant many concepts enshrined in the unwritten spirit.

The theatre director Ian Rickson makes the point that ‘spirit of cricket’ has gone from a colonial maxim to teach subjects to obey a system of rules to a global market run by billionaires.

Brearley’s approach is pragmatic, and a lesson for our times. “Let’s expect a lot,” he says, “but not too much.” His advice: Don’t hype cricket up into something elevated and imagine that it is too special. His hope: Cricket is special, and our better selves can prevail.

That is a wonderful synthesis of the moralists and the nay-sayers.

In the 2017 edition of the Laws, the preamble was cut to 163 words, an improvement. Brearley, who thinks the shorter the better, suggests a version that is only 39 words. The sage has spoken!

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