Stop whining about the ‘spirit of cricket’ – England must get their own house in order

Jonny Bairstow’s controversial dismissal cast a shadow over the second Test  (Action Images via Reuters)
Jonny Bairstow’s controversial dismissal cast a shadow over the second Test (Action Images via Reuters)

The recriminations were immediate and the day turned into one of the most bizarre in Ashes history. As soon as Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal thanks to Alex Carey’s opportunistic/scandalous (delete as you see fit) stumping was confirmed by the TV umpire, the boos rang round the normally sedate Lord’s Cricket Ground. Quickly followed by relentless chants of “same old Aussies, always cheating”.

Bairstow and captain Ben Stokes, left stranded out in the middle as his last recognised batting partner headed back to the hutch, looked livid. It didn’t stop there. Stuart Broad – who has made a career of antagonising and being antagonised by Australia both on and off the field, including a memorable incident during the 2013 Ashes where he refused to walk after edging to slip – strode on to the field with a look of thunder in his eyes and immediately told Carey, “That’s all you’ll ever be remembered for, that.”

Broad then turned to Australia skipper Pat Cummins and, with maybe just the slightest hint of hyperbole, added: “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in cricket.” He proceeded, quite entertainingly in all fairness, to spend most of his innings ostentatiously grounding his bat in his crease and checking with the Australian players that he was allowed to leave without fear of being stumped while he wasn’t looking.

The MCC members took it upon themselves to verbally berate the tourists as they walked through the Long Room at lunch – resulting in the MCC itself issuing a fulsome apology to Australia and three of the offending members being suspended – and ensured the incident would overshadow not only the second Test but perhaps the whole series.

Then the debate began. Carey’s stumping of Bairstow as he wandered out of his crease to have a mid-over chat with Stokes, assuming the ball was dead, was certainly within the laws of the game but was it within the “spirit of cricket’’? Should the Australians have subsequently withdrawn their appeal to remain inside the unwritten rules that apparently govern the sport?

That’s right, despite the “spirit of cricket’’ debate that comes up every time there is a Mankad or any other controversial dismissal being about as interesting as the constantly inane discourse surrounding VAR in football, here we are again.

Stokes didn’t hold back in his post-match criticism of the Australians’ decision, saying: “If I was fielding captain at the time, I would have put a lot more pressure on the umpires to ask them what their decision was around the ‘over’. Then I would have had a real think about the spirit of the game and would I want to potentially win a game with something like that happening. It would be no.”

Ben Stokes wasn’t impressed by the dismissal (PA Wire)
Ben Stokes wasn’t impressed by the dismissal (PA Wire)

England coach Brendon McCullum – who, during his playing days, stumped both Chris Mpofu as the Zimbabwean went to celebrate his partner Blessing Mahwire’s maiden test half-century, and Sri Lankan legend Muttiah Muralitharan when he congratulated teammate Kumar Sangakkara on reaching his ton – was similarly unequivocal.

McCullum told the BBC’s Test Match Special: “I can’t imagine we’ll be having a beer [with the Australians] any time soon,” before adding: “I think it was more about the spirit of the game and when you become older and more mature you realise the game and the spirit of it is something you need to protect. You have to make decisions in the moment and they can have effects on games and people’s characters.”

Everyone has an opinion it seems – from pundits and ex-players to MPs and even the prime minister Rishi Sunak (he backed Stokes’ proclamation that he wouldn’t want to win in that manner, for what it’s worth).

However, getting slightly lost in the interminable debate about whether Australia have forever sullied the great sport of cricket and all their future achievements should be asterisked, is the fact that England are pretty much entirely to blame for finding themselves in a seemingly hopeless hole of being 2-0 down with three Test to play in this Ashes series.

Before Bairstow was dismissed, England were already five wickets down and 180-odd runs short of a formidable Australian total. Yes, Stokes’ sheer force of will and remarkable skill as a cricketer nearly led him to produce a second Ashes miracle of his career but the game had already been thrown away by then.

Bairstow should never have been out of his crease the way he was (PA Wire)
Bairstow should never have been out of his crease the way he was (PA Wire)

From the toss on the opening day, where England confidently decided to bowl yet promptly allowed Australia to reach 339-5 by close, the hosts couldn’t get out of their own way. An impressive spell of bowling to limit the damage on the second morning and a strong start with the bat to move to 188-1 was completely wasted as they fell hook, line and sinker into the Australians’ short-ball trap.

Rash shot after rash shot saw three wickets fall for 34 runs that evening and then six for 46 the following morning in a scarcely-believable implosion. “Bazball’’ is about aggression and not having a fear of failure but this went far beyond that ethos into the realm of reckless cricket – the equivalent of lemming after lemming walking off the same cliff.

They left themselves a mountain to climb in a chase of 371 and let’s forget about the “spirit of cricket’’ debate for a moment, Bairstow simply should not have been so carelessly wandering out of his crease. The easiest way to avoid a tedious argument about whether Carey “did the right thing’’ in stumping him and not retracting the appeal was for Bairstow to not be in that position in the first place. Michael Atherton labelled it “dozy cricket” and it’s hard to disagree when the sort of brain-fade that is seen up and down the country in club cricket every weekend makes its way to Test level.

The swashbuckling, inspiring cricket that England have played over the past year means that even a 2-0 deficit somehow still feels surmountable but they need to stop worrying about the spirit of the game, get their own house in order and cut out the mistakes if they want to make Ashes history.