Fingers point when fair play turns foul

Cricket and the Law
February 10, 2006

No umpires and fair cheating all round" was how Yorkshire and England all-rounder Roy Kilner once described his perfect cricket match.

David Fraser's original and thought-provoking book, Cricket and the Law , would perhaps have been appreciated by Kilner. Not only does Fraser share the belief that the umpire is not always right, but he also argues that the laws of the game are not always right either.

Operating in the framework of postmodernist legal theory, the book focuses on the tension between the letter of cricket's pretentiously titled "laws" and the so-called spirit of the game, something that all cricketers accept but no one can adequately define. This theme was highlighted at its most extreme by the 1933 "Bodyline" crisis, when the phrase "it's not cricket" was applied to tactics used on the field that, according to the laws then in operation, were not illegal.

Fraser takes us through many of cricket's flashpoints, including disputes over "chucking", sledging, ball-tampering, leg-before-wicket decisions, bribery scandals and many other arcane areas of cricket law and lore.

In particular, he pays attention to the peculiar law by which the umpire can declare a batsman out only if the opposing fielders "appeal" to him to make a ruling. This gives rise to a tricky philosophical problem, whereby a batsman can be out according to a formal interpretation of the laws, yet can be allowed to play on if his opponents fail to ask the umpire for a determination. Yet if he knows he is out but does not "walk", in effect voluntarily dismissing himself, he is acting against the spirit of the game.

The book, which is based on the author's legal expertise and on a comprehensive study of the controversies cricket has faced over the past 20 years, also serves as a fascinating commentary on recent cricket history.

Yet, despite acknowledging the importance of the social context of rule-making, Fraser seems unaware of the wide range of academic and other scholarly historical work that has sought in different ways to penetrate the reality of the ideals of cricket. Derek Birley's The Willow Wand and Wray Vamplew's work on professional sport, to take two examples, have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Corinthian ethos of the sport was honoured more in the breach than its observance.

More to the point, the evidence accumulated by these and other scholars, together with the many examples cited by Fraser, indicates that the spirit of cricket was something that was usually invoked when one's opponents were of a supposedly inferior class or race and were winning. The example of W.G. Grace, viewed as the embodiment of the spirit of cricket, but who was also a notorious cheat, is perhaps the most famous case in point.

It is this social context that explains the ambiguities and contradictions of cricket's laws. Their vagueness was, and is, such that they allowed different interpretations at different times, enabling those who controlled cricket to interpret the laws to their advantage. In contrast, strict adherence to the letter of the law, "formalism" in Fraser's terminology, tended to be the recourse of the relatively powerless working-class or colonial player.

This can be seen in Fraser's book, in which most of the examples of laws being stretched to their limits, such as the running-out of non-striking batters or appeals for dismissals of batters handling the ball, were from matches involving teams that felt themselves to be at a social or racial disadvantage, such as Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

This ambiguity towards the written rules of sport was not limited to cricket. Until it embraced professionalism in 1995, rugby union, probably the one sport even more attached to its "spirit" than cricket, also prided itself on a somewhat indeterminate relationship to the letter of its laws.

This could be seen both on and off the field, most notably in the apparently inconsistent application of its formally rigorous amateurism.

If there is a criticism to be made here, it is that the book is probably a third too long. What should have been a delightful cut and thrust, in the style of a Muttiah Muralitharan or an Anil Kumble, now resembles the unremitting West Indian pace attack of the 1980s. Nevertheless, Fraser's book is a considerable achievement that will stand as the benchmark for future legal studies of the playing of sport.

Tony Collins is deputy director, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.

Cricket and the Law: The Man in White Is Always Right

Author - David Fraser
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 438
Price - £90.00 and £24.99
ISBN - 0 7146 5347 0 and 8285 3

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