Stokes: Keeping the spirit alive (Clive Mason/Getty)

July 27, 2023   8 mins

The furore over the “spirit of the game” suggests, misleadingly, that there is indeed some such thing in contemporary cricket. But take a closer look and it becomes apparent that the much-fetishised “spirit”, a code of honour about as anachronistic as knightly chivalry, is honoured only in the breach. The sneaky stumping of England’s Jonny Bairstow by Australia’s wicketkeeper in the second Test was taken as a foul contravention of cricket etiquette. But more than that, it was a sign of the times. To begin with, there was the hypocrisy of the English commentariat. No English cricketer, it was insinuated, could be capable of such an ungentlemanly act. Only Bairstow himself had tried pulling the same stunt two days earlier with the Australian batsman Marnus Labuschagne — unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Tu quoque, as they say.

As teams do whatever it takes to win, swearing by the rather un-cricket mantra of by hook or by crook, is it any surprise that esprit de corps has wound up a collateral casualty? This is more significant than it appears at first blush. Historically, especially in the early decades of the previous century, the sentimentalisation of sportsmanship enabled cricket to declaim a unifying myth that was for the better part true. The “spirit of the game”, trite as this might sound, was the glue holding together the riff-raff and the ruling class, black and white — or so the Trinidadian Marxist historian C.L.R. James argued in Beyond a Boundary, indisputably the best book on cricket, published 60 years ago. On the field, he argued, all social divisions were transcended, even if only fleetingly. For players were bound together by the “code” of cricket.

What the game looks like in default of such a code is plain to see. Around the same time Bairstow was having his battles with the bails, there detonated the bombshell ICEC report, “Holding Up a Mirror to Cricket”. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Over three in four black and brown respondents spoke of having faced racial discrimination, substantiating the Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq’s charge made before a parliamentary inquiry last year. Since then, heads have rolled — though not those of his harassers. Rafiq has left Britain on account of the abuse following his testimony. Incredibly, the man tasked with reforming Yorkshire’s club, Kamlesh Patel, has been hounded out his position as well. As in Yorkshire, so in Essex, where the black cricketer Maurice Chambers was repeatedly called a monkey and taunted with a banana. C.L.R. James, one suspects, must be rolling in his Trinidadian grave. For the game he describes in Beyond a Boundary is many worlds apart from the game it has become. Time was the “spirit of game” was more than a cynical expedient to clobber opponents. As James has it, it is something of a higher, even egalitarian calling.

James was drawn to cricket at an early age. It was, he describes, one half of a double inheritance. There was, on both sides of the family, the Puritan bequest, which translated into a generosity of spirit embodied by his aunt Judith: “whenever I went to see her, [she] fed me with that sumptuousness which the Trinidad Negroes have inherited from the old extravagant plantation owners”. The spirit of cricket was only an extension of this habit of mind. And it was a stroke of luck that his home gave on to a cricket pitch, his “window exactly behind the wicket”. Tunapuna, his hometown of 3,000 a stone’s throw from Port of Spain, was a cricket-crazy place. All in all, “a good case could be made for predestination”, he slyly writes.

But the sport was also an engine for rising above hoi-polloi. It’s no secret, of course, that cricket has always been a game of certain pretensions. We immediately understand, for instance, the significance of Paul Pennyfeather’s social handicaps in Decline and Fall when he declaims, “I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.” For James, the game furnished a certain respectability — and “respectability was not an ideal; it was an armour”. The older Jameses craved it just as the young C.L.R. did. His father saw to it that the young C.L.R. acquired the cultural capital needed to secure a spot at Queen’s Royal College, Trinidad’s Eton. There, he studied Latin and Greek under Oxbridge types, who, more importantly, “taught a code, the English public-school code”. If all of this sounds Bridesheady, it’s because it is. He took a de haut en bas view of his fellow natives, whom he disdained because they were less au fait with Burke than he was. “Intellectually I lived abroad, chiefly in England.” Vanity Fair came as a revelation: “George Osborne was the hero.” One can see the appeal of snobbery. Later in life, he would credit “Thackeray, not Marx”, for his turn to the Left.

A career path had been cut out for him: Oxford (read: prestige), lawyering (read: prosperity), political office (read: power). But the rebel had other plans. The lure of cricket wasn’t feasibly resisted. Though he would later be embarrassed by his choice, he plumped to play for Maple, the club for light-skinned West Indians. Shamrock and Queen’s Park Oval were “almost exclusively white… I would have been more easily elected to the MCC than to either.” Stingo was “plebeians: the butcher, the tailor, the candlestick maker, the casual labourer, with a sprinkling of unemployed. Totally black and no social status whatsoever.” Shannon belonged to the “black lower-middle class: the teacher, the law clerk, the worker in the printing office”. Maple, by contrast, was distinctly “brown-skinned and middle class”.

As he later explained, though not entirely in an attempt at self-exculpation, “the Negroid population of the West Indies is composed of a large percentage of actually black people and about 15 or 20 per cent who are a varying combination of white and black. From the days of slavery, they have always claimed superiority to the ordinary black… It is not too much to say that in a West Indian colony, the surest sign of a man having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself.” All of which is to say cricket in James’ time was no post-racial, anti-elitist Eden. Yet it was the “spirit of the game” that prevented the uglier instincts of a hidebound society from raising their head: “The foregoing makes it easy to misunderstand the atmosphere in which we played. We never quarrelled. When we played, Shannon, Maple, and Stingo members mixed easily on the same side.” Social tensions were sublimated into a sporting register, the cricketing drama of strokes and catches. “The sportsmanship was clean… Racialism did very little harm… If I had the power, I wouldn’t alter one selection.”

Racism and elitism very simply were, as the common phrase goes, “not cricket”. More than a game, it seems, cricket for James was a temperament: “as soon as we stepped on to the cricket field, we were a motley crew: the children of some white officials and white business men, middle-class blacks and mulattos, Chinese boys, Indian boys, poor black boys… We learned to play [as a] team, which meant subordinating your personal inclinations, and even interests, to the good of the whole. We kept a stiff upper lip.” It is no accident that such a worldview — ironically of patrician derivation — primed James for a life on the Left. A political awakening of sorts swiftly followed. The snobbishness retreated. His sympathies for the lower orders became more pronounced in industrial Lancashire, where he arrived in 1932 to help the cricketing giant Learie Constantine write his autobiography. Not long after, he became a cricket columnist for the Manchester Guardian, as it then was, on the strength of that connection. For five years, he shuttled between his Hampstead home and Lord’s, while also working on his pioneering survey of the Haitian Revolution. Black Jacobins appeared in 1938, the year he left for the New World.

There he stayed for 15 years, not seeing a single cricket match for all of that time. Instead, he immersed himself in the Pythonesque quarrels of the American Left, one micro-party accusing the other of selling out. The most formative episode of his American stay, though, was a basketball scandal in the early Fifties. What transpired was far from revelatory: in time-honoured fashion, college players fixed matches in cahoots with bookies. Yet, such an innocent James was, it came as a revelation to him. How could these young men betray their teams? His American friends understandably rolled their eyes. But the middle-aged James just couldn’t get over it. Rather touchingly in Beyond a Boundary, he records his “instinctive repulsion” on learning of “these crimes”.

America proved too much. James, unsurprisingly, came hurtling back home to reacquaint himself with that treasured breed of his, the cricketing “genus Britannicus”. In later years, he did his bit to make the gentleman’s game a fairer one. In his brief spell back home in Trinidad as the editor of The Nation in 1958, for instance, he combined political activism and cricket to bring an end to the age white Test captaincy in West Indies. By all accounts, it was an unpleasant campaign — most definitely “not cricket”. The previous captain, Gerry Alexander, whom James insinuated was a racist for sending back the intemperate Roy Gilchrist from the team’s India tour, possibly had his reasons. Gilchrist had bowled one too many beamers and — apparently — even pulled a knife on Alexander. Still, installing the black Frank Worrell was an important milestone. Less rational was James’ uncritical adoration of the mediocre batsmen Wilton St Hill. With a batting average of 27.15, he was, rather perversely, likened to Bradman (the Don’s average: 95.14). It would have been a baffling encomium but for James’ appropriation of the comedian Jimmy Durante’s signature phrase: “that’s my boy”. As James put it with candour, “Wilton St Hill was our boy.”

“Our boys”, as it were, are in short supply these days. Most Brits no longer relate to the players on the field. In our time, the talent pathway runs through public schools. A curious inversion has transpired: in society at large, and indeed football among other ball games, meritocracy has become a watchword and racism has declined; in cricket, however, the opposite has been true. The day the ICEC report hit the front pages, a visual corroboration materialised in the England XI selected for the second Ashes Test. It was Lord’s in the year 2023, but it could have been the House of Lords circa 1923. All 11 players were white; nine were privately educated.

Of all the Test batsmen who have debuted for England since 2011, some 95% have been white, and 77% from private schools (a mere 7% in the country have attended these). This when one in five cricketers at the academy level are South Asian. Likewise, between 1995 and 2020, the number of black professional cricketers has fallen by 75%. Adil Rashid, from a Bradford two-up two-down, these days it is the exception that proves the rule. What we have witnessed, in nuce, is nothing less than the strange death of progressive cricket. What on earth has happened? For one thing, cricket has ceased to belong to our zeitgeist. Football has stolen a march on it, not least because run-of-the-mill cricket kits can set you back north of £500. At the turn of the millennium, moreover, penurious schools across England set about selling their playing fields. Furthermore, Test cricket has moved behind a televisual paywall since 2005.

It is worth remembering that a hundred years ago, it was cricket, and not football, that was the national game, binding the classes together. Emblematic was the popular Gentlemen vs Players fixture that ran from 1806 to 1963, paid working-class professionals in the employ of county clubs playing against unpaid amateurs of aristocratic and bourgeois stock. The two classes also played shoulder to shoulder in the same teams, though in a singularly and preeningly English way. The lower and higher orders took the field through separate gates at Lord’s, the latter having their initials precede their surnames on scorecards (and vice versa for the former). Freud would have described this as the narcissism of small differences. More substantively, though, cricket was a game for all. Received wisdom had it that when England needed a fast bowler, “all it had to do was whistle down a Nottinghamshire coal mine”. Just as D.H. Lawrence was saved from a career at the colliery by his facility with words, his near-neighbour Harold Larwood was whisked away from the pits thanks to his way with the ball. From Fred Trueman to Freddie Flintoff, it’s been a subaltern’s game. As late as the mid-Nineties, four in five Test cricketers were state school kids.

Now is a good time to remember this history. Clearly, we’re in the midst of a cricketing renaissance. “Bazball”, the new style of cricket — bolder, riskier, faster — inaugurated by the captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, has given the game a new tenor. Victories in white-ball cricket, too, have been infectious. Some of the stardust has rubbed off on the unabridged game. The opening fixture of the Ashes brought in a staggering 2.1 million viewers, Sky Sports reported, the highest ever for a Test match. Even the stumping affair showed a renewed interest in the game, the British and Australian prime ministers crossing bats over the matter. Australia will retain the Ashes, but there is now a momentum to English cricket. There’s no telling how the next Ashes will pan out. But first, England will need to cleanse the Augean stables and rediscover the Jamesian spirit of the game.

Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.