The spirit of cricket

Much has been written about the tragic death of the young Australian cricketer, Phillip Hughes, felled by a not particularly vicious bouncer, a couple of weeks ago, in a state match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The freak accident plunged a nation and the cricket-loving world into mourning and aroused several moving meditations on life, death and the essence of the game itself.

In one particular affecting article on ESPNcricinfo, Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, now cricket commentator and writer, took as his point of departure, Michael Clarke’s heartfelt funeral tribute, in which the Australian Test captain evoked the spirit of his immensely talented and likeable teammate, whose untimely death united cricket lovers around the world in mourning for one so young, who was simply playing the game he loved. This outpouring of grief and solidarity prompted Mr Clarke to ask the rhetorical question, “Is this what we call the spirit of cricket?” Mr Nicholas answers, “yes,” stating, “The spirit of cricket is in its people, in their respect for one another and in their respect for the game.”

Mr Clarke added, “Phillip’s spirit, which is now a part of our game forever, will act as a custodian of the sport we love. We must listen to it, we must cherish it, we must learn from it, we must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on.” Mr Nicholas chooses to interpret these words as a challenge to all who care for the game to return to the ideals it embodies, or used to embody, for so many: “Stop the rancour, stop the sledging, play the game and ignite the friendships that make it so special. Sledging is not ‘a part of the game’, as is so loosely proposed. Playing ‘tough’ cricket does not mean playing ugly cricket. Witness Hutton, Benaud, the Nawab of Pataudi and Sobers and the standards they set that have long since become extinct. Instead, applaud your opponent for his skill and his courage, for without these there is no game.”

Now, these almost Victorian or Edwardian ideals might seem decidedly old-fashioned, mythical even, when seen through the cynical lens of 21st century professional sport. Unfortunately, the Australian strategy of mental disintegration and boorish sledging has spread throughout the cricketing world, even to the West Indies, where for so long our players did not have to stoop so low to impose their will on their opponents. But even here, with declining standards and the advent of the brash, new world of T20, it is sadly becoming more prevalent, with the Barbados Nation warning as far back as 2007 that “Sledging is now a substitute for the skill of scoring runs or taking wickets.”

It is not clear that Phillip Hughes’ death and the subsequent soul-searching will put an end to sledging but, certainly, the First Test between Australia and India at Adelaide, which belatedly began on Tuesday, has provided powerful evidence of the spirit of cricket.

Following touching, pre-match tributes to Phillip Hughes, the Australians went out to bat, with all eyes on them to see how they would respond to the traumatic loss of their mate, particularly opening batsman David Warner and Michael Clarke, the former one of the players who had been present when Mr Hughes was struck, who had cradled his friend’s head and who had maintained a vigil at the hospital; and the latter, who had stood by the Hughes family throughout their ordeal and now had to lead his team from the depths of despair.

The pugnacious David Warner began his account with a flurry of strokes, hitting seven of his first 15 deliveries for four and completing a remarkable, brutal and emotional century off just 105 balls, eventually falling for 145 off 163 deliveries. Along the way, as he reached 50, 63 (Phillip Hughes’ score when he was forced to retire hurt permanently), and 100, he looked up to the skies with feeling. The Indian skipper, Virat Kohli, in a gesture hardly seen nowadays, even allowed him an easy single to get to his century. The spirit of cricket was on full display.

The innings clearly meant a lot to Mr Warner, as it did to his team, the spectators and practically the entire country. But there was more drama. Michael Clarke also played a magnificently heroic innings of 128, one interrupted by back spasms, forcing him to retire hurt at 60, after twisting slightly to avoid, ironically, a short ball. Pain-killing injections, the attentions of the team physiotherapist and a great deal of courage and determination saw him return to fashion his own physically and spiritually painful tribute to the man he called his “little brother.” This too is the spirit of cricket.

With Australia declaring at 517 for 7 in their first innings, it was then the turn of the Indians to fight back, led by Virat Kohli, yesterday, with 115, even after taking a Mitchell Johnson bouncer, first ball, flush on his helmet badge, to the understandable consternation of all in the ground, no less the bowler himself. But the Indian captain shrugged it off and played an authoritative innings, undone – more irony – when he took on another Johnson bouncer and top-edged a catch.

The result of the match is immaterial in the context of the events of the past two weeks. This Test has showcased the great game’s enduring appeal and human drama. And it has been played in the true spirit of cricket, with both teams heeding Mr Clarke’s call to “play on” and paying the perfect tribute to one of their brethren.

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