[Column] Cricket – England v Australia (the Ashes): The epitome of fair play?

By Julian Hale, AEJ Belgium member and multilingual communications professional

This column is about language and terminology and how it relates to the culture of that country. I’m starting with an article about English and cricket and the simple sounding but actually quite complex concept of ‘fair play’. My assumption is that you know very little about the game so this is a kind of introduction to cricket plus explanation about what has been going on this summer.

Comments/reactions/questions about anything in the article are very welcome as are any ideas for future columns or questions related to cricket and British culture or any words/expressions connected with British culture. Your ideas will give me inspiration! Enjoy reading it and email me your thoughts!

It’s the summer of 2023 and Ashes cricket (England v Australia) is in full swing, including a tight contest and a big controversy that has English and Australian cricket fans entranced and at verbal loggerheads. Meanwhile, non-Brits (and even Brits who find the five days of non-stop cricket coverage of a Test match on the radio, TV and BBC website overwhelming) may not know much or may not care to know much about cricket. But I suspect that they do know that the game is associated with fair play. And my hope is that, after reading this article, they’ll be au fait with the controversy of this year’s Ashes contest and with some key aspects of the game. They’ll be able, I hope, to understand a conversation about cricket and possibly even (if they’re at all interested) contribute a few words here and there to show politeness and interest in this Anglo-Saxon cultural phenomenon!

My suggestion to cricket novices: read from the subtitle A few highlights about the game and the Ashes (relevant to this article) to the end first.

So let’s start by digging into that simple sounding concept of ‘fair play’. You may know of a rather obsolete expression: ‘That’s just not cricket.’ Brits would say that if they considered that someone was not playing fair. Now, here’s the rub. ‘Playing fair’ is very subjective. If someone says a few things to me and we agree on them orally and tacitly and shake hands, then we have a ‘gentleman’s agreement’. There is a related expression here (‘my word is my bond’). However, there is nothing in writing. Legally, if that person decides to renege on that agreement, there is nothing I can do. I can say: ‘That’s just not cricket’ or ‘That’s not fair play’ but that won’t get me very far in a court of law.

Well, that, from an English perspective (you’ll hear an Australian perspective soon) is pretty well what happened in one of the matches between England and Australia. There is an unwritten code that, once a batsman has put his bat behind a line on the pitch at the end of a phase of play, he can then walk up the pitch without fear of being run out (eliminated from the action). That was the perception of the English batsman. The Australian wicketkeeper saw it differently and threw the ball at the stumps. According to the ‘laws/rules of cricket’, the batsman was out (eliminated from the action). Australia could have withdrawn their appeal, effectively cancelling that decision, but did not. The incident created a huge furore, with accusations (which I would agree with) that the Australians were not playing in the spirit of the game.

The incident of ‘unfair play’/clever play (depending on your perspective) involving the English batsman Jonny Bairstow and the Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey: Abridged version of a real conversation between an Australian cricket supporter and an English cricket supporter.

Australian: “What did you make of that play by Alex Carey?”

English guy: “I wouldn’t have done it if I had been the wicketkeeper. It’s not in the spirit of cricket but Jonny was naïve.”

Australian: “That’s true. But they [the Australian cricket team] won’t admit it was the wrong thing to do for now. Maybe after the series [of Test matches] is over. And what did you expect? We’re ex convicts aren’t we?”

From the Australian perspective, the rules are the rules. The Australians saw an opportunity when they saw the batsman leave his ‘area of safety’ and they grabbed it gleefully with both hands. The batsman should, in theory, have checked with the Australian by asking him and the two umpires (effectively ‘referees’) if the phase of play was over. However, that is rarely if ever done and there was a tacit assumption that the phase of play was over. For me, there are two lessons here. 1) Always check carefully who you are playing against and be aware that their concept of ‘fair play’ may be different from yours. 2) Act accordingly, i.e. always check everything with the umpires.

In a sense, one might argue that, this summer, ‘fair play’ went out of the window with this act. But then again, it has created a major talking point, perhaps drawing a new audience into the game (such as readers of this article maybe!). And, let’s face it, was cricket ever ‘just about fair play’? I don’t think so. There are elements of fair play in the game. For example, if a batsman has nicked the ball (edged it slightly) and the umpire has not seen it, he can declare himself to be out (eliminated). In cricketing parlance, he would ‘walk’. One of the legends of English cricket, W.G. Grace, who was a fantastic player by all accounts, was also well known for not being fair play. He would constantly argue with referees and once claimed, after the ball had hit the stumps, that it was the wind and not the ball! Perhaps he should have been dubbed ‘W.G. Disgrace’!

Another type of unfair play, in my book, is when players try to put off their opponent by talking to them incessantly and seeking to undermine their confidence. This is called ‘sledging’. It can be highly effective as cricket is a very psychological game. When playing the game, I have never done it (and especially not systematically as the Australians (and increasingly the English players)) are said to do. And the worst of all, in my book, is when players seek to tamper with the ball to gain an unfair advantage. This is not just unfair but against the rules. An English captain was caught doing it (the ‘dirt in the pocket’ affair), Pakistan were caught doing it many years ago (by scratching away at the surface of the ball with different objects) and, more recently, Australia were caught doing it. The Australians in question initially denied it but were caught on camera. They received a ban but, in my opinion, far too short a ban for such a serious offence.

So that’s about it for this article. I’ll leave you with one other example of ‘unfair play’, this time from off the pitch. I was at Baker Street tube/underground station, on the way to watch England v Australia at Lord’s cricket ground (known as the home of cricket) when I heard similar kinds of voices that I have been familiar with ever since I was a child going to the cricket. 

“Got a spare ticket? Anyone got a ticket to sell? Who’s got spares? Tickets over? Buy or sell?”

These are the infamous ticket touts. They buy tickets off people (illegally) at as low a price as possible and then sell them to people at as high a price as possible. It’s something that has been going on for years and not just in cricket. I still find it shameful, and yes, I did discuss it and how it should be dealt with at length with my friends! Let’s just say that the ‘long arm of the law’ (the police) should lengthen its arm and do the job properly! And, just to conclude, there are also many incidents of fair play over the years, including the way that New Zealand conducted themselves after controversially losing to England in the 2019 World Cup final. But that’s another story…

A few highlights about the game and the Ashes (relevant to this article)

The British introduced the game throughout the British empire – hence the teams playing it are mainly former British colonies: e.g. India, Pakistan and Australia. The game is gradually spreading though, including to, for example, the Netherlands and Belgium. 

There is some evidence that cricket may have begun in Flanders in the 16th century. If so, the connections between British exports of sheep and Flemish textile weavers would have helped spread the game.

England and Australia have been competing for the Ashes (a small urn/trophy) since the 19th century. There are various stories about the origin of this trophy. One is that the stumps (pieces of wood that are key in the game) were burnt in fury after England lost to Australia for the first time. Another (more romantic) is that an Australian woman burnt her veil and, as a joke, gave it to England’s team captain on a tour (they later got married!).

Long ago, the British sent convicts to Australia because they had run out of room in their prisons. The Brits called these Australians POHMs (prisoners of her majesty). The Australians have turned that around and now call the Brits POHMs because they are ‘prisoners of her majesty’ in the sense that they are subjects of a monarchy!

The highly simplified rules of cricket

There are 11 players on each side. NB: the following is a simplified version and far from the whole story. One side bats. This takes the form of two people (batsmen) at any one time running between the two sets of stumps – called ‘a wicket’. Their aim is to score runs (points if you like – one for every time they change ends, 4 for hitting it over a boundary [around the ground] with the ball bouncing before it goes over the boundary and 6 (a maximum) for hitting it over a boundary without the ball bouncing.

The other side bowls (pitches the ball towards the stumps). Their aim is to get the batsmen out (eliminate them) either by hitting the stumps with the ball or making them hit the ball in the air and get caught. Once they’re ‘out’, it’s called a ‘wicket’. Each side has 11 players, so 10 wickets (a player cannot bat on their own).

Some core cricket terminology (‘cricketish’ if you like)

  • Batsman: There are two playing at any one time. They hold a bat and try to score runs.
  • Bowler: These players pitch the ball towards the batsman, aiming to hit the stumps behind him.
  • Runs: These are effectively points. The more a team scores the better chance it has of winning.
  • Wicket: This is a very confusing term for cricket debutants! It has two meanings! One is the strip of land between the two sets of stumps. A second is that, when a batsman is given out, that is described as a ‘wicket’. The score is, for example, 251 for 7. That is short for 251 runs (points) scored with 7 wickets lost (i.e. 7 batsman given out).
  • Wicketkeeper: The player who stands behind the stumps and catches the ball pitched by the bowler.
  • A boundary: A boundary is when a batsman hits the ball over a rope around the ground (four runs if it bounces before the rope and six runs if it sails straight over the rope without bouncing)
  • Test match: Five days of cricket. Yes, it lasts five days! There is also a shorter version, called T20, which lasts 3 hours. That’s the version I take my kids to as I fear that a full day would be very boring for them!
  • Basball: NB this is not ‘baseball’. It’s a reference to an aggressive, high-risk, cavalier (and some would say reckless) brand of cricket played by England. It’s based on T20 matches, where there is a lot more big hitting (e.g. hitting ‘out of the park’ for six runs) than in Test matches.  
  • Umpire: There are two of them. They are the referees who apply the rules of the game.
  • Stumps: There are six of them. Three pieces of wood at either end of a strip of land (known as a ‘wicket’). Two little pieces of wood (bails) are placed in between the three pieces of wood. If these are dislodged, the batsman is out.
  • Out: A batsman is eliminated/given ‘out’ when his stumps are hit and a bail is dislodged and when he hits the ball in the air and a fielder (players from the other side) catches the ball. There are many other ways of getting ‘out’.
  • Run out: This is another way of getting ‘out’. If the batsman does not put his bat behind a line when running to the other end of the wicket and a fielder hits the stumps with the ball, then he is ‘out’.

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