Capturing the Spirit: Cricket in Popular Culture

“…a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity”.                  Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

What can the work of a Hungarian communist exile tell us about cricket? Arthur Koestler might not seem like a likely source of wisdom about the game. Darkness at Noon, his best known work, is a powerful critique of political power, but a guide to thinking about cricket? The sole line doesn’t even seem to make much sense – of course, the laws of the game can’t tell you about revolution. Of course popping creases and proletariats don’t mix.

But look a little deeper. The absurdity is not that cricket and revolution make a surreal mix; rather, they are diametrically opposed. The rules of cricket are the opposite of a revolution – hence, to combine the two is ludicrous. Koestler is using cricket as shorthand for what he calls “the nineteenth century’s liberal ethics of ‘fair play’”. Cricket symbolises what the revolution is opposed to, what must be overthrown.

Using cricket to signify liberal, bourgeois values is not an uncommon trope, especially in an English, or in Koestler’s case, European, context. The enduring idea of cricket in popular culture is as pastoral, staid and moral. It is a game of the village green, with breaks for tea, played with a certain spirit of social harmony and honourable conduct. In fiction, film and television, cricket is an easy symbol for representing a certain mindset and milieu. As Raphael the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle says, “Nobody understands cricket. You got to understand what a crumpet is to understand cricket”.

In recent years, this has begun to shift, and this is not a universal cliché. But it lingers in the subconscious of the non-cricket fan, and it influences the game as experienced by those who would consider themselves knowledgeable. Many would bristle at this suggestion – surely those who follow, watch and play the game know better than those who are strangers to it? In reality, cricket’s place in the popular imagination shapes our understanding of it more that we would like to admit.

Cricket fans bask in the imagined themes of morality or modernity, often unwilling to engage with the structural flaws that these may obscure, afraid to critique popular misconceptions about the game. They should recognise their own willingness to perpetuate them, and we should attempt to understand why those with only a vague conception of cricket think about it certain ways. What should we take forward into new, exciting opportunities and what should we jettison as regressive and limiting? We can and should encourage discussion, in a way that produces depth, nuance, and maybe even art.

This is not a comprehensive attempt at listing cricketing references in culture, or an attempt to sift them into neat categories. Rather, it is an appeal to think about the meanings that have been ascribed to the game. Many allusions may defy cliché, and we should be aware of them, ready to wilfully complicate our conceptions of the sport. A lot of explicitly cricket-themed work is interesting and different. Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel, Chinaman, about a Sri Lankan spinner – mysterious in more than his bowling – is a good example. But where cricket hovers, loosely formed, on the edge of the imagination, we might ask, to paraphrase C.L.R. James, what do they know of cricket who nothing of cricket know? If the spin is positive, those who feel they know cricket are far too content to accept stereotypes uncritically.


Those who write and talk about the game regularly raise the idea that cricket is somehow unique and superior among sports for its conduct, values and ethical integrity. This “Spirit of Cricket”, an amorphous idea based around respect and responsibility, is frequently raised, but little understood. It was only recently codified, in the form of the Preamble to the Laws, a brief summary of its ethos, written by Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter, two former England captains, and introduced in 2000. The Preamble is slight – a collection of platitudes and common sense, covering what is already defined as cheating by the Laws, and references to ideals of fair play and good conduct.

The idea of the “Spirit of Cricket” as understood by the public is far broader, encompassing play that is considered unsporting and behaviour that might be “ungentlemanly”. It is probably best encapsulated by the phrase, “it’s just not cricket”, for something that is considered to be unacceptable, even if not unauthorised. The phrase has been stretched beyond useful definition or meaning, into the realms of parody. It is hardly a useful tool for sanctioning behaviour, or underwriting a code of ethics.

There is, however, a wide public knowledge of the phrase, a sense that cricket is, as Koestler suggests, synonymous with fair play. The problem with this is that a historical sentiment is hard to define and harder to apply. Cricket’s perennial bouts of moralising are a product of this confusion, the attempted use of a public perception as an ethical code. When, during the Trent Bridge Test of 2013, Stuart Broad’s fine edge hit Brad Haddin’s gloves and looped to Michael Clarke at slip, his decision to allow the umpire to make a decision as to whether he had hit it was perfectly legitimate. He did not question the decision, or “advance towards the umpire in an aggressive manner whilst appealing”, two contradictions of the Spirit, according to the Preamble. Clarke arguably broke both of these, yet Broad was pilloried as a cheat by everyone from the English tabloid press to Richard Dawkins – Australian antipathy being a given. Broad acted within the Laws; whether he acted within the Spirit is unclear. He certainly was seen to break the Spirit of Cricket as the public imagine it. No batsman would stand his ground on the village green.

Similarly, when, the following season, Jos Buttler was run out by Sachithra Senanayake whilst backing up – a “Mankad” – many denounced the Sri Lankan spinner as a cheat. That his action had previously been scrutinised may have added to the controversy, but his act was entirely legal. He had even given Buttler the non-compulsory “warning” – an unwritten rule seen as part of the spirit of the game. This didn’t stop Alastair Cook, Buttler’s captain, criticising the run out as a “pretty poor act”, a curious denunciation of an entirely legal dismissal. This leads to an odd position: can the Spirit can override the Laws?

Ben Stokes’ recent dismissal at Lord’s, where he was given out obstructed the field having stopped a throw from Mitchell Starc from hitting his stumps, whilst simultaneously taking evasive action, is another example of this inconsistency. Many felt that Steve Smith was wrong to uphold his appeal when it became clear that Stokes would be given out; others felt that Stokes was out under the Laws, and therefore Smith was entitled to his appeal. Once again, the Spirit, in its unwritten form, and the Laws were seemingly opposed.


These contradictions, knots in the fabric of the game, result from the fact that cricket exists as much in the imagination as on the pitch or paper. We rarely remember matches as they were, or the behaviour of the past as it was. Even in an era of instant access to scorecard databases and video archives, the past is fragmented and illusory. Our understanding of the game is influenced by how, when and where we experienced it. Moreover, our interpretations are not simply based on cricket as it exists. Fictional representation plays a role, in the understanding of the layperson, as much as the fan.

When Broad stands his ground, or Buttler wanders out of his, our reaction is one influenced by the same novels and programmes as the casual follower who sees the incident on the evening news. In an English context, this is overwhelmingly the narrative of rural fair play and bourgeois idyll that Koestler uses. On television, the detective dramas Morse and Midsomer Murders have both used cricket as a quintessentially English pastime, timeless and tranquil, sharply contrasted to the brutal homicides of Middle England. Cricket as Arcadia can be seen in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Wodehouse was a cricket lover, and, in the character of Mike Jackson, he creates a cricketing archetype: public school sporting prodigy, decent chap, adventurous without being dangerous. Cricketing excellence is just part of the make-up of the ideal pre-war British man. Mike plays a game that trains young men for imperial service, sport as a means, not an end. The Spirit of the game is part of his moral instruction.

Cricket can also be a mark of harmless eccentricity, the mark of an obsessive. In the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, two cricket fans, Charters and Caldicott, are distracted from helping to find a missing woman on a train across Central Europe by their determination to return to England to see the last day of a Test match. Cricket consumes the fan, distracting and fixating them. But cricket’s followers, in English popular culture at least, are never dogmatic or fanatical. In the long-running television series Doctor Who, the fifth incarnation of the Doctor might be an all-powerful, time-travelling alien, but he dresses in a traditional cricket jumper and a Panama hat. He might be fighting evil across the universe, but he appears innocuous, eccentric and distracted. But he is a moral figure, fighting for good.


The fan’s fondness for the popular perception is, however, not necessarily a good thing for the sport. Cricket in England, and perhaps elsewhere, is too in love with the idea of fair play and morality. It induces conformity, where the challenging talent and driven professionalism of a figure like Kevin Pietersen questions the limitations of what a cricketer in England can be and achieve. Pietersen may not have intended to be, but was an iconoclast, challenging the imagined traditions of English cricket, ones which popular culture had done much to develop.

Moreover, by claiming that cricket is moral, socially inclusive and cordial, systemic flaws are disguised. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of recreational cricketers in England are non-white, but only 6% of professional cricketers, mostly from a South Asian background. In 2013, 29% of professional cricketers were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population as a whole. Women’s cricket is still seen as secondary, ignored on its own terms and patronised on others. These problems are intersectional, but English cricket’s nostalgic fantasies do not help tackle them. The pastoral visions of a past England, perpetuated in the popular imagination, elide social divisions and inequalities – as the historian G.M. Trevelyan had it, “if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt”. Class identity is a challenge to cricketing amity, injustice can be glossed over on the pitch. Mike Jackson is seen as a paragon, not a member of a privileged elite. As such, modern inequity can be ignored, cricket’s mythical social salve supposedly rendering unequal opportunity irrelevant and invisible.

This vision of a rural England, populated by public school boys ready to fight for empire, as in Henry Newbolt’s famous cricket poem, Vitaï Lampada, is also incompatible with modern Britain. Do we really expect the England cricket team to reflect a pastoral fantasy? English cricket is still haunted by the language of the Tebbit Test. The construction of English cricket as based on the morality of empire is irreconcilable with progressive reform. The spirit of the game, nostalgia, and the harmless eccentricity is often the sum total of cricket in the popular imagination, and cricket fans are often too keen to accept this as an accurate, flattering portrayal. We should reject it. Cricket will never be imagined as it really is, but we should attempt at least to make an attempt to represent the range of the sport, and resist projecting smug exclusivity.


Cricket has long since transcended the Anglocentric understanding of it. It is now a global sport, with followings outside the traditional heartlands, flickering on multiple screens on multiple channels across the world. Television and the internet have found new markets, and proved a welcome reconnection from those who missed the game. In many ways, the sport has transcended both the colonial and postcolonial. Interest in the games is no longer limited to the former reaches of the British Empire. Moreover, the success of the West Indies and Pakistan, among others, was constructed as an extension of independence and post-colonial identity. The globalisation of the game, however, has removed many of the traces of empire from the game’s geopolitics. Whilst the imperial legacy still haunts England, more than many other countries, the game is now another global sport, freed from its colonial moorings. But, in some places, problematic traces of its origins remain. Outside of its heartlands, the idea of the Spirit of Cricket still embodies the game.

This is apparent in some representations of the game in American popular culture. In Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, cricket is used as both globalised spectacle and arcane ritual. The characters watch ESPN “with the sound off, no sport in particular, anything and everything that came on: cricket, jai alai, badminton, croquet”. Cricket becomes both obscure and accessible, part of an easily available global carousel of sport. But, for Tartt’s characters, it remains mysterious. One, Boris, a enigmatic, rootless figure, had “ridden a camel, he had eaten wichity grubs, played cricket, caught malaria, lived on the street in Ukraine…” The game remains something un-American, which can only be experienced properly outside the border, or by those born to it. Of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are aware of its inscrutability. The crumpet, like cricket, is impenetrably British, evoking tea and class, the pastoral and the traditional. Boris has probably eaten one though.

One exception to this is Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s terrific 2008 novel about cricket in post-9/11 New York. It is strictly too cricket-orientated to count as a popular conception of the sport, and O’Neill is an avid cricket fan. But it is interesting for the way it works cricket into a story about an authentically American immigrant experience. It speaks of an attempt to take cricket out of enclaves and integrate it into a traditional model of the “American Dream”. For O’Neill, cricket can be aspirational. But perhaps we should not be surprised that efforts to spread the game in the USA outside of expat communities have been largely unsuccessful. Cricket is usually irredeemably foreign. Once again, the popular perception is limiting. For the American sports fan, the idea of the “Spirit of Cricket” deciding important plays seems odd – part of the staid nature of “baseball on Valium”. Moreover, cricket’s main linguistic contribution to American English is the phrase, “just not cricket”, the idea of liberal fair play that Koestler would be familiar with.


Of India, there is often a perception, especially outside South Asia, that the culture is suffused with cricket. From Ashis Nandy to advertisements, cricket is considered a default setting of Indian life. One idea that has recently arisen is of certain types of cricket as linked to modernity. If the era of Tendulkar was inextricably linked to liberalisation, the age of Dhoni, Kohli and the IPL is indicative of a new cricket and a new India. Western journalists have used the IPL as shorthand for modern, BRIC-economy India. It intersects with popular culture in the shape of Bollywood team owners, and as prime time entertainment. It is the apotheosis of globalisation, a conclusion to the transition from being merely postcolonial. To use the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, it is “provincializing Europe”.

But again, it is worth considering if the illusion obscures the reality. Does the IPL of the imagination, the glorious festival of cricketing innovation and pageantry, distract from the sometimes sordid underbelly of the tournament: the corruption, fixing and conflicts of interest? Can the idea of the game as moral and fair coexist with that of the IPL as a symbol of modernity? Does it similarly conceal the problems within it?

The English mythology of morality and social cohesion on the village green has been remarkably enduring. It has survived Bodyline and Packer, match fixing and rebel tours. It is likely to remain through the age of Srinivasan and Modi, amongst the alphabet soup of T20 leagues. The problem is when, to challenge the limited image this presents, we reach for an alternative picture. Can the hypermodern, the gold-padded excess of the new forms of the game, really be the only alternative? And is there no room for fair play in the brave new world itself?

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1 Response to Capturing the Spirit: Cricket in Popular Culture

  1. Pingback: A batsman's game? Instead of frowning on 'mankading', we should be asking why the non-striker left his crease - Firstpost

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