Is the spirit of cricket dead?
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I was recently involved in a friendly but heated debate with a professional cricketer on the subject of 'the spirit of cricket'.
He went to great lengths to assure me that the spirit of cricket no longer exists, and has no place in the modern game.
He is someone who has spent his whole working life playing the 'gentleman's game', and derives his income from cricket-related activities, so he is certainly qualified to offer an opinion on such matters.
But equally, his proximity to the game at the highest level and the fact that cricket is his livelihood, may have clouded his judgement somewhat.
Maybe the spirit of cricket is undefinable, maybe it's not, but it exists.
Surely it has a place in the modern game, maybe not for the individual professional who makes a living from the game, but for the millions of people around the world who consume cricket in its various formats.
Who is cricket played for if not the fans? Why do we encourage our children into the sport en masse at such a young age if not to teach them the values inherent in that sport?
He's right though, at the professional level cricket appears to be a sport that has lost sight of its old values. What was once sledging and banter has given way to bullying and intimidation, brilliantly modelled for our children recently by the Australian captain Michael Clarke among others.
What once relied on the honour of the batsman or fielder to determine a close decision, now relies entirely upon technology. There's too much at stake to act honourably anymore it seems.
Michael Atherton, in an article today about Jonathan Trott's departure from the current Ashes tour, reflected on several greats of the game socialising and reminiscing about great battles of the past, and wondered if this would occur in the future. I doubt it.
Those guys played in a time when representing your country was an honour above any other, and day jobs were commonplace among international cricketers. They played when walking earned respect, and when a tail-ender was batting in a well-beaten side, they dismissed him and had a beer, rather than threatening him with broken bones.
Only a small percentage of all cricketers play at the highest level, with the vast majority donning the whites on Saturdays, running their own score books, managing with player umpires with no technology.
They play because they love the game and all it has stood for.
For the most part, players still walk, and they still take the word of the fielder when a catch is claimed in the outfield.
Sledging and banter is encouraged, and so is a beer after the game.
Teams and players develop rivalries that span many seasons, and these battles are celebrated for years in clubrooms around the country.
Last Saturday I finished a club game and walked into the modest Naenae clubrooms, where I bumped into Ewen Chatfield, fresh off the field from a 1a game.
At 63-years-old with blood seeping through the knee of his whites, he was having a beer and reflecting on a good days cricket.
The honours board above him was littered with his incredible wicket taking feats, dating back as early as 1970.
We exchanged stories of our respective games, and remembered some his early club achievements.
It was this incident that convinced me that the spirit of cricket does exist - but perhaps nowadays it's only at grass roots level. Maybe it's the early memories of club and school cricket that show up the international stage as such a lonely place for some cricketers.
The bright lights, the pressure, the fame and the fortune have turned the modern game into a gladiatorial blood sport, where the longevity and preservation of ones career is paramount, and the enjoyment, camaraderie and spirit of the game have become lost in the glare.
So I'll reluctantly accept this cricketer's assertion that the spirit of cricket is gone at the highest level, because it appears that he is right.
It doesn't mean that I like it, and it doesn't mean that I wont relish its odd fleeting appearance on the big stage.
But I do not accept that it is dead, because I see it first hand on the field at club level.
It's the bowler checking on the wellbeing of a felled batsman, or the player umpire calling one short, the batsman being called back by a contrite fielder, and an umpire giving his mate out LBW.
It's the bond formed between 11 mates over hours in the field, and the pride in seeing a youngster make his first team debut.
It's a 63-year-old, ex-international captaining a lower grade club side, to give back to his community, and the 17-year-old rookie hanging on his every word.
It's about values and respect and it's one of the reasons we get our kids into the game.
Everyone who has played the game knows when they've seen or experienced the spirit of cricket, and the fact that it's been so easily discarded at the top level is a tragedy of the modern game.
Money can do funny things to people, and it may just be that cricket has sold its soul.
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