IN 1985, Mike Brearley, England’s most successful Test captain, published The Art of Captaincy, now regarded as one of the greatest cricket books of all time. Yet, for the next three decades, he published only the occasional article. Thankfully, in the past four years, he has had a spurt of creativity and produced a trilogy of essay collections: On Form, On Cricket, and now Spirit of Cricket.
His own analogy for why he wrote this one is that of the Talmud: as rabbis once wrestled with the Torah, here Brearley is publicly wrestling with the Laws of Cricket. And, for religious readers, there is a definite corollary with how cricketers also need to play not just to the letter of the law, but to its spirit. (Even this legal word is suggestive: most sports, such as football or rugby, have “rules”; cricket has “laws”.)
But what is “the spirit of cricket”? The MCC’s first attempt to codify it was done as late as 2000, in a preamble to the laws, but, as a concept, it has much deeper roots, and its consideration naturally leads the reader into more fertile territory. As Brearley puts it, “Examining the topic of the ‘spirit of cricket’ is one route into wider questions about honesty, transparency and generosity; about deviousness, trickiness and cheating.”
And, while much of the book sticks to cricketing situations, he is not averse to extending his reach into the response to the coronavirus and Dominic Cummings, for example. His frame of reference is a wide one: at different times, he refers to Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Kipling, Camus, Huizinga, and Rowan Williams. He even devotes several pages to Jesus, in particular his teaching on when to keep the sabbath.
Time after time, Brearley takes familiar cricketing dilemmas — ball-tampering, Mankading, sledging, etc. — and with elegant prose and courteous intelligence sheds fresh light on them, including areas on which he has changed his mind over time.
This delightful book would make a great gift for any cricket-lover who also has a brain, or even a soul.
The Revd Robert Stanier is Vicar of St Andrew and St Mark, Surbiton, and is captain of the Southwark clergy cricket team.
Spirit of Cricket: Reflections on play and life
Church Times Bookshop £18