6 min read

The day the Ashes caught fire

After the upset following Alex Carey’s controversial stumping of Jonny Bairstow at Lord's, Graham Tomlin reflects on the so-called 'Spirit of Cricket' and what it tells us about our innate sense of justice and morality.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Cricket Ball on Fire Illustration
Illustration generated by Dan Kim using Midjourney

Unless you have a complete aversion to sport or wilfully avoid all reference to cricket, you can’t have missed the controversy over the dismissal of the English player Jonny Bairstow by the Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey at Lords during the final day of the second Ashes Test. Bairstow let a ball go through to the keeper and, thinking the ball (and the over) was finished, wandered down the pitch to chat to Ben Stokes his fellow batter, at which point Carey smartly threw the ball at the wickets to get him out stumped. The Aussie captain, Pat Cummins felt it was a fair cop, as it was within the rules of the game, and on that level, most English players and fans agreed with him. But what the English went on to say is that it was not within the ‘spirit of the game’, and therefore sneaky and underhand. Hence the unremittent booing of the Australians for the rest of the game from the usually sedate Lords crowd, hostility which is only likely to ramp up for the rest of the five-match series with the notoriously partisan Yorkshire crowd at Headingly next in line.

According to the Laws of Cricket, Bairstow was out. He had left his ground before the ball was considered ‘dead’ – which requires both teams to consider it such. The Aussies still felt the game was live, Carey threw the ball as soon as he received it, and so the England batsman has little grounds for complaint. Yet the distinction between the Laws of Cricket and the ‘Spirit of the Game’ has been invoked often since the incident to suggest the Australians are dastardly cheats who will do anything, however underhand, to win a game of cricket, just like they once famously got a young teammate to rough up the ball with sandpaper (clearly illegal) but got caught.

Laws and rules, whether in cricket, a business or charity or within a legal system, are there to protect something else, something deeper than the rules. Our legal system exists to protect more important things like families, community harmony, innocence or human life.

So where does this distinction come from and what does it tell us about our deepest moral instincts? The Laws of cricket are a human invention. Like all sports, cricket is a game which emerged in past centuries and then developed a complex series of rules (in cricket they are always called ‘Laws’) to govern the playing of the game. Those rules develop and change over time. Recent changes include instructions on what you do when a dog invades the pitch, or banning the use of saliva on the ball to make it swing more. Changes even come even in the new format called the Hundred, where bowlers bowl units of five or ten balls at a time instead of the traditional six-ball over. Yet each of these rules are in a way artificial. They are invented and monitored by humans to develop and monitor a human construction called the game of cricket.

Yet we also sense that the Laws cannot do everything. There is this elusive and instinctive thing called the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, so much so that the phrase ‘it’s not cricket’ has seeped into common usage to describe something that just doesn’t feel right. The MCC even runs a lecture every year at Lord called ‘The Spirit of Cricket’ inviting a former player or journalist to reflect on something deeper about the game than the nuts and bolts of the laws, individual performances or team results.

Yet the Spirit of Cricket is more than just about cricket. It appeals to a deeper sense, shared amongst all of us, that some things, even though not codified in human law, just don’t feel right. They go against our deepest moral instincts. They just seem wrong. When Ben Stokes said he wouldn’t have wanted to win a game in the way that the Australians had just done, he was appealing to a deeper moral structure than could ever be codified in a written rule.

So what does all this tell us? Two things, I suggest. The first is that we humans have a deep moral instinct of fairness. We have a sense of conscience, that is not just a human construct, and appeals to something more deeply embedded in the human heart and mind – and conscience is not just a matter of individual preference or cultural difference. We sometimes talk about respecting individual conscience, yet in a more important sense, something called ‘the spirit of cricket’ or the spirit of any game or human enterprise for that matter, testifies that conscience has a universal dimension that is common across societies and cultures – so much so that the spirit of cricket is said to hold whether the game is played in England, Australia, India or Afghanistan. Spot-fixing, or manipulating a game to win a bet, even though it’s not mentioned in the Laws of cricket, is thought of as bad practice wherever you are in the world. There is something universal about Conscience. It may not always be easy to deduce exact rules from it, and in grey areas like the Bairstow incident, it doesn’t lead to straightforward conclusions, but it does nag away at us when we are doing something shady or devious - even when we get away with it.

Secondly, It points to the distinction between human laws, that try to codify our way of living together and regulate human relationships, and a deeper moral law, that individual laws try to protect. Laws and rules, whether in cricket, a business or charity or within a legal system, are there to protect something else, something deeper than the rules. Our legal system exists to protect more important things like families, community harmony, innocence or human life. You might say that the Laws of Cricket are there to preserve the nebulous, but more important and very real thing we call the Spirit of Cricket – to ensure the game is played in a sporting, respectful and generous way, so that it can be enjoyed and not endured, and the competitive instincts it draws on at its best are regulated and don’t get out of hand into open conflict and violence.

once you take away.. the deeper natural law that pricks our consciences ... all you are left with is power – the imposition of the will of some upon the destiny of the many.

In one of his lesser known books, The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis called this deeper moral structure the Tao, drawing on a concept in east Asian religions. He said it included things like duties to parents, elders or ancestors, the importance of justice, good faith & truthfulness, valuing mercy, magnanimity and so on. This natural law is embedded in us, he argued, and that all our value systems are but fragments of the Tao. Despite our ideas of progress, we can no more imagine a deeper or different Tao than we can invent a new primary colour. To try to live outside this Tao, leads, he argues, to the Abolition of Man - the ultimate unravelling of humanity, because once you take away the Tao, the deeper natural law that pricks our consciences, that God-implanted instinct for what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, all you are left with is power – the imposition of the will of some upon the destiny of the many.

St Paul once described what happens when the divine Spirit of God begins to work in a person – they begin to produce “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” He goes on to say: “Against such things there is no law.” You cannot demand or legislate such things into life, yet individual laws exist to create the conditions in which they can flourish and grow. There is a moral law that we dimly sense underneath our human legal constructions and moral deliberations, which protects things that matter to us and to which we feel ourselves compelled to conform – unless that is we have silenced the voice of conscience, something we all feel is a dangerous thing to do.

Whether or not Bairstow should have been deemed out, whether or not the Australians were being unsportsmanlike or taking fair advantage, maybe a rumbling dispute over a fine point of cricketing practice can point to something profound about the nature of the world we live in after all.

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?