A timely book, given the recent swathe of positive drugs tests in athletics and the storm in an urn following Stuart Broad’s disinclination to walk after being caught behind off a massive nick in the First Ashes Test.
While few would argue that doping is not blatant cheating, Broad was entitled by the Laws of cricket to let the umpire adjudicate. But did he contravene the spirit of the game?
Well, giving the MCC’s first Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Richie Benaud said: “Australians never walk. They are taught not to walk.” And though the sainted Colin himself had a reputation as a walker, he didn’t always do so if he got a touch early in an innings.
Was that cheating? This is precisely the type of shades-of-grey area that Mike Rowbottom probes as, drawing on a wealth of examples going back to the Ancient Greeks, he attempts to find the dividing line between gamesmanship, mental intimidation, the manipulation of rules and out-and-out dishonesty.
His thesis is that every game has an unwritten etiquette alongside its formal rules, and what is acceptable in one sport is taboo in another.
For instance, while in rugby the odd punch-up has traditionally been regarded as part of the fun, tripping an opponent is deemed disgusting; in football, the opposite is true.
Rowbottom is an optimist. He believes in the power of fans to decide what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and influence lawmakers accordingly, and cites the crackdown on diving in football as an example.
Yet he is realistic enough to acknowledge as long as the rewards for success are so high there will always be cheats trying to prosper.
A couple of minor quibbles apart – long-lived though he was, the doctor and missionary Albert Schweitzer went to Africa in the early 20th century, not the 19th as stated here, and the football game Subbuteo was named punningly after falco subbuteo, a bird of prey known as the Eurasian hobby, rather than the Latin word for a pastime – this is an illuminating, entertaining excursion into sport’s moral maze. Fair play to the author.