It just wasn’t cricket.
Even as salaries soar and stakes mount, professional cricket has clung to the notion that it is a game for gentlemen and ladies, with players held to a higher standard of sportsmanship.
Ball-doctoring and betting scandals have taken some of the shine off the traditions of the game, but the sense that fair play is the highest goal still hangs on, especially at Lord’s, the London venue that is the traditional home of cricket.
But an incident on Sunday in the Ashes series between England and Australia led to a fierce dispute among partisans of both teams, a comment from a prime minister and even some ugly scenes in the hallowed grounds of Lord’s.
England trailed the five-match series, 1-0, and the second match was coming down to the wire in its fifth and final day.
Jonny Bairstow of England let a ball from the Australian bowler go past, and then, thinking the play was over, took a step or two forward. He had left his crease, the rough equivalent of a base runner stepping off the bag. But the ball was not yet dead, and the quick-thinking Australian wicketkeeper, Alex Carey, threw the ball in, knocking over the wicket, and Bairstow was called out.
No one disputed that the umpires were correct in calling him out. The question was whether the Australians exploiting Bairstow’s casual steps were not adhering to the spirit of the game.
The largely English crowd certainly thought so, and boos and chants of “Same old Aussies, always cheating” rang out at the ground. (The chant seemed to allude in part to Australians being caught ball-doctoring in 2018.)
As the Australians left for the lunch break, they passed through the members-only Long Room, normally a solemn shrine to cricket. There they were surrounded and confronted by angry members of the venerable Marylebone Cricket Club, many of them quite venerable themselves.
The club announced that three members had been suspended after the incident.
Reaction was swift and reached as high as the prime minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak. His spokesman said Sunak believed the play violated the spirit of the game.
The England captain, Ben Stokes, said: “For Australia, it was the match-winning moment. Would I want to win a game in that manner? The answer for me is no.”
Australia’s captain, Pat Cummins, understandably saw it differently: “I thought it was fair. It’s a really common thing for keepers to do. Jonny left his crease. You leave the rest to the umpires.”
Australia, aided by Bairstow’s dismissal, went on to win the Test and take an almost unassailable 2-0 lead in the five-match series. It’s a deep hole: Only once has a team come back to win the Ashes from such a deficit: Australia in 1937. Test No. 3 starts Thursday.