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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Fair play - do we understand why (Australian cricketers)?

I was finalising this post when news of the Australian ball tampering came through. Not just an individual player, but a ‘team’ decision to cheat. You could not make this up! No need for me to cover the details. You can find that here. Quite coincidentally, my post this week is on ‘fair play’. So read on and reflect.

We may think that the concept and expression fair play is distinctly English in origin. Well it’s certainly true that many of our traditional sports were codified by Victorian England with its peculiar obsession with rules and regulations to govern social behaviour.

In 1856, the Duke of Wellington was said to have observed that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. In 1941 and somewhat ironically, George Orwell recast that quote “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”

In his poem ‘If’, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it

And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!"

And these ideas become embedded in our ideas of how sport should be played. In his 1908 work, Alumnus Football, American sports writer Grantland Rice wrote:

“For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes - not that you won or lost –

But HOW you played the Game."

But since then, ‘fair play’ has been taken seriously around the world. The French speak of Le Fair-play “ou l’esprit sportif désigne une conduite honnête principalement dans un jeu, ensuite dans toute situation. Cela comprend non seulement l’exercice du respect (de l’adversaire, des règles, des décisions de l’arbitre, du public et de l’esprit du jeu), de l’honnêteté, de la tolérance, de la maîtrise de soi, de la dignité dans la victoire comme dans la défaite, mais aussi la protection de son propre corps en faisant des efforts sportifs” You don’t need a translator to get the drift.[See footnote 1 for a translation)]

In Germany you can win Fairplay-Trophäe or a fair play badge Fairplay-Abzeichen. And in the early days of Indian independence, it is suggested that Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, opened the batting for the Indian Parliamentary eleven in part to signal the country was to retain some elements of British culture and institutions. And there is now which promotes fair play as a value “To enjoy the fruits of success, it is not enough to win. Triumph must be measured by absolute fair means, honesty and just play”.

So why is it so hard for some of the best players in the world to maintain this ethic? Think about the world’s most popular game, football - ‘the beautiful game’. Diving is a blight on the game and clearly accepted as ‘normal’ in British Premier League teams. Dele Alli is a player whose diving record goes before him. So much so that the Tottenham Hotspur forward features in a recent Private Eye cartoon where he is pictured going into a jewellers and being told “We have a fine selection of divers’ watches, Mr Alli.” (some people don’t get the joke!).

As a postscript – the Australian cricket story is not in a vacuum. Just Google the behaviour of the Australian team on this tour under the euphemism "sledging"! Fair play is long gone from this tour.

[1] French to English translation “…..or sportsmanship means honest conduct primarily in a game, then in any situation. This includes not only the exercise of respect (of the adversary, rules, decisions of the referee, the public and the spirit of the game), honesty, tolerance, self-control, dignity in victory as in defeat, but also the protection of his own body by making sporting efforts”

(photo source:

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