Richie Benaud delivers first Spirit of Cricket Lecture

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Cricket’s rise as a popular sport in the 18th century left little room for the spirit of the game.

It was a vehicle for serious gambling and match-fixing, with intimidation and outright cheating far from unknown. But by the beginning of the 19th century this was beginning to change. The unruliness of corruption was a blight on the game; players, officials and fans alike began to rebel against it. The rise of ‘muscular Christianity’ and the idea of a healthy mind in a healthy body gave sport a new focus. Cricket was at the heart of educational strategies to encourage teamwork and individual virtue. It was central too to the idea of bringing British values to an expanding empire. By the later part of the century, the idea that cricket stood for all that was honest and fair had become fixed in the public imagination. The phrase “it’s not cricket” entered the lexicon.

But the game as it was played did not always live up to these high-minded values. They also had no presence in the Laws. In the 1990s, two distinguished former England captains, Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey, campaigned to put this right. Success came in 2000, when a new code of Laws included for the first time a preamble defining the Spirit of Cricket and enshrining it in the game’s Laws. A year later, MCC introduced the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture, in memory of Lord Cowdrey who had died the year before. The inaugural address was given by veteran broadcaster Richie Benaud, one of the great voices of cricket, whose time as Australian captain had been marked by an attention to fair play. “He always had the ethics of cricket in his mind”, teammate Alan Davidson remembered.

Since then, the Cowdrey Lecture has been delivered by many of the game’s most influential and knowledgeable figures. It acts as an annual focal point for debate and reflection upon the heart and soul of the game.