The New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki, recently wrote about the difficulty of regulating the financial sector: too many rules, and innovation and creativity is stifled; too little, and, well, we lose a chunk of the economy in a housing bubble and banking breakdown.
His sports-heavy description of the available regulatory models, however, led me to think about cricket’s own rigid structure. Surowiecki argues that Europeans have tended to prefer a “principles-based” system that does not forbid specific financial practices — say, securitizing mortgages and repackaging them — but instead proposes vague ideas that promote proper fair competition. The difference is akin to the way referees adjudicate American football and real football:
Football, like most American sports, is heavily rule-bound. There’s an elaborate rulebook that sharply limits what players can and can’t do (down to where they have to stand on the field), and its dictates are followed with great care. Soccer is a more principles-based game. There are fewer rules, and the referee is given far more authority than officials in most American sports to interpret them and to shape game play and outcomes.
Ironically, cricket turns out to follow the American model more than the European version, and I think it’s time for a change (if only to be fashionably anti-American). During the Sydney Test scandal, we all became hopelessly mired in rhetorical debates: did “monkey” ever mean more than just a monkey? (And what about “bastard”?) But we had lost the forest for the trees, as our outdoorsy friends would say.
Rather than get bogged down in silly semantics — you say potato, I say racist — umpires and referees should instead evoke only the game’s “spirit” in determining which action to regulate and which to let slide. Perhaps it’s the British bureaucrat in all of us, but we don’t exactly need to define every possible breach specifically; as I argued before, that has only led, paradoxically, to a rule-shaving and nit-picking. We don’t need to say, for instance, that a bowler cannot point to the pavilion after dismissing a batsman. And we certainly don’t need to decide to determine the metrics of “dissent,” that famously slippery concept that has made a mockery of the well-specified rules in the first place .
Take a look at the pros and cons of such a move in Surowiecki’s article. Obviously, vague principles would give referees more freedom, which, in the volatile and passionate world of international cricket, has more potential to inflame than calm. But it’s precisely cricket’s international background that demands flexibility and autonomy. Moreover, rules do not brook exceptions, but in certain cases, I think such things are deserved (as in the Ishant Sharma-Andrew Symonds dispute, which saw the former penalized for merely responding to aggression, in my mind).
So, to vary one American judge’s view of pornography, we know cricket’s spirit when we see it, and that should be enough: forget the burdensome rulebook and the different levels of penalties, and let’s test some boundaries.