Write Down the Unwritten Rules

By Brandon Chambers

Cricket is a peculiar sport, and for newcomers, it can seem difficult to access. Some formats of the game can last as many as five days. Watching matches, you’ll hear phrases like “silly mid-on,” “googly,” and “Yorker.” So much about the sport is unique, especially when it comes to its system of rules.

There are 42 “Laws” of cricket that govern the equipment, playing surface, players, and an array of rules. The Laws are believed to have first been codified in the eighteenth century, and since 1788 they’ve been owned and maintained by a private club in London. I’ve always been especially intrigued by the preamble to the Laws, “The Spirit of Cricket.” The preamble says that:

“Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket. The major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains, but extends to all players, match officials and, especially in junior cricket, teachers, coaches, and parents.”

In other words, the game ought to be played in accordance with not just the written Laws, but also some abstract concept referred to as its “Spirit.” The preamble, which was added to the Laws only in 2000, observes that respect is “central” to this Spirit of Cricket, and it outlines several ways to show respect (such as playing hard and fair and congratulating the opposition on their successes). But this is merely a list of examples and by no means exhaustive. 

Every once in a while, a “Spirit of Cricket” incident will pop up. These incidents typically involve some action, ostensibly permissible under the written Laws, that arouses controversy because it violates the game’s “Spirit,” eliciting outrage and debate. On the field, the umpire is responsible for enforcing the Laws, and will make a determination about any incident that arises. Umpires, however, have some discretion in their enforcement of the rules vis-à-vis the Laws and the Spirit. For example, for a batter to be dismissed (similar to an “out” in baseball) the opposing team must first “appeal” to the umpire that they should be dismissed. For some controversial incidents, the umpire may ask the captain of the appealing team to reconsider their appeal—in other words, to neglect the Laws in favor of the Spirit. At these times, the Spirit of Cricket simply works as a clumsy overlay of unwritten rules.

Many readers who are part of organizations (whether they be large coalitions or small clubs) will find something familiar here. Social organizations often operate under a set of norms, often unwritten codes of behavior among members. Norms typically develop over time, as members interact with and get to know one another, and they’re rarely codified formally or expressed in a coherent manner. Norms, then, work more like a “Spirit” than like “Laws.” 

There are, however, real advantages when groups write norms down in a purposeful way (Laws) rather than leaving them in abstraction (Spirit). First, codification gives the group’s norms a sense of clarity. This benefits all the group’s members, but especially those new to the group. Having norms clearly outlined enables newer members to learn about and understand the group that they are joining. That way, new members can learn how to participate in an effective manner. 

Second, expressing norms in writing gives the group’s members a shared sense of rules’ plasticity. When norms are unwritten, more powerful members of a group can claim and weaponize the unwritten rules in such a way that serves their interests over those of the less powerful. Abstract, unclearly registered rules are easier to mold to fit the needs of one group over another. Writing these norms down gives all members an understanding of what the rules are and, if necessary, a clearer, shared view of possibilities for editing and adjusting the rules. 

Third, it perhaps goes without saying that clear rules are the primary tool for resolving disputes. Conflict is inevitable within social organizations, and while it is impossible to predict or preempt every incident that might arise, a clearly articulated and written set of rules at least provides a common point of departure for members to find solutions to disagreements. Times of heightened conflict and emotion are often the hardest times to clarify rules, and the cooler heads who are needed to articulate rules often do not prevail in these circumstances. Codifying rules, therefore, constitutes good preparation.

Let me emphasize that this is not an argument for originalism. I am not saying that once norms are written down, they’re locked in and should be interpreted as they were originally written.  Rather, articulating a group’s norms, making them clear and coherent for new members, can make a sturdier framework for continually working with and perhaps modifying those rules. At CBI, we often invite organizations that we work with to review their ground rules on a regular (often annual) basis. And if you are part of an organization that has not reviewed its rules in a while, the new year is a great time to do so.

In Beyond a Boundary, the historian C.L.R. James set out to answer the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” In other words, for those occupying a narrow world like that of cricket, what do they make of that world? Other social groups often face a similar question when seeking to understand the norms that underlie their worlds. For James, the answer to his question “involves ideas as well as facts.” So yes, in that sense there is space for both the “Spirit” and the “Laws,” for that which lives in the mind as well as that which is irrefutably recorded and documented. But to really know a group’s world, we need to navigate both spirit and laws, both unwritten tendencies and the codified rules, and that happens when we articulate both. Once both kinds of rules are expressed clearly, any group’s world can be more open, more accessible, and hopefully more peaceful.