Connoisseurs of cricketing trivia would do well to remember the name Marnus Labuschagne. The Australian this week became the first player ever to be penalized for mock fielding, in a local match. Labuschagne dived to stop a cover drive that went past him, quickly got up and pretended to throw the ball that he did not actually have in his hands. The batsman was confused for a moment, stopped in his tracks, and then completed the run. This trick is a common one in Indian club cricket, especially when there is overgrown grass in the monsoon. The umpire awarded the batsman five runs for “deliberate distraction, deception or obstruction of a batsman".

The new rule, Law 41.5, on mock fielding is part of an overhaul of the rules of cricket by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) that the International Cricket Council has accepted. This is the sixth version of the laws of cricket. They were first written in 1788, and subsequently changed in 1835, 1947, 1980, 2000, and now in 2017. It is clear that the rate at which the laws of cricket are being changed is increasing. A close reading of the changes shows that while some are technical, the most interesting tell us a lot about the changing nature of cricket in the 21st century.

The first set of new laws that deserve attention are those that deal with the techniques of the modern game. For example, the recent practice where a fielder pushes a ball back into the playing area when airborne outside the boundary ropes will be disallowed. Also: “If more than one fielder is involved in a boundary catch, the Law now states that any fielder making contact with the ball must either be grounded within the boundary, or his/her last contact with the ground before first touching the ball must have been within the boundary." These are responses to the innovations of T20 cricket.

The cricketing authorities have also done well to limit the size of bats, to deal with the ridiculous scene of top edges going for a six. Law 6 says that the maximum dimensions of a cricket bat will be 108mm in width, 67mm in depth, with 40mm at the edges. The width remains unchanged. Modern bats have sometimes made a mockery of a fair game, especially given the shorter boundaries as well as the newer cricket balls that do not swing as much as the older ones did.

But perhaps the most telling changes deal with the spirit of the game. The mock fielding example mentioned at the start of this editorial is a case in point. There are now stricter rules on deliberate front-foot no-balls that violate the spirit of the game. Some may remember the 2010 match when Sri Lankan off spinner Suraj Randiv deliberately bowled a no-ball to deny Virender Sehwag a century. A new law also prevents a batsman from taking his stance in the protected area of the pitch, just as the bowler is prevented from running in this area in his or her follow through.

Finally, the new Law 42 has strict rules on player conduct. Four different levels of offence have been created, with suitable penalties that the umpires can impose. At the highest level, an umpire can tell the player to leave the field for the rest of the match. The parallels with football are evident. Umpires can award the match to the opposition if a captain refuses to cooperate in the imposition of this new law and the match can be abandoned if both captains refuse to cooperate.

In a letter to a friend that was republished by the Boston Review in March 2008, the political philosopher John Rawls wrote about how the deeper meaning of any game—baseball, in his case—could be understood from the structure of its playing rules. Other scholars have written about the balance between formal rules and informal norms in determining the quality of human interactions. The new cricket rules should be seen against this wider backdrop. They tell us a lot about the changing nature of the game—both in terms of the innovative new techniques that have emerged over the past few years as well as the changing culture in terms of gamesmanship.

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