Feature Cricket Article by Robert Drane 06/07/03
If the venerable Doctor Johnson was correct with his observation of Englishmen – that their first talk is always of the weather – it’s little wonder they never get beyond it on the cricket field. Well, that’s if you believe the huffery of cricket’s paragons of rectitude who are convinced that every foul thing not cricket emanates from this wide brown rectum of the world, Down Under, as though we’ve spent the last 200 years ingesting cultural baked beans and beer.
But we know better. For a start, while the term “sledging” may have been invented here (derived from “subtle as a sledgehammer”), the phenomenon wasn’t. Verbal one-upmanship has been around as long as people have been trying to get the better of each other – which is forever. Even back in the good Doc’s days, when the favourite sport was witty and erudite conversation and cricket was, according to Doc’s newly-minted dictionary, “a sport at which contenders drive a ball with sticks in opposition to each another”, the favoured implement of “mental disintegration” was the put-down.
The hapless playwright, Oliver Goldsmith, was to Doc Johnno what Daryl Cullinan is to Shane Warne. After years of mercilessly verballing his good mate Ollie from pillar to post in alehouses and parlours all over London, Johnno got to a stage where he only had to draw himself up to his full imposing height, tilt his frayed wig forward and bawl “I thumb my nose at you, sirrah!” and Ollie would get writer’s block for a year and take to getting drunk at the tavern around the corner with Reynolds, Percy and Burke, where the playing field was a little more level.
But then, in those days, a good “sirrah!” could set an adversary right back on his heels and a bit of well-chosen satire would have him squirming and at your mercy. It wouldn’t work today. No-one would get it. Ever since Dr Johnson was reincarnated as W.G. Grace and took to dispatching pitchers of leather as well as ale, belittling banter took a turn for the worse. Any word directed at an opponent today comes not gilded with wit, but dipped in vitriol, as though crude abuse has become the only way to get an opponent’s goat. There’s no doubt that “good” sledging, whatever its form, has worked for Australian teams. Merv Hughes reckons a quarter of all his wickets came after he first shattered the batman’s psychological stumps. But, the myth that Australians have a mortgage on mouthiness needs to be addressed.
One of the many false rumours surrounding Ian Chappell’s “Ugly Australians” is that they were the inventors of ruthless abuse as a tactic for getting the better of opponents. In fact, while they were not known for giving opponents a tea-and-cucumber sandwich reception and while Chappell would be the first to admit his demeanour on the field was brusque and at times, tactless, he would never use it as a tactic so much as a means of projecting a no-nonsense image. Chappell was a master of gamesmanship and there was never anything wrong with that, but he never wasted words. This applied to his team mates as well. On the 1977 English tour, during one Test, Derek Randall was rattled by Rod Marsh’s response to his observation that Marshy wasn’t saying much, old chap. Bacchus reminded Dekka that was Test cricket, “not a fuckin’ tea party”. A fair comment from a man whose surliness was probably due to goings on the night before and the prospect of a day’s arduous work keeping the castle. But, it had the desired effect too.
Most West Indians who believe Viv Richards’ assertion that the rampant Frankenstein of Caribbean cricket was created in the laboratory of one Australian summer of Tests against the great Aussie side of the ‘70s, with the added drop of mongrel courtesy of the relentless, at times racial, abuse they copped, might be surprised by Chappelli’s sentiments on sledging. “If you have to stoop so low to win that you refer to an opponent’s wife, girlfriend, race, religion, or any other aspect of his private life in a derogatory way, then you shouldn’t be playing cricket. I have always believed that winning the respect of a team is one of the first things a captain must do. I can’t think of a quicker way to lose respect, not only as a captain but as a human being.” Chappell’s not saying he refrained from speaking to opponents – that he didn’t was manifest to anyone watching. He did think twice before speaking, though – but only so he could come up with something really cutting.
Most of the criticism directed at the Aussies is unfair. Warney reckons that the Kiwis are the worst (read “most persistent”) sledgers in world cricket and the word of a cricketer as grouse as Warney is good enough for me. A leggie doesn’t take a bozillion Test wickets by deceiving people. When it comes to tough talk on the field, the last generation of South Africans – the McMillans and Symcoxes – were cricket’s Harry Callahans. If they weren’t threatening to dice you up for shark bait (McMillan to Warne) they were promising to add your name to Johannesburg’s extensive missing persons list (Symcox to Healy). Certain individuals from the sub-Continent such as Miandad, Ranatunga and lately, Ganguly, were so persistently annoying when we played them, it was hard to get a word in sledgewise.
In 2000, rules 42.4 and 42.5 of the Laws of Cricket were modified to include a five-run penalty for sledging. Actually, it mentions “deliberate distraction or obstruction” of batsmen before and during (42.4) and after (42.5) delivery. Steve Waugh was, of course, unimpressed. “We don’t sledge. We don’t even offend anyone. They’re just a bunch of [expletives deleted] and they couldn’t run a shit fight in a public dunny. I’d like to get them out in the [expletive deleted] middle.”
He needn’t have worried. To such feathery phrases as “spirit of the game” and “unbecoming of their status” that bounce like creampuffs off the edifice of modern manners, we can now add “deliberate distraction and obstruction.” These are apparently fortified by Section CC of the Players and Team Officials Code, which deems that “language that is obscene, offensive or insulting and/or the making of obscene gestures” will be a covered by a scale of punishment (mainly degrees of suspension), but only if they fall “below an acceptance standard.” Questions of how that standard is set, and whether it’s the players or the umpires who have to accept it, remain unanswered. If batsmen like Lara or Steve Waugh relish even the most obnoxious treatment and even derive inspiration from it – as they do - does an umpire let it continue? On the other hand, when a batsman takes extreme offence at a bit of good-natured by-play, as Sri Lanka’s Jayawardene did in South Africa recently when Shaun Pollock grabbed his helmet (he was metaphorically mussing up his hair) and called him a jammy (lucky) bastard, does the official invoke the law?
We can anticipate that umpires will continue to be as forthrightly undecided in enforcing this rule as they are about chucking. That is, the most resolute thing they’ll do is express doubts after the match has ended. How else do they deal with such bureaucratic fuzz? How does the wording of Laws 42.4 and 42.5 relate to sledging? Is it limited to ugly verbal confrontations, or does it include sly abuse, or cutting observations about a batsman’s prowess? What’s reasonable intimidation? The West Indies hardly ever sledged, but they acted tough, monstering the world’s batsmen with prolonged, hard stares followed by deadly bumpers, right up until the Aussies’ ascendancy in 1995, when, ironically, it was Steve Waugh who was instrumental in shrinking them back to size. He did it with a novel approach: he batted well. Then he felt as though he was in a position to tell Curtley Ambrose to pull his head in. The Aussies have drawn a lot of unwarranted criticism of late, mainly because the attempts of other teams to give it back to them always seem lame if their batsmen and bowlers are unable to back them up. My advice to teams whose delicate sensibilities are offended by sledging is to take a leaf out of Waugh’s book and play better.
Daryl Cullinan – Warney’s Oliver Goldsmith – spent a couple of years consulting a head doctor for advice. His mind restored, he strode out of the consulting room declaring his problem was all in the feet. It was all undone in one sentence by Warney, who declared he was sending him “right back to the shrink.” Shortly afterward, Cullinan was scurrying to the pavilion and was back on that couch before the next batsman had reached the middle. Warney’s comment would have been mere fluff and not worth repeating, if Cullinan had smeared him all over the ground.
Likewise Steve Waugh’s classic comment to Herschelle Gibbs in the 1999 World Cup, after he fumbled the ball in the act of celebrating his catch: “how does it feel to drop the World Cup?” What gave that comment its potency was the fact that Waugh went on to score an unbeaten century, Australia completed an eight game winning streak and, lo and behold, took home the Cup. Only then did that sledge become instated the most audacious, courageous psychological ploy in the game’s history. It was great because it was effective.
Despite the efficacy of these verbal rockets, the Aussies have drawn the wrath of the cricket-playing world not because they intimidate opponents, but because of their occasional boorishness. Believe it or not, a lot of Aussies are embarrassed at the sheer witlessness of some of Warney’s and McGrath’s comments, rather than their intimidatory value. I think the tactic of escalating those “effing Cees” the longer a batsman stays in has simply lost all impact. I’m surprised it ever had any in the first place. Imagine Warney the raconteur in 20 years time, regaling us in his memoirs with tales of his encounters with the world’s best batsmen. “After he hit the first four, I called him a ‘C’. Next over, the bugger was still in. I called him an ‘effing C.’ Then, when he was on eight, he snicked one through slips. That’s when I hit him with both barrels. ‘Effing arsey C’. I’d been holding that one back until the right psychological moment.” A feast of cricket reading to rival E.W. Swanton it won’t be. Great bowlers though Warney and Pidgeon undoubtedly are, they’ve done more to further the perception of un-ironic, agricultural, colonial boofheadery than anyone since that metaphor mangler Joh and his batter-burning spiritual successor, Pauline. The five run penalty for upsetting batsmen might still be in the realms of hypothesis due to the umpires’ inability to impose it, but something much more serious should be legislated for embarrassing an entire nation.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of verbal hurry-up, especially if it takes the form of an honest observation. Frankly, if you noticed that a batsman was as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, you’d be mad not to say so. Batsmen hate critics, especially when they’re right. While the Laws are more clear regarding various forms of “vilification” (racial, sexual, religious etc), sledging, in its most tasteless form, continues unabated. There’s no helping the hapless umpires enforce blurry rules. They have players from assorted nations annoying each other in ways that express their ethnicity. They have to process every variety of English slanguage, plus Hindi, Urdu, Afrikaans, Tamil and Punjabi, and decide whether it’s unnecessary, detrimental, stupid or just plain old banter.
It’s up to our players to lift the game and take the onus of deciding from our poor, beleaguered adjudicators. Actually, I’m surprised that our very own pioneer of “mental disintegration” hasn’t sought ways to refine it. You’d think he’d take a look at the more annoying tactics of his opposition and then employ a full-time linguist along with the ragbag of other professionals that trail any team around these days. After all, the only time the Aussies have publicly expressed annoyance at what’s been said on the field has been when they couldn’t understand the opposition’s lingo, as they spat what sounded like obscenities or shared a gag, but suspected they were the butt of it. This has especially been the case against Pakistan and India. It’s time the Aussies broke out of their monolingual straight jacket and either learned to abuse them back in their own tongue – in culturally-sensitive ways, of course – or invented a language of their own, totally unintelligible to anyone outside of the team. We’ve evolved sledging into “mental disintegration” because the point is to mess with their minds, right?
You can’t tell me that even the least-impressionable batsman wouldn’t be put off his game if he came out to the middle expecting verbal fireworks only to have big, jolly Matt Hayden point at him, or to some part of his anatomy, and exclaim uproariously: “Nobyot the fnubber ne glixo bastic and moopah those booglegrippers!” As long as the Aussie fieldsmen do their bit and fall about helplessly laughing every time, or at least crack a knowing smirk, or nod in earnest agreement, they’ll have him all at sea before a ball is bowled. From then on, it would only take the odd incomprehensible but snide-sounding aside, a few chortles and the poor bastard would be glad to get his confused ass and his dented pride back to the safety of the pavilion, post haste. And isn’t that the whole idea?