Thin edge of the sledge: cricket as WAR

Gideon Haigh, in The Australian, 26 December 2013, with the title being “Thin Edge of the Sledge

THERE’S been a lot of sledging about this Ashes summer. There’s also been a lot of sledging, as it were, of sledging. Can it be right? Can it be fair? There’s even been sledging of the sledging of sledging, in this newspaper, where my colleague Janet Albrechtsen waxed nostalgic about no-nonsense 70s cricket and 70s parenthood: “Today, the stifling PC prism is overlaid on the cricket field the moment a bit of verbal biff pushes the envelope.” Albrechtsen has a point.

AA3 --merv hughes AA 3 -seldging Merv Hughes, an Aussie icon, threatening Graeme Hick —

Cricket is a game replete with aggressive acts – hard hitting, fast bowling – that nonetheless proscribes physical contact. If some excess of belligerence is decanted off verbally, should we be in the least surprised?

AA-- warne sledges collingwood Shane Warne, icon among icons, attacks Paul Collingwood

In fact, it’s probably the non-contact team sports that are naturally the lippiest. Baseball, for example, has a long tradition of “trash talk”, which Jim Bouton brought to life in his classic diary of the 1960s major leagues, Ball Four: “Gee your wife was great last night” – “Oh she wasn’t that great” – “You should have been there earlier. She was terrific.”

Cricket has even more time in repose than baseball, especially at England’s funereal over rates. Maybe we should be thankful for a bit of additional banter: by giving the television something else to study between deliveries, it may stand in the way of more advertisements.

Yet there’s a question that is almost never asked about sledging, and to coaches and players, who leave the moral arbitrations to others and regard all as fair in love and Waugh, it is the only one that matters: does it work?

That is, does it undermine your opponent and enlarge your own threat?

And actually, nobody really knows. Not even Steve Waugh was sure. If anything, he downplayed its effectiveness, arguing aphoristically that sledging didn’t affect good players, and that you were going to get bad players out anyway.

His Steveness himself, of course, thrived on the verbal giving and the receiving, so visibly that England players once decided in a Test that they would simply say nothing to him.

When Waugh came out to bat and a few of his verbal baits were not taken, he quickly worked out what was up. “So nobody’s talking to me, eh?” he said. “All right, I’ll talk to myself, then.”

What we can say is that players hear it, and are conscious of it. That at least was the conclusion of an academic case study, “Sledging in Cricket: Elite English Batsmen’s Experiences of Verbal Gamesship”, published two years ago in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology.

Ten young players on the cusp of first-class cricket told researchers Samuele Joseph and Duncan Cramer at Loughborough University that they “did consider sledging to be effective, both when the fielding team was winning and when the game was close”, noting that its intensity was greatest when their innings began or at signs of their vulnerability (playing and missing, difficulty getting the ball away).

Although only three of them had directly consulted sports psychologists, all had devised coping mechanisms involving “self-talk”, rituals of preparation between deliveries, talking with partners between overs, controlled breathing, and even smiling.

“Unless you’re deaf, you do hear it,” said one respondent. “So whatever you hear, you process and try and turn it around, the positive way.”

Interestingly, none of them objected to sledging and, rather like Waugh, acknowledged that the response to it was a skill to harness. “Sledging” switched them “on”. The trick was not to get too “on”.

The authors noted: “It is generally believed that people need some arousal to perform at their best, and those who are too laid-back often perform at substandard levels. In the current study, this was supported by some participants who commented that they need the confrontation that sledging produces to become engaged in the match.

“On the other hand, too much arousal can make performers tense and prone to errors. Herein, some participants reported that over-arousal often leads to poor technique and overly aggressive shot selection.”

What we know far less of, and I suspect it is relevant to Michael Clarke’s Australian team, is the effect of sledging on the sledger, as distinct from the sledgee.

One of the most fascinating studies related to sledging was one of “trash talk” in a high school basketball team, published 15 years ago by its former coach with a researcher from Temple University.

The boys of Hardwick High, mainly African-American, were notoriously verbal on court, as the authors noted: “We observed players deriding an opponent’s skills, often by emphasising his weakness: ‘Your sorry ass can’t stop me!’

“Some of the comments were misogynist: ‘Raped you’ (after a steal); or ‘Used you like a bitch’ (after going one-on-one to the basket); some were aggressive: ‘J in your eye’ (for a jump shot taken over an opponent) or ‘Dunked on your head’.

“Many comments staked claims to turf: ‘My Ball!’ or ‘My Board!’ (Backboard) (after grabbing a rebound); others were simply mildly humorous put-downs: ‘Call 911, there’s been a robbery’ or ‘Buckets, it’s all about buckets’.” This was not, however, simply a “game face”. Their coach noted that the “trash talk” was mainly a continuation of that in which they indulged around each other, particularly on the team bus in preparation for games.

And this preparatory banter, while it sounded at first wild and indiscriminate, was actually highly ritualised, and occurred within mutually agreed rules and taboos.

“One player, Chad, was very close to his mother who was significantly overweight and everyone avoided using her size as a topic for insults,” noted the authors.

“Midway through the season, Lewis experienced the loss of a brother who died of a massive heart attack while shooting hoops at a community centre. Upon his return, Lewis was never the target of even the mildest put-down.”

When the boys got on court, the coach realised, they were also performing for each other, as well as dealing with stresses on their own masculinity, self-image and self-worth.

The control in the experiment, as it were, was the team’s best player, Khalil.

He said little; he would occasionally glare. Secure in his abilities, he had no need to put on an additional performance.

So a view of sledging as merely the expression of contempt or hatred for opponents is simplistic. It neglects, among other things, sledging’s performative dimension – its expression of a team’s cohesion and common purpose.

Personally, I doubt that sledging has made England play any the worse this summer. It may, however, have helped Australia play a little better, draw a little closer, enjoy it a little more. Does David Warner carry on like a bit of tit? Almost certainly. But on your own side, such a tit can be perversely endearing.

As to the morality of sledging, there remains a debate to be had. The pity is that these arguments so frequently slip into cliches, non sequiturs and slippery slope fallacies, of “W G Grace was a great sledger” on one hand, and “You never heard Donald Bradman sledge” on the other.

Cricket is not all of a piece. It has many forms and many levels, and thus many differing degrees of intensity and licences for aggression.

What you perceive as appropriate for cricket at its highest levels will necessarily differ from that allowable elsewhere. Indeed, the lower the level of the game, the stronger would seem the argument for sledging’s restriction.

At club, junior and school levels, where the range of abilities, temperaments and tolerances are naturally more diverse, cricket should not be primarily about arousal levels, individual zones of optimal functioning, catastrophe zones of anxiety, or any of the other jargon phrases of sports psychology. It should be about enjoyment, a mutual respect and a welcoming environment.

At a public gathering in Perth during the third Test, a school principal asked me how he was to instill in his charges ideas of sportsmanship and etiquette when Test cricketers seemed to show them so little heed.

I asked how it was that his charges were incapable of distinguishing between the importance of a school match and a Test match.

If they could not work out that the behaviours in one might not be suitable for another, if they were simply slavish imitators of what they saw on television, then it was arguable that their coaches, teachers and parents were letting them down.

Then there’s the issue of the proper scope for aggression as it differs in other cultures. With the Indian team due here this time next season, that could be a very interesting discussion. Staying on India’s right side is these days about rather more than good manners – it is also good financial sense. We might be resuming this debate sooner than we think.

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