Michael Roberts, reproducing an article written in early December 2003 and presented with the same title in Roberts, Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006, pp 107-111 …. with the title inspired by Lord Superior aka Andrew Marcano’s famous calypso line in praise of the marvellous West Indian spin-twins Ramadhin and Valentine: viz, “Cricket Luv’ly Cricket”
In stressing the antithesis to that ditty, I am directed by two awful acts of sportmanshp recently: namely, (A) Mohammed Siraj’s verbal intimidation of Charitha Asalanka with implicit support from skipper Sharma; and (B) skipper Shakib Al Hasan’s position in sticking to the technicalities so as to dismiss Angelo Matthews.
The game of cricket has degenerated. With some exceptions (e. g. Brian Lara) some players today dispute catches taken close to the ground – in the full knowledge that video replays are defective and favour the batsmen in such cases. Players sometimes claim bump-ball catches as true and fair. All the sides make dramatic claims for bat-pad catches when they know that their appeals are false in many instances – an act of blatant “cheating” as Barry Richards noted in a passing on one occasion (during a discussion of the Cronje affair). Systematic verbal intimidation is pursued by some fielding sides in order to needle and wheedle batsmen out. Some say that this is due to the money that accrues to international cricketers. This is an erroneous conclusion, at best making a minor factor into a major cause. Most of these offensive features have prevailed within the realm of district cricket in Adelaide for decades and there is no money at issue in these matches. What has occurred in more recent times at this level, within the nursery of top-level cricket, is a sharpening of dirty practice. Within the last couple of years some district level clubs have encouraged their players to practice clicking with their mouth to simulate a snick and then selected those most adept at this `art’ to stand in close-in positions to make clicks at appropriate moments.
Again, blatant cheating, but now a practice rendered systematic and coached by coaches. The progressive decline is also accompanied by blatant hypocrisy. Langer the catcher took one position when he pouched a catch off Vaughan at Adelaide and a diametrically opposite stance when a batsman a season or so ago. In his column in the Advertiser Shane Warne argued that players should walk if a fielder assures a batsman that he had taken a clean catch and not a bump-ball catch — quite the opposite to standard Australian practice for decades. Indeed, Peter Roebuck informed me at Adelaide that the Australians are now sledging less — but this mellowing of policy is enabled by the clear supremacy of the present Australian cricket team that was manifest during the
Again, Pat Symcox, now a Selector for South Africa as well as TV Commentator, had this to say in print recently about the Second Test at Centurion: “The sledging that went on was not acceptable in the Test arena. Who started it and who was the guiltiest will never be proved conclusively but one thing is for sure, both sides never took a backward step. It is for this very reason that I believe that Sri Lankan cricket took a huge step forward.” Coming from a former international cricketer who was as vituperative in his verbal intimidation as the worst in the game, this is rich, a clear case of double standards. Indeed, all my illustrations point to outright opportunism in the presentation of argument, one that is directed by the immediate advantages of moment, in short by two-faced positioning. Such developments, then, suggest a progressive degeneration of the game both on-field and off-field that is in step with the progressive degeneration of Western society. Indeed, one could say that this is the logical fruition of the capitalist ethos, the further development of the maximising individual celebrated by Adam Smith. What we have here is a dog-eat-dog situation, one that seeks to rip the system off. In the field of cricket this involves practices that attempt to diddle and fool the umpires.
One of these practices, verbal intimidation, usually targets the batsmen and pursues a campaign of terror designed to disturb equilibrium and secure mistakes. It is a horrendous practice, a major crime that sullies the game – in part because umpires have more or less acquiesced in the practice and together with the ICC are guilty of massive sins of omission. The recent fining of Grant Flower for obscenities is a move in the right direction that nevertheless highlights the ineffectiveness of their actions. Pinching pockets with fines that are miniscule is simply not the type of penalty required. If punishment is to be meted out effectively, it has to be in manner that immediately disadvantages the team in question on the field of play. The consequence of such ineptitude is the episodic eruption of verbal assault on the scale that one saw between the South Africans and Sri Lankans at Centurion Park during the Second Test,15-19 November 2002. I have been criticising the practice of “sledging,” namely, verbal intimidation, from the year 1989 and this article will repeat some of the arguments that have been rehearsed elsewhere, notably in the article “Sin-Bin for Verbal Intimidation.” My reason for doing so again today is the unsavoury nature of the exchange between the Safs and the Lankans.
The verbal comments on the cricket field vary in intensity. In attacking the practice below, I am not referring to the occasional tease and banter that takes place. Let me stress here that my focus is on the middling and high-octane levels of comment-cum-abuse that tend to prevail.
The term “sledging” is a varnish for what is nothing less than a verbal assault. As a shorthand description that is in wide use, the term provides a veneer that covers the venality of the practice. “Sledging” has been openly excused for years by numerous cricketers of note. In the 1990s such men as Allan Border and Dean Jones attempted to deflect discussion by arguing that “what happens on the field should stay on the field.” Others tried to locate and justify it as part of “professionalism.” The analogy in this latter excuse is the “professional foul” in soccer. In short, it would be okay to take a professional dive and okay to carry out a professional `amputation’ of an opponent’s foot. One of the worrying recent developments has been the greater design that goes into verbal intimidation, a scheming that makes it into an orchestrated terror campaign (whether coaches are party to this design I cannot say). When Waugh tried to legitimate the practice of “sledging” by calling it “mental disintegration,” he provided a clue to this development. That is why Boucher can be called “the leader of the sledging team” by a South African in the know, none other than Symcox. So, verbal intimidation appears now to be a planned team Policy among some teams (and it does not need much guessing to work out which teams go to this length).
Terror on the cricket field. That is what “sledging” amounts to in some cases. In many instances it is nothing less than verbal assassination. The incidence of four-letter words is one facet of this threatening activity. In a recent review of his career Kepler Vessels noted that Dennis Lillee was one of those who really “got to him” with this work of verbal intimidation during the 1970s. Folklore in cricket circles in Adelaide marks Ian Healy down as one of most foul-mouthed sledgers in the business during his day. More recently, the manner in which that Matthew Hayden, a good Catholic lad and hulking man, pitched into new-boy Graeme Smith has entered the grapevine of cricketing gossip as a case of “sledging” par excellence, that is, in my re-working, a case of assassination by systematic abuse. In some circles, usually that of young, virile men, this lore is admired. But are such tales of “daring-do” that bold and daring? Is it daring-do to rely on foul mouth, rather than ball and tactical field-placing, for one’s wickets.? Many brave men, usually of an older generation, deem such practices unsportsmanlike and unmanly.
By way of example in recent years Brian Booth as well as Neville Jayaweera of the Ceylon Civil Service have expressed cogent criticisms of “sledging.” Rather than being daring-do, verbal intimidation is the art of the bully, the work of dirty people. In Sri Lankan vocabulary it is neecha (nica) that is to say, vile and low. It is the gutter activity of pimps and prostitutes. Whether systematic or otherwise, verbal intimidation, therefore, converts cricket into gutter land, a sewer, an abattoir. To me this feature, its disgusting animal character emerged in powerful form during the latter stages of the game at Centurion between Sri Lanka and South Africa (with the initial escalation being the work of the South Africans).
Summary Objections in Point-Form
- For any victim of verbal intimidation to take up the same weapons is to become like the opponent. For Asians, this is to become a Western-clone; to transform themselves into the Macho Warrior Male of the Western world. This adds up to a tale of a victim victimising himself yet further.
- For Asians it is to accept an alteration of playing conditions in ways that favour teams with a better squad of English-speakers and a wider repertoire of English abuse. As Jayaweera puts it, it is to fight the battle on terrain that is not of one’s choosing. Those better versed in English can always “raise their antenna” to levels that only a few of the Asians could reach. As such it is bad strategy.
An Old Story
When the Sri Lankan tour undertook their first major Test series in Australia in 1989/90 under Arjuna Ranatunga, they faced the full brunt of verbal intimidation at all points of the compass. They did not retaliate much. Many Sri Lankans residing in Australia advocated retaliation in kind. In an article written then for an Australian newsletter, I argued against such action on the lines summarised above.
However, I also anticipated that the requirements of survival would lead them (and other Asian teams) to adopt the same bully- boy tactics. This has come to pass. Verbal intimidation appears to have spread down the ranks to the levels of both premier and schoolboy cricket in Sri Lanka. The response of the Sri Lankan team to the heightened “sledging” activity of the South Africans during their (SL) second innings was of this order: survival retaliation, albeit one that, as far as I could judge, was not spiced with the same measure of four-letter words that seemed to spew out of the mouth of such individuals as Andrew Hall, Mark Bouchcr and ]acques Kallis. It has been widely praised by commentators in print and television as evidence of the fact that the Sri Lankans are now “competitive” and “do not take a backward step. “Thus, it is the pragmatics of survival that has led to this situation. Such demands can provide a legitimising ground. Arjuna Upasena, a young cricketer in Adelaide, presents this form of reasoning: “At the end of the day sledging is part and parcel of the game and if you can’t wear it in international cricket and give some back … you are [going to] be in deep strife against good sides like the Aussies and South Africa! . . . if [you] can’t hack it unfortunately you are not [going to] make it on the international circuit.” Such justifications are amplified by other arguments. Aravinda de Silva has recently argued that what happens on the field should stay on the field. Kumar Sangakkara told Vic Marks in Sri Lanka that “Sledging is part of the game. As long as it is not vindictive that’s OK -and it helps if it’s humorous.” These are hoary, old rationalisations. They reiterate what Allan Border and others used to say ad nauseam in their playing days.
But the problem with this line of justification is that it does not end up “okay.” For one, even Sangakkara’s more refined sarcasm and verbal barrage looked and sounded disgusting, ugly, nica. For another, did anyone see the snarling faces of bowlers Kallis and Hall as they turned on batsmen who were taking runs off their bowling? This was animal-land, pure jungle savagery. So, the question is: does one want to become animal in order to fight animal?…….. and as part of the pragmatics of survival?
Verbal intimidation is a form of assassination. Where it is planned and systematic, and where it incorporates a battery of four-letter words, it is a campaign of terror. The teams that master this terror become the counterpart of USA, with its battery of aerial and nuclear weaponry. That is, they become the superpower in cricket.
The power is not so much that of the witty verbal, but that of the dirty verbal. In Aussie slang, it is “arsehole speech.” Thus metaphorically, sledging is verbal farting, albeit farting deployed to disturb an opponent. The supermen in this craft are those who fart nuclear. The radiation effects have now permeated the game. It is contaminated ground.
Verbal intimidation of a more widespread and sharper sort, as we know, emerged in the 1970s, in the Chappell/Greig Era. Let me note here that I have a tremendous admiration for both Ian Chappell and Tony Greig. Admiration for Chappell as batsman and perceptive captain during his playing days; and today as astute commentator. Greig for his political position in support of Peter Hain and others in UK during their anti-apartheid programme in sport. Greig for his amiability and multi-cultural awareness in public relations as well as his fairness and enthusiasm in commentary box. Above all, I have always supported their roles in the World Series revolt in association with Kerry Packer during the late 1970s. In these ways they have done a great deal for cricket.
But they have implanted one cancer in the body politic of cricket: that of verbal intimidation on the cricket field as a means of unsettling batsman. That this set of practices has become institutionalised and systemic, and that the ICC and umpires do not do enough in practice to eradicate the conventions that have taken root, is no surprise. After all, all these `innovators’ are now behind the microphone. They cannot, and do not, oppose verbal intimidation. Even Benaud, from an older generation, makes little remarks about a fielder saying “a few polite words” or “inviting him [the batsman] for a drink” or whatever, when the camera displays a manifest act of verbal intimidation; and then sniggers. Snigger is justification.
Smile, joke and cover-up will continue as long as we allow Chappell, Healy, Symcox and company to have their way without mounting a frontal assault that engages them in a public forum, a forum that must include representatives from one half of the world’s population, namely women. Verbal intimidation will stay until a frustrated batsman hospitalises a fieldsman with his bat. Such an act is more likely to be initiated by an Asian lad without the verbal skills of the bully-boys from the West. That lad will then be severely castigated and will end up in a jail, while ruining his career. But it will be the system that has bred the conditions of possibility for such a reaction.
“Sledging” is a verbal system of terror. It is usually foul-mouthed powerplay in a world that is supposed to be determined by bat, ball, strategy and luck. In letting it take root and in providing spurious legitimation for its modalities, many great cricketers have sullied the game. They have dumped SHIT IN THEIR OWN LOUNGE.
When the West Indians burst unto the cricket scene in the 1950s with Ramadhin and Valentine and the three W’s, we used to trip along with their calypso cricket and that little ditty, “cricket luv’ly cricket.” Alas, no longer is that limerick appropriate. The beautiful art form called “Cricket” is no longer a prospect that pleases. It has been turned into a paddock in which virtually every cricketer has become vile.
1 However, it is a welcome shift in position (however ambivalent in Symcox’s case).
2. As the great Dennis Lillee has recently argued,
3. Articles and comments by South Africans including Pat Symcox.
ALSO NOTE …. Andrew Marcano aka “Lord Superior”