Sin-Bin for Verbal Intimidation in Cricket

Michael Roberts

This essay was drafted on 25 April 2001 and appeared in print-form in Roberts, Essaying Cricket, Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006, pp. 98-102. The highlighting here is additional emphasis in 2023 by Roberts as Editor, Thuppahi.

The ICC has moved, rather belatedly, to invest umpires with the power to penalise cricketers for unsportsmanlike behaviour. I suggest, here, that the penalty should be more severe. Rather than reducing or adding runs, the penalty should be a sin-bin for one player, preferably a specific offender or the worst offender in the instance of, say, excessive appealing. Indeed, I would go further: for excessive appealing, the captain of the fielding side should be sent to the sin-bin for a specific amount of time, say, one hour.

Let me argue the case for more severe forms of punishment against verbal intimidation, that is, those acts that are widely known euphemistically as “sledging.” My position here remains the same as that taken up in the early 1990s. Many people have gone on record as saying that the Sri Lankan cricketers of the 1980s and early 90s’ were “the nice guys” of cricket. This was a way of highlighting the fact that they did not meet verbal assault with counter-assault; and generally allowed other aggressive teams to trample on their tour of Australia in 1989-90, when the official stance of the BCCSL was that of gratitude to the ACB for allowing their team to come on “a learning curve” to Australia. The imperial relationship of domination-subordination implied in these words, and the circumstances that inspired such a phrase, was therefore compounded on the cricketing field by the pressure mounted by verbal intimidation.

The team spent an extended length of time twiddling their thumbs in Adelaide (no international cricket in January because of the Commonwealth Games and TV audiences). I learnt about the degree of sledging (as well as “bad” umpiring in country games) as a result of the interactions that resulted from this circumstance. I immediately penned an essay against “sledging”. My sentiments were so strong that I would have favoured a symbolic court case arising from retaliatory action on the field that went beyond sledging. The principle here was simple: if the fielding side, or elements, thereof, could unilaterally choose to add verbal weapons to their armoury, then, a batsman could unilaterally up-the-ante so to speak and retaliate with considered violence. The outcome, of course, would be his banishment from the playing fields to a test case in court and eventual jail, while one fielder would be permanently incapacitated. My position, then and now, is that there is such a thing as “righteous violence.”

That, of course, is an extreme position. An extreme reaction, yes. Also a considered one arising from inaction from the powers-that-be. In contrast the sin-bin would be less extreme and would gain legitimacy if it is rendered statutory by the ICC. Let me, therefore, proceed to argue the case.

My previous article written in 1989-90 is pertinent here.[1] It included advice to the Sri Lankan players to desist from verbal retaliation, that is, sledging, when they were fielding. I conveyed this advice to Arjuna Ranatunga in opposition to the advice from other Adelaidian Lankans to the effect that they should respond with kunu harapa (obscene Sinhala gutter language. My argument here was that this latter course meant that they were becoming like the Other, they were being twisted into the shapes fashioned by those dominant. In other words, what we were seeing was a classic case of potential cultural imperialism. Not-to-sledge, in this view, was to resist, to affirm one’s form of subjectivity. I presented this argument because I feared that the contrary process of subordination to the Other’s ways would come [o pass, namely, that the Sri Lankan cricketers would take-up the cudgel of sledging as survival tactics. My forebodings seem to have come to pass.

Conversations with young Sri Lankan cricketers suggest that sledging has permeated the playing fields of Sri Lanka at both school and club level. Again, take Kumar Sangakkara’s recent interview with Vic Marks. “Sledging is part of the game. As long as it is not vindictive that’s OK’ ….. and it helps if it’s humorous,” said young Kumar.[2] A gramophone record on a groove really. Sangakkara’s comments could, one imagines, have emerged from the mouth of, say, young Tony Greig in the early 1970s. It could as well be the `play’ of Rod Marsh, Ian Healy, Ricky Ponting, Yet-to Become Known, et cetera et cetera.

“Sledging” is not only the use of four-letter words. Its sharpness stems from timing and a way with words that gets under the opposition’s skin. In style it is akin to street rap in the American ghetto scene or verbal duelling in pubs and male locker-rooms. Speaking broadly, therefore, the majority of south Asian cricketers of the last twenty years would be at a disadvantage in the duels of sledging. They do not have the mastery of English to produce the word play to disturb the calm of a West Indian or English cricketer. Foul words in English or Bengali or Sinhala would certainly convey a general import, but these would be a mere swell that washes over the broad backs of personnel used to abusive banter. Getting under the skin verbally is an art-form.

As an art-form verbal intimidation destroys the idea of a level playing field. By and large, allowing for exceptions, Asian cricketers enter the arena with a disadvantage once this weaponry becomes an established part of the cricketing battle. Even those Asian cricketers who are fluent in English would normally be disadvantaged because the sharp gutter speech that is integral to sledging is usually not part of their repertoire in cultured speech. It is not that four-letter words, like “shit,” are not used at this class level. It is my further surmise that the female genitalia does not figure quite as frequently in male cross-talk in Asia as it does in Australia. Where sledging focuses on the mother/wife/sister of an Asian batsman it is, more likely to get under his skin than that of, say, a Kiwi batsman.[3]

These cultural differences will ramify once sledging is adopted by the Asian cricketers. A priori I would argue that among Asians such verbal assaults are likely to be less controlled; and, thus, more vituperative. I take two recent illustrations. During the English touring side’s warm-up match at Matara, Craig White was taken aback by some of Ruchira Perera’s remarks. Around the sane time in India, during one of Australia’s warm-up games Justin Langer, as batsman, noted that the sledging had got “very intense.” Reading between the lines of the reportage I surmise that on both occasions the remarks had been racist, or, at the very least, vituperative in the sense of abuse with feeling. In other words, there is a difference between controlled instrumental abuse and that which is unrestrained and/or from the guts. My further speculation is that in cultural contexts where one is not schooled in abusive repartee, one is likely to move into unrestrained sledging more readily.

Taken in sum, then, where does one draw the line and who draws it? “The umpires” would be one answer. Indeed, umpires have been seen to do so on occasions, though watchers are denied access to the particulars of rhetoric that prompt such interventions and the umpire’s precise yardstick of judgment.

So here then is my further point: it appears that decisions on these matters are as wide as each umpire’s foot. Some feet are broad, some less so. Indeed, it is clear that a great deal of sledging, that is, verbal intimidation and assault, goes on without any intervention from the umpires. At a public presentation in Adelaide Chris Hollard, an A Grade umpire, explicitly observed that Australian umpires did not usually get involved when there was “discourse,” as he called it, between players. Here, therefore, one sees the new academic word “discourse” associated with Foucault’s esoteric writings transported into the realm of popular culture as a legitimising device that condones verbal intimidation.

Hollard related a story of an exchange between Dennis Lillee and the Test umpire, Mel Johnson, as the justificatory foundation for this policy among Australian umpires. In effect, as I interpret the story, Lillee used his charisma to simply bury Johnson’s attempt at preventing an act of sledging. That is, the white coat’s authority was cast aside like an old rag doll. I suspect that stories of this sort continuously sustain the non-interventionist line pursued to this day by all umpires.

Since non-intervention is so widespread, and since numerous `respected’ commentators justify the assaults known as “sledging,” the playing fields of cricket continue to be subject to the play of verbal power in an arena that is supposed to be governed by the skills associated with bat, ball and strategic field-placement. The decision as to the limits and restraints in the use of “sledging,” therefore, rests with the fielding side or those fielders who resort to such tactics. It is rare for batsmen to initiate the action (so that Steve Waugh’s initiation of such acts when scoring a century against the South Africans during the last World Cup was an innovation that may start a trend and exacerbate the phenomenon). “Unilateral actions of verbal assault” that’s what sledging is. Look at Sir Vivian Richards’s autobiography. Ask Robert Samuels and Brian Lara about the specifics of intimidation at the Test match in Perth several seasons back. Ask Darren Ganga and Ramnaresh Sarwan about the specific language they were subject to during the last tour (with the grapevine suggesting that Mark Waugh and McGrath were the principal `spokesmen’). Indeed, whatever it’s origins, the very term, “sledging,” operates like the word “wasting” in gangster-talk, to veil the violence of the act. The euphemisms, accompanied by the little titter and chuckles of the HE-MEN behind the media microphones, that are used to describe on-field incidents of sledging, cannot hide this fact. Neither can the explicit justificatory arguments: “It is not a boy’s game” said Tony Greig on one occasion on TV in Sri Lanka.

In opposition I insist that words can be a form of violence. Their searing power is considered worse among some peoples than a “mere assault” involving the loss of a few teeth. Those nourished within such cultural settings, therefore, are disadvantaged when it comes to sledging wars on the so-called level playing field of cricket.

Moreover, even if one is disposed to “allow sledging within limits,” there is a large grey area as to where the limit of such intimidation lies. Since counter-sledging is legitimised by those who adhere to this `philosophy,’ where is the limit to be drawn? If Fielder A initiates a verbal assault, why cannot the victim, Batsman 8, pitch his response five octaves higher so to speak. Is vituperative escalation allowed? Will the cricketer retaliating with words be reprimanded while the clever, sneaky initiator escapes? who draws the line?
It is about time the ICC drew the line. At the figure ZERO. No verbal intimidation or assault, masquerading under the euphemism of “sledging,” should be permitted. Those who do so should be sin-binned or subject to a tribunal passing punishment (suspension from the next match say) .

Such punishments should also be extended to manifest acts of cheating. The most blatant of these are bump-catch appeals. Dilshan in South Africa, Shane Lee in Adelaide for Australia A (victim Lara), Nasser Hussain and Mahela Jayawardene in Kandy (or was it at the SSC, Colombo?) would be among the candidates for a “tribunal” on this latter issue.

Clearly, given current concerns, too much spurious appealing should perhaps be brought within the purview of this law as well. I confess, however, to hesitations on this subject because the line is not easy to define. When batting sides are playing for a draw on turning pitches, there will be more appealing than normal. But should it be feasible to police this series of actions, then, the captain of the fielding side has to be singled out for punishment.

McGrath and Sarwan in confrontation


This article was drafted on the 25th April, 2001. Today, 8th May 2001, the Australian news machine has taken up an anecdote in Roshan Mahanama’s autobiography (assisted by Ken Piesse) which claimed that Glenn McGrath called Sanath Jayasuriya “a black monkey.” This incident was widely remarked upon in Sri Lankan circles in 1996. Critical to its evaluation is the fact that it occurred after Jayasuriya had hit McGrath for two explosive fours at the beginning of the one-day final in Sydney. The remark was in anger and contrasts with the deliberate use of racial and other forms of vilification in order to disturb the focus of a batsman. I deem both forms equally reprehensible; but find deeper political implications in vituperation emanating from the guts. Racism in the latter form, I stress, can be found among Whites, Coloured (Browns) and Blacks. But rather than focusing upon specific forms of verbal intimidation, we should outlaw all forms.


  1. See article entitled “Bat, Ball & Foul Mouth,” in Essaying Cricket, 2006, pp, 1-3.
  2. It is surely no accident that its Kumar Sangakkara that fronts up in this way as the new face of Sri Lankan cricket. His grandfather played cricket for Trinity in the 1920s. Trinity is an elite college and even today usually nurtures individuals proficient in English. Sangakkara not only has this essential facility for [resistance tp] the acts of verbal assault, but also has, as Marks presents it, a bubbly personality that relishes “the press game.
  3. More recently, this generalisation on my part has been called into question by the manner in which Glenn cGrath reacted when Sarwan in response to McGrath’s initial abuse, brought McGrath’s wife into the picture.


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