These are the days of 'Smart Sledging'

Overall, the player behaviour is very good and verbal exchanges are less personal in today’s cricket. Greater understanding and growing cross-national friendships is not the only factor at play here, though. I think players also understand that brazenly aggressive and personal sledging is both distasteful and not actually very effective anymore.

Playing mind games? David Warner of Australia and Ian Bell of England exchange heated words during an Ashes Test at the WACA in 2013.   -  Getty Images

World cricket has changed dramatically in the past decade, and the one change that has been less spoken about is with sledging. The days of hurling personal insults, physical intimidation and general boorishness have thankfully gone.

Of course, given the high stakes and passions in international cricket, you still see tension on the field and players continue to get hot-tempered at times. However, in general, the player behaviour is very good and verbal exchanges are less personal.

 

Much of this reflects the fact that international players simply know each other better these days. In the 1970s and 1980s, indeed even in the 1990s, the world’s best players mainly played country-versus-country cricket. There were a few exceptions mainly due to County Cricket, but the absence of domestic cricket leagues, where overseas players participate, meant that your opponents were rarely team-mates and friends. In today’s world, though, especially since the rise of the Indian Premier League, cricketers have developed relationships much more easily with players from different nations.

Greater understanding and growing cross-national friendships is not the only factor at play here, though. I think the players also understand that brazenly aggressive and personal sledging is both distasteful and not actually very effective anymore.

The whole point of sledging is to distract your opponents and break their concentration.

The reality is that the same objective can be achieved more easily with quick wit and smart comments. In modern cricket, there are still lots of chatter on the field, but the mind games are far more subtle. You may draw the attention of a batsman to his weaknesses; highlight his poor record against different bowlers for example. The aim is to stir up some insecurity and undermine his focus.

Some people may question whether this new “smart sledging” is acceptable, but, for me, as long as you avoid personal attacks — including of course any racial or religious comments — these mind games are only part and parcel of international cricket. The game is tough and Test cricket especially is supposed to be the ultimate challenge — the best players can handle a few comments.

In terms of my own experiences with sledging, and that of the Sri Lankan team, we used to cop a fair bit of flak, especially post 1996 when we became a more threatening team. Australia, the most aggressive of international teams at the time, as well as South Africa would try to undermine us with sledging, but with time, they backed off and realised that we could also be feisty characters and that their attacks could be counter-productive.

Things changed around 2002-03 when we decided that the time had come to give back as good as we got. If a player from the opposition attempted to sledge us personally, or was being particularly boorish and unpleasant, we would target him as a team. In the field, we hunted as a pack. The rules were simple — if someone were to take us on, he was welcome to do so, but we were going to go after him. Those that didn’t sledge us were not targeted. We had some sharp talkers at the time, especially with Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara) behind the stumps, and I think opponents were quick to realise that they were better off keeping their mouths shut.

I presume other teams had similar experiences and stories. The nature of sledging has changed. Players will still be tested mentally and there is nothing wrong with that, given the importance of mental toughness in cricket. However, it is pleasing that the game has been able to evolve positively and the international game is now providing a better example to school kids and amateur club cricketers.