When the spectators did it, it was called barracking (or heckling). The most famous barracker in cricket, Yabba, at the old Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground has a bronze statue in his honour there. When players did it, that was sledging; it wasn’t invented by the Australians, but they are the most famous for it. When ‘fans’ do it on social media, it is trolling.
The first two often had an element of humour, and even the victim sometimes joined in the laughter, although it is unlikely that England’s captain Douglas Jardine, unpopular in the Bodyline series in Australia did so when he was told, while attempting to swat away flies, “Leave our flies alone, Jardine, they are the only friends you’ve got here.”
My favourite sledge is one that went wrong. As England’s Jimmy Ormond took his guard, Australia’s Mark Waugh said, “What are you doing out here? There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.”
Ormond’s response: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my family.”
Heckling is often racist as in English football, or body-shaming or personally offensive; most sports stadiums have sensible rules to flush out spectators who indulge, and ban them.
But trolling is another matter. The anonymity of the social media, the consequences of losing a bet, anger at a team (or individual) beating a favourite, all mean that today’s athletes have to face a far worse attack from so-called fans than their predecessors did. Especially if you are a woman. Some clubs have courses on how to deal with trolling.
It is always painful to read stories of athletes being trolled regularly. Australian tennis player Priscilla Hon revealed recently the vile messages she receives regularly. Some wish that she would “die of cancer.” Others want her whole family to die of cancer.
This is a 24-year-old doing what she loves, playing tennis professionally, and hoping to leave a mark on the game.
Indian badminton player Jwala Gutta has said, “At some point, you have to stop caring about what is said about you.” In the old days, players were told not to read the newspapers or watch sports on television in which they were involved. But the media then were never filthy or personal like social media is now.
Occasionally, a player gives back, as the golfer Lee Westwood did after a PGA championship at Oak Hill where he performed poorly. “Bolstered by drink” (in his words), the Englishman challenged the trolls and talked trash. He ended by saying, “Not been hacked. Just honest. Bored now. Westy out.” Six hours later, he apologised!
Indians have the reputation for being the most touchy of fans. No matter what you write or say, there is always someone, somewhere who trolls you. When Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova was asked her opinion on Sachin Tendulkar and said she hadn’t heard of him, she copped the full Indian effect.
Trolls are persistently unfunny, vicious, disgusting. And those are their good qualities.