9 ways to look at sledging

Sledging suggests an aggressive frame of mind, but is it useful if your cricket isn’t concentrated and aggressive? asks Rohit Brijnath.

1. Cricketers might say they are helpless, that it’s not some error in their genetic hard-wiring, or some environmental factor that has skewed their notions of good taste, but just that sledging/gamesmanship is a cricketing necessity. This is a game designed for chirruping.

Basketballers have minor degrees in trash talk and boxers have been giving lip much before Ali showed us his flair for doggerel. But mostly there’s no time for words in many sports. You can tease a goalkeeper about his parentage but eventually you have to follow the ball and move on. Action leaves little time for conversation.

But cricket moves like treacle on a hot day, all activity occurs within a small space in the middle, and fielders can conspire at close quarters against a surrounded batsman. No sport pauses as frequently as cricket, as if every stroke is a writing of cricketing haiku which must be deliberated on before play can commence. Constantly there is time for taunts.

Golf limps along slower than cricket but derisive comments are rarely exchanged because golfers believe they hail from a superior planet of etiquette. Anyway golfers refuse to see other men as opponents, their enemy is the course and themselves.

In tennis, an Austrian was rumoured to mutter threats at changeovers, but mostly exchanges of gamesmanship are not verbal, that is if you discount Boris Becker’s available-on-request cough. These days doctors are simply befuddled over how the bladders of players abruptly fill every time they are down a break of serve. The bathroom break has become an irritation, so, too, the injury time-out.

Six hours of cricket makes it an examination of concentration, a continuing test of nerve, and that is the sledger’s aim, to break concentration, to get on the nerves. No one expects grown men, with excessive testosterone, to hang around in close proximity, egged on by a hysterical media which equates losing with emasculation, and chat about recipes. But shoulder barging? But jelly beans? But swearing? But idiotic chatter?

2. Sportsmen can rationalise anything. Mention “sledging” and they’ll assault you with a mini-sermon on how tough it all is (Matt Prior: “A lot of people are under a lot of pressure”), energy (Ian Bell: “Chatter is just a way of keeping the energy going”), and competitiveness (Alastair Cook: “I like it when two teams go hard at each other and put everything into the contest.”). Some of us have been watching cricket longe r than these fellows have been speaking. Please, boys, if you want to distract and agitate the batsman and believe that’s a legitimate tactic, just say so.

3. Which leads us to this minor point: do modern cricketers have vocabulary issues? One asks, because every fourth sentence has the word “hard” inserted in it. As in, it’s a hard game. We play the game hard. We’re going hard at the opposition. Our attitude is hard but fair. Funny thing is, the hardest man in sport never says a thing about hardness, never says a word to anyone, he actually only just stares. His name is Tiger Woods. Sometimes silence i s a great weapon.

4. Perhaps all this stems from the sad reality that cricket has macho issues. These boys want to look gladiatorial yet are dressed modestly in virginal white. They want to be considered legitimate athletes yet, trot onto the field in neat trousers and run like Hugh Grant in ‘Four Weddings’.

Cricketers want to be taken seriously in a rugged sporting world. Their game has no bump and grind like rugby, no spittle-sharing contact like football, no rib-testing tackle like grid-iron, not even the odd tobacco-dribbling, fist-flying melee like baseball. In a sport absent of physical confrontation, what’s a cricketer to do then except taunt and tease and bully and bluster.

5. But if they’re going to flex their vocal muscles, they need help. Cricket boards spend too much time looking for coaches, psychologists, trainers, physios, faith healers, yoga masters. Instead they should advertise for script writers. Sledging, we are told, is often amusing. Have you heard anything amusing lately? Anything vaguely creative? Anything like Merv Hughes telling Graeme Hick: "Mate, if you just turn the bat over you’ll find the instructions on the other side"? No, all we’ve got is some Matt Prior prattle about cars. This is a matter of some concern.

6. The jelly beans were blown out of proportion? Not quite. Imagine, if the Pakistanis were found with jelly beans? We’d have got a treatise on how sweets are used to tamper with the ball, and they would have got a paternalistic dressing down about foreign objects on the field and traditions of the game.

7. An Australian has already written that India and England have now forfeited the right to criticise Australia about on-field behaviour. One might say this has demanded some ingenious mathematics wherein an atypical and rare display of poor conduct from England/India somehow equals years of dubious manners from Australian cricketers.

Still, the point is valid to the extent that it proves it’s not easy inhabiting the high moral ground. Reputations takes decades to cement but a match to break. Teams insist they have standards, but do they?

Irrespective of England’s behaviour, India must ask itself: should Sreesanth have played in the third Test? If he played because no other bowling option was available, it confirms that winning overrides everything else. Teams have regularly embraced their sinners if they can construct victory. If this is the reality of professional sport, then fine, but let’s not have all the pious "we’re very aware of the spirit of the game" blather.

8. Everyone swears that "no one had crossed the line", this invisible border of good taste that separates the acceptable from the crass. Sure. I can just see players crouching close, the batsman playing and missing, time running out, but reminding each other, "Guys, guys, hold on, look at the line, don’t cross it". The lines moves, it moves according to the burn of the sun, the situation of the match, the crankiness of your wife that morning, the culture where youR 17;re from.

9. Sledging suggests an aggressive frame of mind, but is it useful if your cricket isn’t concentrated and aggressive? Is intent translated through words, or in actions with ball and bat?

Does talking help keep the aggression going? Australia brutalised and broke opponents with sustained, disciplined skill. The words were only the ungracious icing.