Adverse effects of verbal duels

THAT an epocal combat as the final Test at St. John's should generate such bitterness and acrimony is sad indeed.

THAT an epocal combat as the final Test at St. John's should generate such bitterness and acrimony is sad indeed. In scripting a remarkable triumph after a chase of 418 runs in the fourth innings against the seemingly invincible Australians, Lara and his men have added an enchanting tune to their famed calypso. If this victory does not symbolise the resurrection of West Indies cricket what else can?

While the five-day battle purveyed to the discerning audience round the world the essence and strength of Test cricket pitted against the instant variety, it also mirrored the despicable moods of players in tense situations. The verbal duels involving Glenn McGrath, with Lara first, and then with one of the heroes, Ramnaresh Sarwan, had adverse effects that besmirched the image of cricket, often touted, perhaps undeservingly now, as a gentleman's game.

The final day's drama portrayed the Aussies as bad losers. Whether Steve Waugh handled the resources well enough in the demanding moments or not is open to question and that is being dissected. Critics however are unanimous that he lacked the authority to keep the players' under check. Some view the Aussie skipper's indifference as part of the team's strategy to disturb the concentration of the batsmen. " Cricket searched for a champion team and found only an unscrupulous aggressor,'' concluded noted commentator, Peter Roebuck.

Waugh acknowledged the supremacy of the West Indians in this Test, and also admitted that his team had lost patience in the face of resistance. The players' indisicpline attracted all round ire, and no less a person than the Chairman of ACB, James Sutherland, told the Aussies of the need to be sporting when the chips are down and not only when everything was going smooth.

The larger question however is what needs to be done to prevent such acts. Instances of players exchanging expletives are on the rise. Agonisingly, the umpires are mere spectators, and rarely interfere when hot words are exchanged. Are they powerless to put their foot down then and there, with no choice of waiting and then complaining to the Match Referee?

Such ugly acts surface from sledging, a dirty epithet that has entered the cricketing lexicon. It is said to have originated, perfected and fine tuned by the Aussies, notably in the era of the Chappells. It is a form of torture, a harsh comment or a passing word, to disturb the composure of the batsmen. The dividends that such means have paid are said to be enormous. Several top notch batsmen were said to be the victims of sledging and have complained against this.

With television capturing every moment and mood on the screen, it is transparent how players stare at each other, or even comprehend what they exchange, if one were a lip reader. Sometimes, ugly gestures too spoil the frame.

Unfathomable however is the way the media interprets these actions. Some positively sensationalise them. For instance, why the name of Jane, wife of McGrath, suffering from cancer, was dragged into the picture by Sarwan, and in what context, still remains unclear. But the media not only said it was and went to the extent of describing the expletives used in retaliation.

There was denial by Sarwan, but everyone, including the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, had reacted to the incident, amazingly, justifying McGrath's response since the reference was the player's sickly wife.

The onus now lies with the administrators to devise ways and means to eliminate this scourge. It is easier said than done. Umpires can be ignorant of what is being said if they do not follow the language. The choicest expletives in Punjabi in an India-Pakistan encounter will leave the umpire in a hapless situation. But wherever the umpire finds the action or gesture constitute indiscipline or does not conform to the spirit of the game, he must be empowered to hand over a punishment. The Match Referee does that now but only for a show of dissent against the umpire's decision.

There has to be a system like football and hockey where the umpire is vested with the authority to warn a player according to the nature of the offence. A green card offers a warning, a yellow for temporary suspension, and a red card to stay out of the match. How far will this be feasible in cricket needs to be examined. It is the only sport where the umpire comes in when appealed to, unlike in hockey and football where penalties are awarded on the spot.

Cricket, under the present dispensation, is destined to lose this privilege if sledging is not hammered out once and for all.