Calling a spade a shovel

SUNIL GAVASKAR is a man whose thinking is as organised as his batting ever was.

MICHAEL FERREIRA

Ricky Ponting was in Mumbai on an endorsement campaign. -- Pic. PTI.-

SUNIL GAVASKAR is a man whose thinking is as organised as his batting ever was. When he delivered his famous indictment of sledging at the Spirit of Cricket Lecture at Lord's in July, he could not have been unaware of the hornet's nest that he would stir by calling a spade a bloody shovel. But, all credit to him, he took on possible criticism with the same steely resolve that he faced the bullets hurled at him by the world's fastest bowlers, obviously because he felt that the menace had reached unacceptable proportions and some sort of corrective action needed to be taken as quickly as possible.

Recently, Australian one-day captain Ricky Ponting was in Mumbai in connection with an endorsement campaign of certain Indian products. (I find the trend of selecting foreign sportsmen to endorse products faintly amusing, to say the least — imagine the outrage Down Under if Australian companies chose Rahul Dravid, for instance, to enact a similar role — but that is another story!). When questioned on the vexed question of sledging, the Aussie captain replied, in effect, that a bit of friendly banter on the field was perfectly legitimate.

No sensible person familiar with the pressures of international competition would quarrel with that statement. But — and this is the point — was Sunil talking about friendly banter or actions/words that transgress the limits of civilised behaviour? Interestingly, at about the same time, Tony Greig mentioned that players should be willing to set higher standards of conduct on the field. The former England captain was referring specifically to "walking" when the player knows he is out instead of leaving it to the umpire to make the call, but I believe that this issue, like sledging, falls into the broad category of what constitutes the essence of sport.

There is no question that well-known sportsmen can and do affect the way young people think and act. Responsibility for their actions thus goes with the turf, especially in an age when the screaming of obscenities, threatening gestures and lewd actions are splashed across millions of screens. Specious arguments about the "pressure" and the "stakes involved" cannot wish away the fact that much is expected from those to whom a benign Providence has given much.

Ian Chappell is believed to be one of the ringleaders of an Australian team which gave sledging to the world. But he was never once reported for sledging! -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

I remember during my college days seeing Garfield Sobers, fielding in the slips, vigorously flapping his hands from side to side to indicate that the ball which his teammates thought was cleanly taken had in fact hit the ground. Add to that a couple of other examples — G. R. Viswanath recalling a batsman after the umpire had declared him out and Jimmy White calling a foul on himself during a crucial frame against Stephen Hendry in the World Professional Snooker Championship final — and one gets a many-splendoured canvas of chivalry that epitomises everything sport stands for. If contemporary standards decree that the crudity of the McGrath/Sarwan episode of recent memory (friendly banter indeed!) should displace the graciousness of yore, well then I think that we are all the poorer for it.

In the infamous Bodyline series of the 1930s, English captain Douglas Jardine's cold-blooded plan to counter Don Bradman's prodigious scoring almost triggered off a diplomatic crisis between England and Australia. In the third Test match of the series at Adelaide, Harold Larwood struck Australian captain Bill Woodfull a sickening blow over the heart. Jardine reacted to the outrage of the crowd by saying "Well bowled Harold," within earshot of Don Bradman at the non-striker's end. This strictly speaking was not sledging as we understand it, but it was made with the express intention of unnerving the Don. This was perhaps one of the early examples of the "mental disintegration" process made famous by Steve Waugh. The whole of Australia bitterly resented Jardine's tactics, but tell me, to what extent did those tactics differ from Brett Lee's scatological threat to "knock your f----ing head off" or Glenn McGrath's screaming that he would tear Sarwan's throat out? Friendly banter? Yeah, right!

Ian Meckiff, England's thorn in the side during the 1958-59 Ashes tour, remembers Fred Trueman "passing the odd expletive if the batsman played and missed a few times", but that was about it. Meckiff believes the difference between his and the present era is that sledging has become "too aggressive". In the view of Colin MacDonald, who played for Australia in the 1950s, sledging is "persistent crap which demeans those who use it and does not make the game a better spectacle."

During his entire playing career Ian Chappell, one of the hardest of Australian captains, was never once reported for sledging. Yet there is a general perception that he was one of the ringleaders of an Australian team which gave sledging to the world. David Hookes, who played under Chappell for South Australia in the mid-to-late seventies and in two seasons of World Series Cricket, was once asked if he thought that Chappell had been a very vocal captain. His response was: "On the contrary he was a very quiet captain". Chappell himself actually disliked his players making too many comments on the field. "I wanted fieldsmen who were thinking about their job, not going through the motions of showing they were a good team man by yelling inane comments".

Chappell maintains that he never enjoyed needling the opposition: "If you have to stoop so low to win that you refer to an opponent's wife, girlfriend, race, religion, or any other aspect of his private life in a derogatory way, then you shouldn't be playing cricket. I have always believed that winning the respect of the team is one of the first things a captain must do. I can't think of a quicker way to lose respect, not only as a captain but also as a human being, than to stoop to such levels". Former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop believes that in the Caribbean there is a culture against sledging: "We were told to let our bowling do the talking on the field. I think sledging is useless and unsportsmanlike. The great West Indian fast bowlers never needed to sledge any opposition".

Whatever be the pros and cons of this distasteful aspect of the game, Gavaskar's use of one of cricket's high-profile platforms to bring it out into the open has had the desired effect. Cricket Australia, recently stated that under a new code of conduct Australian cricketers face severe penalties, which could extend to a life ban in extreme cases, for sledging. As Tony Greig said, although in a slightly different context, "I think there comes a time in the evolution of the game where you need to change direction a little bit. I think the time is now".