The gibes aren’t gentle anymore

Andrew Symonds... kept his mouth tightly closed in the wake of 'racisim' controversy, but swung his bat hard and free.-AP

Somewhere along the line, sledging will have to be reduced if not abolished, writes Frank Tyson.

I have never claimed that I was omniscient; nor have I crowed: “I told you so” when the worst of my expectations has eventuated. But in the case of sledging cricket opponents I am more than willing to make an exception to that rule; and when a rival demeans the multi-faceted talents of a fellow player such as Aussie, ‘Roy’ Symonds — solely on grounds of colour and race — I positively rush to the support of a batsman whom I regard as one of the cleanest hitters of the cricket ball since the halcyon days of Viv Richards.

Indeed I find it amazing that Symonds’ Indian detractors can even trace the origins of an Aussie cricketer who was born in the West Indies, was adopted and raised by a migrant English schoolmaster and his wife in the contrasting environs of industrial Birmingham, rural Queensland and the glitzy Gold Coast. Then by choice, when presented with the opportunity of playing for England or Australia, opted to represent his adopted homeland!

When Aussie skipper Ian Chappell led his team rough-shod through the testing time of the 1970s, he frequently prodded his opponents into their discomfort zone with verbal derision and taunts; but I was far from happy at the general acceptance of “sledging”. I took the easy option; however, by accepting Chappelli’s reasoning that what was said and done on the field should remain there and go no further.

I remained uneasy, however, at a tactic which had the potential to become what Steve Waugh dubbed the “psychological disintegration” of one’s opponents. I believed, and still believe, that the use of such gamesmanship would get worse with the passage of time. I feared that it might degenerate into out-and-out psychological warfare. It might even violate the intent of Law 42 (4) governing the deliberate attempt to distract the striker.

My viewpoint was that such an intrusion into the game’s cocoon of concentration was but the thin edge of the gamesmanship wedge — and I shuddered to visualise what the thick edge of such a tactic might be; I need not have worried. The modern game has not been slow in demonstrating the depths to which such tactics can descend.

Initially, humour was the sledger’s chosen weapon. I recall former Lancashire fast bowler and Test umpire, Eddie Phillipson, defusing a tense period of three appeals in one of my overs, when even blind Freddie could see that the batsman was out! After the third appeal was refused and my oratory was in full spate, he turned to me and commented quietly, “What’s the matter Frank? Did the wife give you a hard time at breakfast, this morning?” Complete collapse of the orator! I was fielding at short-leg when a colleague at first slip tried to disconcert an opposing batsman by enquiring about the welfare of his wife — adding slyly — “and how are my family?”

Sarcasm sometimes proves too subtle for batting intelligence. Then it is that abuse takes its place, followed by rude insults, noisy interruptions and, sadly, racial slurs! All of these are intended to annoy the batsman. They may be timed to coincide with the exact moment that the ball hits the bat. Ceaseless appealing and monotonous mantras of “Well bowled, ‘Warney”, accompany each delivery — whether it hits the bat, beats its edge, or goes through to the ’keeper!

The fact that such a droning monologue might violate Law 42 (4) governing the deliberate distraction of the batsman seems not to have occurred to the distracter! Nor has the news that racial vilification breaks the civil law dawned on some members of the cricketing community. At least such is my conclusion from the alleged conduct of some spectators in Vadodara who taunted Andrew Symonds with monkey gibberish from behind the boundary line. And what can one say about players who supposedly “stir” the opposition by clapping their hands in front of their faces — all this when some of them are supposedly not even playing in the game?

According to Niranjan Shah, the BCCI Secretary, the Symonds incident has become all the more confused by language problems and whether or not monkey chants and gestures constitute abuse. These are factors which have reduced match referee, Chris Broad, to reporting rule violations in “maybes”. Then hold-ups have also been caused by the absence of complaints from Symonds and Cricket Australia. Quibbles have also arisen as to whether it is the responsibility of the home Board or the tourists to lodge complaints about rules violations.

Former players such as Allan Border and Steve Waugh say that Ponting’s men are being too thin-skinned. Sensibly Symonds had kept his mouth tightly closed and his bat swinging hard and free. The problem of racial abuse and sledging, however, will remain long after this tour is forgotten. Had India won, it might have been a different story.

It seems that some international players have cottoned onto the wrongful interpretation of C. L. R. James’s tagline that “the greatness of a cricketer is in the head.” They have taken it to be an open invitation to win by imposing “mental disintegration”. They have forgotten that cricket is first and foremost a skill game played — it is true — by intelligent people and containing mental ploys. The problem is where do gentle gibes end and violent enmity begin? I believe that “giant oaks grow from tiny oaks” and that somewhere along the line, sledging will have to be reduced if not abolished.