When does cricketing banter cross the line?

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

‘Good morning, my name’s Cowdrey.’ England batsman Colin, later Lord Cowdrey, to the Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson.

‘That’s not going to help you, fatso. Now piss off.’

Lord, who wrote those lines — was it Oscar Wilde? Noël Coward? Woody Allen, maybe? Or was it just a primordial example of sledging: the art and science of the cricketing insult?

Sledging is hot again as the Test series in South Africa against Australia reaches new heights of bad vibes. And when we’re getting moral lectures from David Warner — the Australian player who thumped the England player Joe Root in a bar for the unforgivable sin of wearing a joke wig on his chin — well, we know we’re faced with one of those fascinating moral puzzles.

Sledging? Etymology: an Australia cricketer was rebuked for swearing in front of a woman: ‘You’re as subtle as sledgehammer, mate.’ By extension the word became a slang term for on-field abuse of your opponents.

Cricket takes a long time and there are lots of pauses. There’s plenty of time for conversation. Cricketers have used words to put each other off since time and cricket began. It’s not exactly legal, or exactly illegal. And certainly it’s accepted.

But here’s a rum thing: you can play a game and you can break the laws, and it will be wholly acceptable to all concerned — so long as you don’t go too far. And yet what is too far? No one ever knows for sure: but here is Warner, a cricketer with a history of unruly behaviour, outraged because he believes the sledging from the South African Quinton de Kock was morally wrong.

Worse, it was ‘vile and disgusting and about my wife. It was out of line.’ You mean that ever-shifting line that separates good from evil? Or the one that separates my boys from your boys?

It was during that Cowdrey series of 1974-75 that sledging really hotted up. ‘We more or less invented the sport nigh on 50 years ago,’ wrote Peter FitzSimons in the Sydney Morning Herald of the Warner-de Kock incident. Sledging — in the modern sense — began as a calculated assault on effete Poms, and it played very well. It wasn’t like anything they were used to. And it became a tradition: the great New Zealand batsman Glenn Turner said, ‘When you come back from Australia you feel like you’ve been to Vietnam.’

Sledging was more or less formalised under the captaincy of Steve Waugh, who referred to the practice as ‘mental disintegration’. It was a phrase that neatly silenced the complainers: if you objected, it was because you couldn’t take it. You weren’t tough enough, you weren’t man enough. England cricket, at a historic low and reduced to copying everything Australian cricketers did, took on sledging in the belief that tough words make you a tough person.

Anyone who has played top-level cricket, or who, like me, has covered a lot of international cricket, gets used to the question, ‘What’s the funniest sledging incident?’ There aren’t any. Not really. Broadly speaking, sledging comes in two forms.

It’s usually aimed at the batsman, since the fielding side outnumbers the batters on the pitch by 11 to two. The first form is directly addressed to the batsman: ‘You can’t play, you’re useless, swear swear swear.’ Or as the then Australian captain Michael Clarke said to the England batsman — and hard–sledging bowler — Jimmy Anderson: ‘Get ready for a broken fucking arm.’ The other, fractionally more subtle, is intentionally overheard by the batsman: ‘Put the next one up his nose, Jimmy, he’s running scared, swear swear swear.’

There is perhaps one genuinely funny sledging story, and most people who follow cricket have heard it, so skip this bit if you know what Eddo Brandes, the stoutish Zimbabwean, said when the Australian bowler Glenn McGrath followed up a fizzing delivery with the question: ‘Why are you so fucking fat?’

‘Because every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit.’ I should add that Brandes no longer tells the story: McGrath’s wife died of breast cancer and it’s not funny any more. Real life has always had a way of making sport look a bit silly.

Sledging rows are part of cricket’s routine, and they’re always about where that ethical line is drawn. The Australian player Andrew Symonds, a man of Caribbean ancestry, was incensed when the Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh called him a monkey. But no: he had misheard. Singh had used the Hindi expression teri maa ki. Which means motherfucker. Harbhajan’s three-match ban was rescinded.

That’s really the level on which sledging operates. Insults are OK, except that some insults are not. The allegation is that de Kock’s words to Warner concerned a ten-year-old scandalette affecting his wife Candice, née Falzon, a former Ironwoman — maximum distance — triathlete. We’ll leave it there, I think.

Though Warner didn’t. He appeared to square up to de Kock on the stairs leading to the dressing-rooms after the players had come off the pitch, and was restrained by his own players. Security camera footage was then released to local media, presumably to beef up the story at the expense of Australian morale.

There is hardly any space left to point out that the South African fast bowler Kagiso Rabada has been banned for the final two matches of the series for giving the Australia captain Steve Smith an over-exuberant ‘send-off’ — that being a form of gloating after a batsman had been dismissed.

So what is acceptable in sledging? What is unacceptable? At one stage all sledging of the directly insulting kind was on the wrong side of the line; now taking it and dishing it out is part of being tough. Warner has never been a conscientious objector in any sledging war… but now he’s the injured innocent: a man more sledged against than sledging. Cricket is a fierce and passionate drama: that’s kind of the point.

Heigh-ho. ‘One becomes moral as soon as one becomes unhappy…’ That’s not Warner, by the way. That’s Proust — à la recherche du sledge perdu

Authors’ XI captain Charlie Campbell and James Forsyth discuss the art of the sledge on The Spectator Podcast.

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