I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea of sledging in sport. Well, in cricket specifically. I can’t really comment on other sports, mainly because I think there is less sledging and less opportunity for sledging but also because I have never played other games to a standard that sledging is integral. Those who have seen me play cricket would argue that the same applies to that sport.
I think cricket is susceptible to sledging because of the nature of the game. It is, at once, a team game but also one that contains within itself individual skirmishes. And it is those individual one-to-one scraps that help to shape the whole battle that is a game of cricket.
When you play cricket, you enter into a realm of infinite complexity and also beguiling simplicity. Even the best batsmen in the world concede that batting is a case of ‘See ball, hit ball’. And many bowlers often do little more than attempts to hurl the ball towards the batsmen as fast as they can. But draped over this simple philosophy is a lexicon of nuance. The cover drive, the pull, the hook, the sweep and so on. And the bowlers have their inswingers, outswingers cutters, bouncers, googlies and chinamen (are we allowed to call them that any more?).
This is the cricket you see as a spectator, punctuated by the sound leather on willow. The sun always shines and the runs always flow.
But there is a darker side to cricket. An ugly expansion of the conflict. Gone are the days when a batsmen would nod to a bowler in appreciation of a fine delivery that had beaten the bat’s edge. Or a bowler might shrug his shoulders to acknowledge the batsman who had just dispatched him back over his head for six.
These genteel appreciations of the wider game have largely been replaced by vocal input of a less worthy nature ostensibly in the form of commentary but in truth focused on the batsmen. After a testing delivery, the wicket-keeper will comment to the slips that the batsman’s footwork was dubious and that, in consequence, he had failed to play the delivery correctly. I’m paraphrasing. These things tend to be expressed in a much more vivid vernacular.. But the objective is the same – to break the batsmen’s concentration in a manner that can if necessary be defended as innocent commentary
Of course much of the chatter that goes on the pitch is genuinely innocent. I have, more than once, been part of a slip cordon that spent several overs comparing the merits of doughnuts over a good old-fashioned Victoria sponge. Weighty matters. It was not unknown for the batsmen to join in, perhaps venturing the coffee eclair as an appropriate alternative. I could discuss cricket teas forever (and will at a later date). The Empire was forged and lost over cricket teas. Don’t get me started.
But sledging has little to do with cricket teas. Indeed, in my view, it has little to do with cricket full stop. Although confrontation between batsmen and bowler can sometimes spill over in the heat of the moment, it is rare. Don’t get me wrong – I was is captivated as any at the famous eyeball to eyeball stand-off and exchange of words between Allan Donald and Mike Atherton [4th Test v South Africa at Trent Bridge, Day 4] or the attempted intimidation of Jacques Kallis by a young Kemar Roach 3rd Test West Indies v South Africa in Barbados ]– the perfect example of a young hothead being given a lesson in respect by one of the legends of the game. Used sparingly, this sort of thing lends a certain frisson to international cricket. In village cricket, it looks petulant and unconvincing. Yet it still occurs. There is something vaguely laughable about being sledged by a 13-year-old fast bowler. Ask them if they’ve finished all their homework and watch their line and length fall apart.
Throughout the villages of Kent and East Sussex, where I used to play the game (and I use the word “play” in its loosest possible interpretation), each village had its own hallmarks – elegant faded pavilions speaking of more prosperous times and exalted bygone teams. Brutish Portakabins disgorging angry adolescents, determined to bruise and better. And that was just the spinners.
You learn to recognise the signs. Meeting the opposition captain out in the middle for the coin toss gives you a pretty good foretaste of the ensuing encounter. Chat for a moment or two, recall previous encounters and (genuinely) wish each other good luck. You know you’re in for a good afternoon irrespective of the result. On the other hand, when you shake hands before the toss with an expressionless Neanderthal, monobrowed and monosyllabic, you swiftly realise that this will not be an afternoon of gentle banter so much as what Steve Waugh used to call mental disintegration. It’s a tactic perhaps successful at the WACA, but all rather unnecessary in the East Sussex league division 12. Besides, our batting was as frail as a bee’s wing. There was no need for mental disintegration. Our teams typically had one halfway decent batsmen, ageing but able. The attack (and again I’m stretching the definition) consisted principally of a former first-team seamer, short of a yard or two now but naggingly accurate. The remainder of the team were bits and pieces sorts of players. And before you say anything, yes I count myself in that category. I have always thought of myself as a classic English all-rounder – I can’t bat and I can’t bowl.
But all this talk of batsmen, bowlers, all-rounders and such detracts from the linchpin of each team, the wicket-keeper. It doesn’t actually matter too much whether they are good. The principal requirements of the position are to keep up a steady stream of chatter between themselves, the bowler, the slips and gully. An eight-hour game of cricket can pass surprisingly quickly if the chatter is good.. For a few short weeks our 4th XI had an Aussie keeper. Only a few short weeks sadly – as long as it took the club’s management to realise that he could actually play the game and was therefore underutilised in the ‘dads and lads’ team.
He was unusual. A dead ringer for Phil Jupitus, he had a vineyard somewhere in Australia. And for a few short weeks, he punctuated and commentated the afternoon’s entertainment.
“Like a gazelle, Jon” he called as I tripped chasing a quick single and landed upside down in a heap. Or, as one of Julian’s dibbly dobbllies pitched on the adjacent strip, “that’s enough variation Jules”. When one young but erratic fast bowler was still trying to finish is over after 11 deliveries I called out to him “come on G, we’re right behind you” in what I thought was an encouraging tone. “Safest bloody place” said Paul in a theatrical whisper.
Above all, he understood the nature of sledging. Well sledging in village cricket I mean. He admired quality in every aspect of the game and would happily complement (sincerely) opposition batsmen on elegant cover drives or balletic square cuts. He filled those long periods when nothing seemed to be happening with bat or ball with amusement and advice.
It was inevitable of course that the club would soon realise that he actually knew how to play the game. But in those short weeks he showed the 4th XI how the game should be played.
You won’t find the real heart of cricket at the MCG, at Sabina Park or at Lord’s. The real beating heart of cricket and the key to its survival is found in the hundreds of tiny clubs dotted around the country and in the personalities who play the game. Cricket is not about mental disintegration. Cricket is about being part of something that is timeless.
Believe me, I watched Boycott bat at Headingley when I was young. I know what “timeless” means.