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February 3, 2001

Sledging is human, and forgiving, divine

Roshan Paul

So once again the issue of sledging pops up, with Shane Warne's outburst against Stuart Carlisle. Whether the fault is that of the Channel Nine employee who permitted the language to be broadcast is up for debate, but I wonder why this is a problem at all. Is sledging necessarily bad?

The ostensible argument is that it sets a bad example for youngsters.


Youngsters are using far worse language than that, before they are old enough to realize that one cricketer is mouthing curses at another on television. You can't blame sportsmen for that; such language is used today by 3rd standard kids. I've heard it. If you must have a scapegoat, blame Hollywood and the likes of Wesley Snipes and Matt Damon.

Now look at it from the point of view of the players. They are athletes, finely honed ones, who are paid to fight a battle. And make no mistake, cricket today is very much a battle - with its glory, constantly increasing prize money, lucrative endorsement opportunities for the stars, paparazzi-like media coverage, rapid technological advances, and adoring yet unforgiving fans. It ain't a Gentleman's Game any longer.

And the players are human. Thus, given these pressures, when it gets too fiery in the cauldron that is the cricket ground, it is only natural that emotions become uncontrollable. After all, careers and livelihoods are made or broken out there. With all this constant pressure, the odd emotional outburst should be tolerated with understanding, rather than be punished or criticized incessantly.

For example, I think we can all agree that the only reason VVS Laxman is still playing cricket for India is his 167-run knock in Sydney. Now, what if the umpire had given him out lbw off an inside edge? Would we still have the chance to see one of India's most attractive batsmen in action? I don't think so…

Another example would be Justin Langer's edge against Pakistan that wasn't given out. If Shoaib Akhthar had given vent to his true feelings at the time, no doubt he would have been banned for a couple of games. But look at the consequences of that decision. Had it been given, Australia would in all probability have lost that match, and all this brouhaha about unbeaten streaks wouldn't have seen the light of day. We can play 'Sliding Doors' till we are blue in the face, but little things out in the middle change the course of lives, and this needs to be understood. So let the players be human, and don't make them automatons.

The Art of Sledghing I disagree with Prem here, for I think sledging adds a lot to the game. After Ricky Ponting clobbers him for three consecutive boundaries, I'd much rather see Javagal Srinath walk up to him and describe Ponting's mother flying around on a stick than watch Srinath's usual sickly, toothless, smile of defeat. Firstly, it definitely makes for more interesting viewing. One of my all-time favourite cricket memories is Curtly Ambrose glaring down at Steve Waugh from less than 5 inches away. That, along with Allan Donald's outburst against Rahul Dravid in South Africa, is as memorable as the unadulterated joy on Brett Lee's face when he takes a wicket or Courtney Walsh's facial histrionics in a similar situation.

Secondly, cricket is played in the mind, and you need to show, vocally and through body language, that you believe you will win. In his autobiography, Allan Donald writes "You need to dominate the opposition before they do the same to you." He then goes on to cite examples of how sledging has time and again brought about a batsman's downfall.

On the other hand, our cricketers are simply not as tough between the ears as the Aussies or the Proteas are. We are not as aggressive, not as self-confident and, thus, not as dominant. That is why I'll always support someone like Ajit Agarkar in debates about team selection. He may not have the ability of a great fast bowler, but he does have the attitude. And he wears it on his sleeve. (He'd make a great model for Weekender, come to think of it). Ever wonder why Ajit Agarkar - and not Srinath, Prasad or Kumble - was our leading wicket-taker in the Test series against Australia last year?

Anyone who sledges also assumes the risk that it might backfire. Donald talks about Sachin Tendulkar as one player who only bats better when abused. He also tells of a story in which the South Africans mercilessly barracked Devon Malcolm in a Test match. This upset the Englishman so much that he promised revenge, came out to bowl like a man possessed and took 9/57 in an innings to destroy South Africa and bowl England to victory. All of this adds to the game, for heaven's sake! By gambling on an opposing player's mental framework, you are introducing an element of chance into the game. This is good!

Curbing sledging is tantamount to censorship of the players and censorship, like protectionism, is self-defeating. Picture a young, wonderfully talented but mentally-sheltered Indian batsman called, say, Baccha Kapoor going out to bat against an Australian fast bowler, say, Frank Hothead. The Indian has never seen sledging beyond the odd "He's leaving leg-stump open... he's scared... c'mon you can get him" that permeates junior cricket in India. His opponent, on the other hand, has come through the no-quarters-given-none-asked stepladder of Australian domestic cricket. After Baccha hits a couple of fours, Hothead walks up to him and describes in graphic detail what he did to Baccha's mother the previous night. The Indian will either dissolve into tears or angrily lash out at the next ball -- either way, his wicket is handed over on a silver platter.

We can't mentally prepare our young cricketers (or all our youth for that matter) for the ugly/competitive nature - whichever way you choose to look at it - of international cricket (or life) by sheltering them from its dark side. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's classic novel about the stupidity of censorship, he argues convincingly that one must have the chance to encounter ugliness, for only then can one overcome it and realize true beauty. The bad cannot be overcome by protecting the good from it, instead you need to unleash the good against it.

Going back to the players, anyone who chastises a McGrath or Donald for verbal abuse has obviously never been a fast bowler. I have, and I completely understand the perspective of one. Cricket today, and especially one-day cricket, is a batsman's game. With all the restrictions on bowlers in the one-day game, is it any wonder that a McGrath can't keep his tongue in check when someone like Guy Whittall steps out and lofts him over the top, something Whittall would never have the audacity to attempt in a Test match. Already so discriminated against by the rules of the game, this is simply beyond what a great fast bowler can stomach and he may not be able to control a stream of invective.

To fully understand the mentality of a fast bowler, you have to be one. Dennis Lillee was one of the best and he is one of the biggest advocates for removing those damning stump microphones. He has a point. Instead of straitjacketing the players, why not remove the infinitesimal additional gratification that a stump microphone gives the audience?

Sledging is very much an on-field activity. After he abused Dravid, Donald made it a point to go up to him and apologize after the game. The Australians love to have a beer with the opposing team at the end of a day's play. Sledging is gamesmanship and not personal, and must be treated as such instead of being eradicated.

There is also the issue that players from some countries tend to get away with sledging more often than others… but that is another issue altogether and not one I'm pursuing at the moment. If sledging were treated as the on-field, heat of the moment thing that it is, then we wouldn't have to punish anyone, would we?

So the next time you see McGrath or Warne or Agarkar mouthing bad words at an opponent, dismiss it as their opponent must. Sledging is human, understanding it is divine.

Design: Devyani Chandwarkar
Illustration: Dominic Xavier   

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