This article is a guest contribution from Tony Harris, you can Tony on Twitter @_TonyHarris - Please be aware that the following article contains some rather colourful language.
To the non-acquainted, ‘sledging’ is what you do when it starts snowing. In cricket, it is seeking to gain an advantage by goading an opposition player. For fans, it’s a source of contention, as well as fascination, which continues to divide opinion. How do you balance competitive edge with crossing the line? It comes down to control and integrity: if you visibly lose control, you lose the exchange. If you can still shake hands and smile at stumps, it’s all in the good-natured, spirit of the game.
Take yourself back to Edgbaston 2005, England vs Australia. Perhaps the most memorable and exciting Test match, and series, to date. One played in great spirits too. Shane Warne is at the batting crease, firmly in a run-chase that’s building to a crescendo that lives long in the memory.
Ashley Giles has the ball in hand. Andrew Strauss, now Sir, encourages the left-arm slow bowler: “come on Gilo, he’s struggling against you here”. Warne stops, with narrowed eyes, and turns to Straussy. “Mate there’s only one guy struggling here. It’s you. You’re fucking shit”.
The England fielders around the bat stifled their laughter. Warne continues: “say another word to me, I’ll hit the next ball for 6”. Straussy obligingly repeats. The next ball goes over square leg for six. Sledging in a nutshell: Straussy attempted to distract Shane Warne, had it dished back at him, and everyone laughed it off. Another light-hearted example is served by the inimitable Freddie Flintoff.
Lords 2004, England v West Indies: the men in Maroon chasing a target of 477 runs. Tino Best, prone to chirping in the field himself, strolled to the crease eyeing easy runs off Giles. With some general chatter around the bat, Best made 3 runs – until Flintoff delivered a phrase which he credits as the best thing he did on a cricket field.
Leaning into him at the crease from slip, Freddie says with a grin like a Cheshire-cat “mind the windows, Tino”. In response, Tino launched down the pitch to slog over the bowler’s head, loses his ground and Geraint Jones stumps him – causing Freddie to start laughing as Best trudges back to the pavilion. Fred’s running commentary leading to the coup de grâce and the wicket. Mission accomplished.
Whilst today’s society hastily brands anything negative or potentially insulting as offensive, or wrong, these exchanges make cricket absorbing. Sportsmen are human, and what is life without a chuckle – nobody embodies that more than Fred. The belligerence between cricketers makes it a far more compelling spectacle. Greg Thomas sledged Viv Richards in a county game between Glamorgan and Somerset following several plays and misses: “It's red, round and it's about five ounces, in case you were wondering”. The next ball was smoked for six, with the master-blaster’s retort “You know what it looks like, now go and fetch it."
However, chirping must be well-spirited and not constitute ‘abuse’, as Justin Langer condemns. Australia have played hard cricket since Ayers Rock began forming - it’s just the Australian modus operandi. During the 1989 Ashes, the Queen was fortunate to not get a volley off Allan Border or Merv Hughes. Yet, despite a historic reputation for getting stuck into opposition players with vitriolic insults, under Steve Waugh, they must be credited with being more calculating. Around the bat, they would make the batsman question his technique, his ability, his method of scoring runs with simple, but bruising lines.
Shane Warne would only refer to Rob Key’s corpulence off the field, but on it he would deliver audible commentary: “falling over there a bit Keysy” “Christ, have you seen his grip?”. By constantly making batsmen question themselves, they are not concentrating as much as necessary. Steve Waugh would then set the same field that had got a batsman out in the previous innings, provoking them and asking if they remembered the view. Amongst all of cricket’s neologisms, ‘mental disintegration’ is one that sounds far worse than its practice.
The balance that must be struck is found in the intent as much as the content. If you are intending to insult or offend somebody, it has no place in cricket. Similarly, if you’re swearing aggressively at somebody. Glenn McGrath v Ramnaresh Sarwan in Antigua 2003 immediately springs to mind.
Frustrated by his own bowling and Sarwan’s batting, McGrath asked Sarwan “what does Brian Lara’s cock taste like?”, prompting Sarwan’s response: “I don’t know, ask your wife”. McGrath’s wife was severely ill at the time; McGrath saw red, threatening “I’ll fucking rip your fucking throat out” in one of the ugliest on-field altercations. Perhaps understandable in the context, but neither side of the clash was in the spirit of cricket. Michael Clarke’s warning to Jimmy Anderson in Perth 2013, “get ready for a broken fucking arm”, is another case in point.
The divisive element of sledging is the potential effect on the lower echelons of cricket – particularly amongst youngsters. In international cricket, confrontation is inevitable, however club and village cricket can be worse for sledging than a first-class game. Blindly spouting insults to the local butcher, postman or bank manager is not cricket, nor is there any tactical consequence: it’s not akin to stumping Tino Best at Lords. Similarly, the amusing presence of the shrieking jester Rishabh Pant behind the stumps would not go down well if he played for the Dog and Duck pub team. Naturally, amateur echelons emulate the heroes they watch at the professional level.
Whilst sledging must remain a fundamental part of the game, players must understand their influence and accept their responsibility by erring on tactical and comical jibes instead of aggressive, personal assaults. The stump microphones are an edifying addition to the fan experience, their muting would weaken the game amongst purist and casual fans alike. Much like the historical bowler’s union, of bowling no bouncers, self-awareness of the players will prove far more effective than an ICC panel deciding a list of banned words or gestures – or silencing them altogether.
The importance of sledging is two-fold: for the players on-field and the viewing public. In gaining a tactical advantage, or simply by having a joke on the field, players have the prerogative to balance propriety with the advantages of sledging. The intensity of Test cricket, and the barest of margins in international and elite franchise cricket will inevitably lead to non-violent conflict. Unless fans and the cricketing boards wish to see 22 robots bowling and batting, there must be an acceptance of the human and emotional element of the game. The gentleman’s game is constantly looking for ways to rebrand, innovate and evolve itself. However, it must be mindful not to smash the pleasure of the fans’ fourth wall, let alone minding the windows.