Sport Editor Samuel Mitchinson discusses sledging and its role in both professional and amateur cricket.
“At least my teammates like me, dickhead.” These words, uttered mere moments before Tim Paine dropped Indian batsman Hanuma Vihari, have been repeated continually in the media over the past week, and have brought a whole new level of attention to the strategy of sledging in both international and local cricket. Put simply, sledging is the art of looking to gain an advantage over an opponent by insulting or verbally intimidating them. Sledging has gained something of a cult status in the modern cricketing game, and fans and commentators alike will regularly exchange, replicate, or reminisce on classic sledges. Flintoff asking Timo Best to “mind the windows” before Best danced down the wicket and got stumped, has been replayed on national television many times, and is seen as a great example of good sledging: funny, effective, and not abusive. Recently, Sri Lanka wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella provided the perfect example, asking Dan Lawrence for tips on playing spin, and inquiring to Joe Root whether he could have one of his bats
For players at the elite level of cricket, sledging has been described as a viable and essential tactic involved in dismissing a batsman. Steve Waugh described sledging as a form of “mental disintegration”, and his Australian side was known for their vivacious use of sledging to gain a mental edge over their opponent. This culture of verbal abuse has continued to persist in the Australian side of recent years, through the captaincies of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith, and now, it would seem, into the captaincy of Tim Paine.
Tim Paine’s overstepping of the line thus comes at a rather awkward moment, at a time when Australian cricket culture is under extreme scrutiny following their ugly tour of South Africa, which involved not only extensive personal attacks on both sides, but also the now infamous sandpaper incident, where the Australian team used sandpaper to scuff up the ball to improve its performance. This cheating was condemned by those at home and abroad, with even then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull condemning the incident as a “shocking disappointment”. Paine was subsequently appointed as captain, thought to be a man able to redeem the Australian cricket team in the eyes of the people of Australia and the world, a task that was aided by Amazon’s insidiously hagiographic documentary series The Test. For some, this recent incident shows that nothing about the culture of the Australian side has changed, and that for real change to happen, they need to tackle a wider cultural problem in Australian cricket.
While verbal barrages and mental degradation are perfectly excusable tactics in the Test arena, the banter and abuse of players becomes much less excusable as you drop down the ranks of competitive cricket to the amateur level. Sledging, particularly in countries such as Australia and South Africa, has been granted an almost legendary status, with Aussies at all levels of the game, seemingly proud of their sledging pedigree irrespective of their talent with the bat or the ball. They’ll point to some of the most famous sledges in history – forgetting that a large amount of Australian sledging consisted of racist abuse targeted at West Indian players – and how it’s an integral part of the game. While at the international level, the huge stakes and the competitive edge of these Herculean sportsmen allow the occasional deviation from funny into the abusive, this becomes less excusable when you’re playing with your mates on a Saturday against some fifteen year olds and your Dad’s past-it pub mates. Personally, I enjoy this aspect of the game, and it’s vital for maintaining morale in the field, especially if you’re on the losing side as I often find myself to be. Nevertheless, the second it deviates into personal attacks or boring name calling – as it did with Tim Paine – it becomes much less justifiable.
In the end, it was the Indians who had the last laugh, pulling off a stunning victory at the Gabba to seal a classic series victory. Australia’s ‘All-time great pace attack’ was lacklustre at best, and was outperformed by an Indian unit plagued with injuries and playing their third-string side. Australia, if they really want to be the best side in the world – and believe me they are very, very far from being that – need to have a hard look at both their performances, and their culture. New Zealand, the current world No. 1 side, are known for their positive outlook and disconcerting politeness. Perhaps in Cricket, as in Coronavirus, we all have a lot to learn from the Kiwis.