February 11, 2017

The case for sledging

Whether it's acceptable or not is another matter, but there's no denying that sledging works
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Does sledging work? Ask these fellows © Getty Images

Around a decade ago a 20-year-old man walked to a suburban wicket with his team in a precarious position. The previous week they had conceded a glut of runs to a rampaging opposition that included a recently discarded international player. In a message to selectors and anyone else who wanted to listen, the deposed veteran made a score that dropped jaws.

And so the 20-year-old strode to the crease, his team 40 for 4 in reply. Two overs remained before lunch. Slightly shaking but presenting the bravest face possible, he asked for centre. In an attempt at familiarity, he addressed the umpire by name. It was a disastrous overcompensation, seized upon gleefully.

"Do you know him, mate?" offered the point fieldsman. Chuckles ensued from those in earshot. The batsman glanced behind him to see four slips waiting. Each stared, stony-faced, directly back. Two had arms folded, two had hands behind their backs, like policemen strolling their beat. Robocop wraparound sunglasses were the day's fashion, as was the gnashing of chewing gum. The batsman probably shouldn't have addressed the umpire by name. It played on his mind.

"Rod, do you know this bloke?" came the follow-up from first slip. It was the veteran record-breaker, speaking to the umpire, capitalising on the moment. All heads turned to the man in white, now a central character in the contrived pantomime. Rod chuckled. "Nope!" he replied, followed by more laughter. A ball hadn't yet been bowled.

The veteran continued, "Mate, what's going on with your socks?" Now we had a problem. Unbeknown to the batsman, he had tucked his socks into his pants before affixing his pads. "Is this Under-12s? Rod, am I playing Under-12s?" Guffaws followed from all but the already humiliated batsman. He was out for 5, caught at gully off the last ball before lunch.

Sledging has utility and that's primarily why it exists. While few of us ever will, were we to step into the private confines of a professional dressing room, we would likely find believers. You won't hear this publicly, though, as the word itself has become villainous to cricketing morality. Very few are willing to openly defend sledging, though many privately believe in its value. Pragmatism often trumps principle.

So in this Trumpian world, perhaps it's time to air the views of a silent majority. Maybe sledging is effective. Maybe sledging makes a difference. Maybe sledging helps teams win.

We accept that cricket is a mental game, and let's face it, the majority of us cannot control ourselves very well mentally

Contrary to popular conception, sledging is rarely a series of witty one-liners of the sort found in internet listicles. Nor is it often outright verbal abuse. In large part it's merely a stream of hushed expletives, passive-aggressive body language, conversations between team-mates, and assorted noises, the worst of which is laughter.

We accept that cricket is a mental game, and let's face it, the majority of us cannot control ourselves very well mentally. We are not purveyors of unadulterated Zen and focused positivity. We are mostly flawed individuals, who carry our nerves, insecurities and awareness of weakness into most of life's important moments. We all learned at an early age that humiliation, embarrassment, and feelings of not belonging compromise our confidence. Ergo, if you accept that confidence is critical to cricketing success, then isn't it the opposition's imperative to weaken it?

Which brings us to sledging's ethical considerations. Among the many and overlapping guiding principles for a player's behaviour, particularly at the professional level, standing as tall as any is this: "What will help us win?" It's here that we confront sledging's mythical line. For most, the line is simply about what you can get away with. Or as Nathan Lyon described it, "We try to head-butt the line." If there is an upside or edge to be exploited in pursuit of victory, aren't players arguably justified in doing so? When it comes to sledging, for many the question is less "Is this right?", more "Will this work?"

Of course, it doesn't always work. Some personalities thrive under sledging, while others are immune. But these are rare birds. It's more likely than not that sledging hurts us. If we succeed, we do so in spite of it and not because of it. And so in our new, Trump-led world, where the prevailing doctrines seem to be less about honour and more about winning, it is fitting to view sledging as a viable tool in the arsenals of fielding sides. No one will say so, mind.

Beyond its capacity to mentally disrupt the opposition, in some countries sledging seemingly has a cultural allure too. You don't have to travel far on YouTube to witness the bipartisan adoration for former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, whose ability to deliver withering verbal takedowns and comebacks is arguably without peer. He is adored for his capacity to verbally undermine his opposition, and it's understandable that many may seek to emulate that when it comes to facing opponents of their own.

This potent yet fragile tool for psychological disruption remains as alive as ever. Ask any batsman whether they'd prefer to be sledged when they bat or not, and the honest answer will be no. And it is for this reason that they will engage in sledging themselves when fielding. While many might express a glib, deep-voiced indifference to "chat", we would all much prefer friendly, welcoming, encouraging environs when out in the middle. The reality, however sad or unethical, is that sledging usually makes one's innings more difficult. So long as professional pragmatism and the doctrine of winning prevails, so will sledging, whether publicly acknowledged or not.

Sam Perry is a freelance sportswriter and co-author of The Grade Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • py0alb on February 15, 2017, 16:42 GMT

    Sledging works - if your aim is create an unpleasant atmosphere, ruin the game, drive people away from the game and destroy first your own club, then your entire league, and ultimately the entire sport.

    As for getting batsmen out, it works against teenagers, but not against fully grown and emotionally stable adults. Someone who sledges a teenage needs their head examining.

  • chandrasekhar on February 14, 2017, 18:38 GMT

    Cricket is played across continents and often between two teams who have a very little in common. It is obvious that in an alien environment , when you are uncomfortable you performance will not be optimum. Australians realized this early and never shied from having a word or two with the batsman who they found difficult to dislodge purely based on the skill. Over the years it has become a tactic and a habit. Now, a dreaded disease among all the cricket playing countries. Only legislation, and card system can eradicate such an unacceptable behavior. Miandad lifted his bat to hit Dennis Lillee after having been kicked on the shin by Lillee. Unless legislation is in place, clearly stating what sentences are not allowed.. it will continue and all the future generations will be experts in what they perceive as normal behavior on the field.....

  • sisylana on February 14, 2017, 15:14 GMT

    Nice article. I love it. Kemne parchen? I wanna learn how to write such a article.

  • Calypso Kid on February 14, 2017, 12:49 GMT

    Dunger.Bob is right that the sledging in baseball is fierce. But with the dugouts, infielders and spectators all within 30m of home plate and the mound, it's constant babble and comes from both sides. Players quickly learn to screen it out for the ten minutes that a typical innings lasts. In cricket at its worst, it can be 8 infielders sledging for hours against a couple of batsmen who cannot afford a single lapse in concentration. Big difference.

  • cricfan96670810 on February 14, 2017, 8:42 GMT

    @ AUSSIENSW..Well do not act like typical aussies and run to the match ref when you cop a bit back like M.Hayden did.

  • dunger.bob on February 13, 2017, 23:35 GMT

    @ THETRUEORACLE: Good to see you still setting world records in your jumping to conclusions. You must be pushing the 100 metre mark by now. Let me explain. You see a picture of the back of Warners head and another player who seems to be talking to him. Immediately you assume that Warner is sledging/abusing him. That's a leap and a half. Who's to say Warner didn't say to the other guy ' did you see that bloke in the crowd dressed up like the Michelin man? ' and the other guy is saying 'yeah, you wouldn't get me in that thing for quids.' .. I guess you would never consider something like that because it simply doesn't fit your prejudices.

  • AussieNSW on February 13, 2017, 21:14 GMT

    @Camberwellcarrot. Welcome aboard matey! Another discussion that unfairly centers on the mighty Aussies for some reason and up you bob with your 2d worth of wisdom and usual character assassination. No high horse or high moral ground on this issue for me champ. That's the province of the poms and kiwis these days. The self proclaimed "nice guys" of the game. Sledging is here to stay and I would suggest that it's the definition of the word that needs scrutiny, not the actual banter itself. Personal or racial abuse shouldn't be tolerated. Everything else is fair game for us. As Dunger Bob pointed out it's the Aussie way and you'll find it is left on the field and settled over a beer at the end of play. No apologies for playing hard and often uncompromising cricket. That's who we are and there is certainly stuff about other international sides that ticks us off but the beer is still offered. As for the history lesson, we'll see how much we've improved when Novembers' Ashes rolls around..

  • Naikan on February 13, 2017, 19:32 GMT

    A game is supposed to allow for a fair display of a persons playing skills. Anyone resorting to sledging is using an unfair means to get results which would otherwise be beyond the reach of his/her lesser skills. I wonder if the term "gentleman's game" can still be applied to cricket.

  • TheCricketEmpireStrikesBack on February 13, 2017, 10:36 GMT

    @ORIFICE, yes ....... but can Joe Root be described a "Big guy"? For example, he certainly weighs less than "Biggy" Botham did when he was playing or visiting pubs.

  • TheTrueOracle on February 13, 2017, 10:13 GMT

    @BALLS, and we have all seen what happens then...

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