February 23, 2017

Why we need needle

We all enjoy watching a little pettiness, bad blood and low-grade squabbling between players, let's admit it
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Grenada, 2015: Samuels sees Stokes off. Samuels said he referred to Stokes as a "nervous laddie" to his batting partner, Carlos Brathwaite, during the World T20 final the following year © Associated Press

Of the many outstanding things that James Anderson has brought to English cricket these last 15 years - inswing, outswing, wobble seam, comedy reverse sweeps - perhaps the greatest is his unbridled, unrepentant, completely unforced churlishness. He could chunter for England, and frequently does.

In the midst of Virat Kohli's recent 18-rated runfest, Jimmy was invited to opine as to the brilliance of the Indian captain's batting. He could only muster a token agreement, before muttering peevishly about Kohli being "good in these conditions", the implication being that back on English decks, he'd be all over him like a cheap suit, just as - and still reading between the lines here, the lines of Jimmy's scowl - he had previously been with Sachin. Not one to drop his competitive guard, our Jimmy.

Anderson may or may not make it to the reunion with Kohli, but he has a worthy heir in Ben Stokes, who, while not possessed of the Burnley Lara's delectable swing-bowling skills, nonetheless does seem both to get under the opposition's skin and to be a bit of an irritation magnet (ask Virat Kohli). And what's not to like about that? You have to admit, it's entertaining.

Guiltily or gleefully, most people enjoy an occasional spot of bubbled-over bad blood, petulant handbags, unreconstructed arseyness. Marlon Samuels saluting a cheaply dismissed Stokes was one of Test cricket's great esoterically funny moments, principally because it showed the lengths he was prepared to go to - maximal theatrics, no violence: the perfect blend - in order to assert his primacy over a foe, however temporary.

The overly sanctimonious guardians of the spirit of cricket occasionally imagine the sport degenerating into the sort of lawlessness that gripped South American football in the early 1970s, when players took pins onto the field to stab opponents at corners. But this spirit - which, though intangible, is something both real and valuable - isn't really threatened by pettiness, which is merely a puerile outburst of the competitive Palaeolithic brain, a symptom of how much a game means to its participants and not of how incapable they are of taking defeat on the chin a couple of hours later.

Not long into our innings it became clear that the opposition were bowling with a parboiled potato. The first ball I faced seemed to sit on the bat face for hours. My Basil Fawlty-esque protestations seemed to tickle them no end

The depth of meaning sparking these magnificently petty tit-for-tat spats usually derives from the wider context of history and rivalry. In cricket, these are often personal rather than collective - Stokes and Samuels, Stokes and Kohli, Stokes and Starc - although India and Pakistan, and Yorkshire and Lancashire, are believed to have some kind of beef between them.

Where rivalries endure, grudges may be borne. And they often enhance the experience. Maybe not at the time, but once your playing days - amateur or pro - are done and dusted, the spice sucked from the memories, they are unfailingly a source of humorous recollection: "I can't believe I went that far! What was I thinking?" That said, the professional game these days is fairly well behaved. Everything from sanctions for breaches of ICC codes of conduct, and the omnipresence of TV cameras, to players' increased fraternisation in franchise T20 leagues militates against things kicking off. It's not football. Or ice hockey.

No, the place to go for really spectacularly fractious small-mindedness is club cricket, where antipathies can fester long down the years. From 1996 to 2005, my own club, Moddershall, had a fierce rivalry with Longton, fuelled in part by our best young player leaving, aged 20, to fulfil his top-flight and county ambitions over there. We went up the following season, then became the first newly promoted side to win the top division. One or two of our improvised victory songs that night may have referenced our departed young star.

Longton were a city club, established and successful, us an emerging power. And rural. The games down there, in front of their invariably bawdy support, were always particularly fruity. It was the only ground with a PA system ("The outgoing batsman is Scott Oliver, lbw Tweedie 0"). It's the only place I ever kicked the stumps over in disgust, whereupon a Santa-shaped guy known as Zigger-Zagger - on account of him leading a regular chant of that name on the Stoke City terraces - bellowed, helpfully: "It'll still be ite in Mundee's Sentinel, mah mate".*

We contested several cup semi-finals and finals, Longton and us, duked it out in many championship-shaping battles, and played each other in low-stakes games like it was the Auld Firm. No backwards steps. Almost zero cordiality. And yet, despite all that (minor, rep-theatre) drama, the two standout memories I have are tales of plumbing the rivalry's potential pettiness, groping for the lengths to which we'd go either not to have the other lot take the piss, or to take the piss ourselves.

"Say what, guv'nor?" © AFP

The latter involved me phoning their bar from our dressing room after we'd beaten them in a late-July league game that meant little to us, comfortably in mid-table after a shaky start, but damaged them, locked as they were in a two-horse race for the title with Stone, whose widely loved Pakistani professional I was impersonating during said call.

"Hello, this is Mo Hussain. Can you tell me result of game, please?"

"We lost, mate - 115 all out, they knocked off for five."

"Lost! To Modd-shall!! How you lose to Modd-shall? They're shit, mate."

Not full-on pettiness, of course. The glee was patently derived from the joke's target, although the non-disclosure that the call was coming from the away dressing room, essential to the humour, may have knocked some of the potential gloss off it.

If we'd played Longton at shove ha'penny, it'd have been war. And so it proved in the semi-final of a relatively insignificant midweek cup competition, played over 16 eight-ball overs with both sides to provide "a used cricket ball" for the occasion. Not long into our innings it became clear that Longton were bowling with a parboiled potato. The first ball I faced seemed to sit on the bat face for hours. My Basil Fawlty-esque protestations seemed to tickle them no end.

Upon being dismissed I promptly organised a rummage through the kitbags to locate the worst ball we had. A youngster was then dispatched to the back of the pavilion to throw it against the concrete slabs awhile, later followed by another to pummel it with a bat mallet. At the interval I informed the umpire that the originally submitted ball was needed for the 2nd XI game on Saturday, simultaneously handing him the replacement before he could query it. When their innings' first ball was punched firmly off the back foot and barely dribbled to cover, it was impossible to suppress our laughter. We laughed last, too. And loudest.

Of course, that's all many beers under the bridge ago. Now they're anecdotes, not incidents.

The beauty of sport - even amateur sport - is that in the thick of it, everyone, spectators and participants alike, acts as though it means the world, even though, eventually, inevitably, it doesn't mean anything; even though it's always just a game, finite and bounded by its conventions, unlike the open reality of history, where the antagonisms are potentially endless. Indeed, for rival supporters in professional sports - or rather, fanatics, with their often compulsory symbiotic loathing - it's not quite so straightforward to attain such a dispassionate, stoic, only-a-game perspective on things. As for the opposing players, they usually end up realising that the rivalry, however testy, however rancorous, is ultimately what lends their fatally intertwined stories their most interesting chapters.

*Translation: It'll still be out in Monday's paper

Scott Oliver tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricinfouser on February 28, 2017, 9:25 GMT

    @ CRICFAN77042008 - Nadal pumps his fist in every opponents face as often as he can. Thats not needle? Come now.

  • Keupke on February 24, 2017, 19:38 GMT

    Ab-so-lu-te-ly disagree. Sport needs to be played fair and clean. And especially cricket. Ugliness and aggression do not have a place in this world, let alone in sports. No matter what "people" want. Remember the "games" of the Romans.

  • USCricfan on February 24, 2017, 15:26 GMT

    I love the article, Scott! As ugly as all this is, face it, this is what people like.

    Here are the first few lines from Don Henley's apt song about this:

    I make my living off the evening news Just give me something-something I can use People love it when you lose, They love dirty laundry

  • gwd80 on February 24, 2017, 13:59 GMT

    This was a disappointing read from an author who's other articles I've really enjoyed, even though it as engagingly written. I guess I just can't agree with the core argument. All the incidents you refer to make you and your opposition sound completely childish. I'll never understand this mentality that many in recreational cricket seem to hold, that a large part of the game is to focus on, and glory in, the belittling and mocking of your opposition. Why? It's just a game, try hard, play to your utmost, get completely immersed in it, but in the end, may the best team win and shake hands afterwards. Why play childish pranks and chuck inane abuse at each other?

    It's not the way I play cricket, or like to see others play it. It saddens me that so many seem to view things differently.

    Finally, I'm all for funny/cutting repartee between sides, but all the people who defend "banter" in my experience never have funny supporting examples - only nasty sounding ones. That's not fun. Rant ends.

  • mcsdl on February 24, 2017, 12:09 GMT

    Writer is living in his own little coo coo land... Sledging and banter should only be condone if it is between 2 mates. Otherwise don't try to push down your English garbage into everyone... The day you are prepared to sledge by using other persons mother tongue, maybe you then have a slight right to get into verbals - otherwise learn to respect others and do the talking with the performance in the pitch..!

  • BallsNearZip on February 24, 2017, 11:18 GMT

    Suspect that the writer could predict the response and therefore put the descriptive "sanctimonious" in advance of some of the comments. There are rivalries in most sports and not everyone has the Zen-like personality of Federer, Nadal or Hassett, including most, but not all, fast bowlers. What a boring, one-dimensional world it would be if everyone did. In a sport which in essence sends a hard, projectile at speed in an opponent's general direction can it really be surprising that the odd comment (sometimes funny, sometimes petty) is exchanged in the same general direction? And when it becomes apparent that it happens on one's own village green why is it considered so embarrassing that some feel the need to instantly point the finger elsewhere?

  • cricketcritic on February 24, 2017, 10:18 GMT

    @pappypanther - well perhaps we are opposed, but confused as to who's supposedly "rattled". I have a view which has very little to do with where I come from. I'm not a cheerleader for anyone, simply passionate about a great game. I don't mind some needle, who doesn't? But obviously there's a line and despite crossing it more than most the Australians apparently know better than everyone else "where the line is". It's ridiculous IMO, which hopefully I'm entitled to...

  • chuchan on February 24, 2017, 9:31 GMT

    This is your view and a childish one. Not true if you love the game. Nothing to admit. Pettiness and squabbles do not belong on any sports field least of all on a cricket field. I wish people would not look beyond the game itself for interest or excitement. Such articles miss the whole point of playing cricket or any game for that matter.

  • cricfan77042008 on February 24, 2017, 6:59 GMT

    My favorite sport is actually tennis, and the example that occurs to me is the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Is there any "needling" between them before, during or after ganes? Can anyone doubt the intensity when they play each other? Are spectators bored by the lack of "needle"? Answers are obvious. Why can't rivalries in cricket be similar?

  • partab on February 24, 2017, 4:28 GMT

    The headline almost put me off but to be fair to the author i went through the piece and could not disagree with him more. Okay, call me conventional, conservative or what have you but having watched cricket since it was a gentleman's game (which it is not now) I find much of the players' behaviour unacceptable to put it mildly. In this regard I am with former Australian captain Lindsay Hassett the gentleman cricketer turned commentator who left the commentary box and turned his back on the game saying that he could not stand the behavior of modern players. I mean where does one draw the line? When the needling starts it is bound to escalate and degenerate into the abysmal acts on the field that we have seen so often. It is best to nip it in the bud. And so, no, we don't need needling of ANY kind.

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