“First, define your terms!” Thus spake (frequently) my English professor from his raised dais in Lecture Theatre 1 at university. Remembering his instruction, I hastily consulted my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is anything but short, by the way) for the exact definition of the word ‘sledge’. Unsurprisingly, it states that a sledge is a “simple form of conveyance over snow on runners rather than wheels, formerly used for conveying condemned prisoners to execution.” Also, it is “a large hammer used by blacksmiths, hence sledge-hammer”. Nowhere could I find mention of verbal abuse or “mental disintegration” as Steve Waugh memorably put it. So, where did the modern use of the word originate and what exactly does it mean?
It is generally accepted that the verb ‘to sledge’, meaning to abuse a batsman, or indeed any opponent, first gained common parlance sometime in the mid-1970s, emanating from Australia. The finger of suspicion is widely pointed at Ian Chappell, well known for his abrasive and uncompromising leadership of the Baggy Greens at the time. In fact I may well have been there at its introduction to these shores. In 1975, I found myself in opposition to the touring Australians. In Hampshire’s second innings, Peter Sainsbury and I shared in an unbroken 4th wicket partnership of 73 before our captain, Barry Richards, declared the innings closed. It has to be admitted that Peter was not the most exciting of batsmen and that I was concentrating more on ducking and weaving out of the way of Jeff Thomson’s unpleasant bouncers than smashing the ball to all parts. Thus the run rate was hardly stratospheric. Ian Chappell, the Australian captain, had a visceral dislike of the ordinary English county pro and he certainly made that abundantly clear to us that afternoon. “Talentless has-beens” was one of the more repeatable epithets he flung at us, which I thought was a bit rich, as I for one had barely arrived before being cast as having been. “Have you ever been spoken to like that on a cricket field?” Sainsbury asked me between overs. I had to admit that I had not.
The fact is that sledging as such was unknown in the county game then. Once again, I must heed my old professor’s advice and define my parameters. Personal abuse, particularly the concerted and organised vituperation with malice aforethought, belonged in the school playground or on the backstreets of deprived inner-city areas. Such behaviour would never be tolerated on a cricket pitch. Cricket was never played by angels, it has to be said, not now, not then, nor at any time. Bowlers cursed, fielders fulminated, wicket-keepers muttered imprecations. It is a physical game and emotions can run high. The difference was that vexation was usually born out of frustration or impatience – a dropped catch, a misfield, a poor shot, bad luck. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t vindictive and it was quickly forgotten or sat upon by captain or umpires. John Snow swore at me once. I had spent most of my time at the crease ducking and weaving – my children maintain I have spent my whole life ducking and weaving – and playing and missing before the exasperated Snowball remarked to all and sundry as another ball passed by my outside edge, “You know, they’re looking for a clown down at the f***ing circus!” Fair enough. He was not referring to my parentage, nationality, sexuality, stature or personal habits, it was no less than the truth….and it was funny. Insofar as anything can be called funny when facing Snow. This is what I call roguish banter, witty repartee, humorous raillery, sharp exchange, all perfectly acceptable and part and parcel of the rough and tumble of a competitive encounter. Cricket would be a dull and humourless game without the team wag keeping everybody amused.
There is a difference though between the two types of verbal sparring. On one hand, we have the mutually insulting exchange between the village blacksmith with his sledge-hammer of a bat and the gamekeeper who has bowled at him for 20 years, without success. On the other hand, we have the vitriolic loathing for each other demonstrated in the ill-tempered series between South Africa and Australia currently very much in the news. We all know and can recognise the difference. We don’t need yellow cards, disciplinary hearings, demerit points, fines and bans to tell us that the game has gone sour. Players today talk of unwritten lines of demarcation in sledging beyond which it is not acceptable to stray. Rubbish! There should be no lines, drawn or understood. The word is respect, for your opponent and the game. Where’s the enjoyment in ceaseless insult, objectionable behaviour, quarrelsome undercurrent or ‘mental disintegration’? I abhor the modern trend of confrontation and unpleasantness. Playing cricket should be fun. All right, it’s much more fun when you win but not at the cost of a total breakdown in manners and etiquette. Ah, but it’s a man’s game, they say. Indeed it is but not played by yobs.
The irony is that the professional game, in England at any rate, takes place in a reasonably respectful atmosphere. Perhaps that is because the game is policed on the pitch by former players and who have a sharp ear and a keen eye for unacceptable behaviour and know how and when to step in to calm fractious tempers. The problem, I’m told, lies in the recreational game where on-field behaviour has sunk to an all-time low. I no longer wield the willow but I still played in club cricket for a year or two after finishing at Hampshire. I came across sledging, proper, nasty, sarcastic sledging, in one match I played in. I did not wear a helmet. In our day, they did not exist. By now, they were much in evidence but I felt they were uncomfortable and besides, the bowling on display was hardly in the Jeff Thomson or John Snow category. As I took guard, the bowler, a youth with attitude, came up to me and said, “Where’s your f***ing helmet, granddad?” I was not impressed. The last person to speak to me like that had been Ian Chappell. “On the end of my k**b,” I replied, “Why, where’s yours?” I was quite pleased with my response, especially when his team-mates fell about laughing. But afterwards, recollecting the incident in tranquillity, I regretted the exchange. It was as if I had sunk to this chap’s level. I felt sad. Had the game come to this, where all and sundry are jockeying for the position as foremost oik. I thought club players were out there to enjoy themselves, taking pleasure in physical activity, relaxing from the weekly grind and the daily rat race. It’s not as if cricket is their job. What a shame that the recreational player believes it is right and proper to ape his international idols.
That is why I believe that sledging, as espoused by all Test countries to a greater or lesser extent (with the possible exception of the New Zealanders, and hats off to them for that), should cease forthwith. It can be done. If the captains won’t endorse a policy of self-denying ordinance, then give the umpires full powers to wade in and dismiss offenders from the field of play. The governing authorities must also play their part with effective punishment and long bans. Oh, and turn up the stump microphones to full volume and employ lip readers in the commentary boxes so the world can hear and see the foul-mouthed antics of the modern player. Tennis players don’t abuse each other. Golfers don’t swear at their playing partners. Rugby players address referees as ‘sir’. Why should cricketers, guardians of this noble game of ours, behave differently?