Glenn McGrath and Brian Lara exchange words and glares
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We be men

Not quite. Sledging is not masculine, it's shameful

Simon Barnes

There are times when people take considerable pride in their shameful doings. Often it's a bit of a man-thing: the adulterous husband may have done something pretty terrible - like destroying his family - but he still boasts about it because it means he's one hell of a man. Generally that's a pretty good clue about the adulterer's inadequacy as a human being.

And so with sledging. It happens, and on the whole it's pretty shameful - and yet cricketers stand up and boast about it. We may do bad things, but that's because we're so incredibly masculine. There's a scene in King Solomon's Mines in which Sir Henry Curtis and the African king-to-be, Ignosi, are lost in mutual admiration, and Ignosi says: "We be men, you and I." At this point the alert reader either laughs out loud or reaches for the sick bag. Because we've kind of grown out of that sort of thing, haven't we?

But perhaps not on the cricket field. Alastair Cook, the England captain, with his designer stubble and the thin veneer of Essex laid over his public-school tones, seems to be a man constantly in wait for Ignosi's compliment. After the summer's sledging row between Jimmy Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja, Cook's summary was that England just can't help being Real Men. "We also want to play competitive cricket," he said. "We don't want to be too nicey-nice, with everyone saying they're playing in the right spirit."

Fact: it is perfectly possible to play outstanding competitive cricket without shouting bad words at people; talk to anyone who batted against West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s if you don't believe me. Hard and competitive cricket is what people want to watch: but it's possible to provide this without going back to the playground of Sunnyhill School.

Ask any former or current Test cricketer to tell you the funniest sledging stories and you find yourself involved in a very short conversation. There aren't any. Apart from half a dozen examples that have been trotted out a thousand times. Of these, one is quite funny and one is brilliant, but alas, it stopped being funny after the death of Glenn McGrath's first wife.

The rest of sledging is all, to quote the great comedian Billy Connolly, f*** this, f*** that and f*** the other. There are disputed origins for the term sledging, but that needn't concern us here. In fact, I'd like to see the term fall out of use, because it implies a we-be-men pride in the practice. The Americans have a better term: trash-talking, and it's one that demeans the person doing the talking. You are less inclined to boast about trash-talking when you're associated with trash. And perhaps less inclined to do it.

It comes down to Oz-envy. All cricket teams suffer from that to a degree - a hangover from Australia's decade and a half of dominance - but none so much as England. Of course, cricket by its nature gives you plenty of opportunity to exchange views, and it's the legitimate task of the fielding side to make the batsman uncomfortable. Eleven against one are comfortable odds for most of us, and ganging up on the batsman is one of life's little pleasures.

Fact: it is perfectly possible to play outstanding competitive cricket without shouting bad words at people

So you shout encouragement at the bowler, shower praise on fellow fielders, make excited noises when the ball passes the bat and make loud asides intended to be overheard: You got him now, Reg, he's really struggling, fast and straight, mate. And on and on for as long as time and cricket continue.

And where do we draw that line in the dust between banter and trash-talk? Sledging became an industry for the side known as the Ugly Australians in the mid-1970s, when they genuinely shocked cricketers used to different terms of engagement. It became a kind of trademark for the great Australia side of the 1990s and early 2000s, dignified for all time by Steve Waugh's fatuous defence of the practice as "mental disintegration". Actually, I suspect McGrath and Shane Warne were more important to Australia's success than rude words.

Since then other teams, notably England, have followed slavishly. This Australian team was one of great cricketers and they sledged viciously: so if we start sledging viciously we must be great cricketers too. Right? Hard to see a flaw in such an argument: certainly, English cricketers never have. In the Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim, the hateful artist Bertrand knows that great artists have lots of love affairs, so he has lots of love affairs to show the world that he's a great artist.

You'd have thought that England would have gone off sledging when they were gleefully paid back by Australia last winter. They were brutally sledged, and there was no comeback, not because they lacked the skills in the protean forms of the word f***, but because Mitchell Johnson blew them all to hell. Naughty words are not much help against a top fast bowler at the peak of his game.

But no, England are back sledging like the pseudo-Aussies they are, and though they are bursting with pride in themselves for this achievement, it's time that the people who matter did something about it. That's us. The paymasters. The people who watch. Are we enriched by seeing grown men slagging each other off? Or do we prefer them to play cricket with the right balance of brutal intensity and common decency? What sort of cricket do we prefer: Anderson telling a batsman to get stuffed or Andrew Flintoff commiserating with Brett Lee at the end of one of the most gripping Test matches of all time?

Cricket is not war. It's not even professional wrestling. It's sport. A game. We love sport because it's beautiful, because it's enthralling and because ultimately it doesn't matter - and we prefer cricketers to play cricket on that understanding. So let's close with a story about the death of sledging. Angus Fraser of England was bowling to Brian Lara of West Indies, and fizzed one past the outside edge: "I don't suppose I can call you a lucky bleeder when you've got 347."

Simon Barnes writes mainly on sport and wildlife. He is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

 

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