In an interesting – and should I add encouraging – development on the eve of the Ashes series Cricket Australia instructed their players to cut out sledging, something that their players have been past masters at. The likes of Steve Waugh, Merv Hughes, Glen McGrath, and Shane Warne were as well known for their ability to get under the skin of opponents mentally as they were for their exploits with bat or ball. Waugh, in fact, called it mental disintegration though the traditionalists would just call it appalling behavior.
However, Australian cricket fans have clearly developed distaste for such on-field intimidation and as such CA chiefs have produced guidelines, sent privately to each contracted player, for them to follow. The players have apparently been told that fans want them to be competitive without splaying visible aggression or sledging and they should not overtly display their disappointment or be abrupt with the media, avoid spitting and swearing and not to claim dropped catches.
The Aussie players have also been told that, while they are still considered better role models by the public than, for example, rugby players, leading Aussie Rules footballers are rapidly closing the gap. And with sponsors keen to ensure their image is not tarnished by the actions of those they are funding, CA have at last moved to ensure that fair play is paramount and that the wishes of the fans are adhered to. Indeed in a letter to the squad now in England the CA has said that the public might well stay away from sports they don't believe have any good role models. Sponsors may also follow suit and that is a worrying factor for CA.
Whatever the reasons, it is about time administrators cracked down on sledging which has done much harm to cricket, acknowledged not too long ago as a gentleman’s game. In fact the phrase “it’s not cricket’’ was used to sum up anything that was unsporting or went against the spirit of sport, later on extended to pretty much anything that was unfair. CA has taken a long time in taking action to curb sledging. The ICC, during the time when Malcolm Speed was CEO, emphasized the spirit of cricket and said there should be no place for this blot that was harming the game’s image. Then last year, in the aftermath of the acrimonious Sydney Test between India and Australia, the BCCI took the stand that sledging should be banned altogether. And just a few days ago in an interview given on his 60th birthday Sunil Gavaskar too expressed the same opinion. The former Indian captain has always had strong views on the vexed subject and in fact dwelt on it extensively during the Colin Cowdrey lecture that he gave at Lord’s a couple of years ago.
As one who has always advocated that sledging has no place in cricket whatsoever I am pleased with these developments. I have always been firmly of the view that with the cooperation of everyone concerned – administrators, umpires, match referees and players – the cancer can be eradicated and the game, believe me, will be much the better as a result. Indeed the word sledging itself was unknown to old timers or even middle-aged cricket lovers. Cricket was always a contest between ball and bat, between bowler and the batsmen, a game of pure aesthetic and tactical skills until this unfortunate slur on the game appeared.
It’s great to talk about passion in the game. There is nothing wrong about passion per se. But when one accepts passion as part of the game it could also lead to gestures that have no place on the cricketing field. Expressions can still be registered within the realms of decency. Passion brings in more excitement and feeling say the protagonists but then it also leads to seamy incidents. I know of numerous people who were fanatical cricket fans but who have turned their backs on the game because they can’t stand growing player misbehavior and this includes sledging.
Not too long ago Indian opening bowler Irfan Pathan said he was comfortable with some chitchat on the field as long as it was within the limits. The point is who decides what is the limit and where does one draw the line. As far as I am concerned cricketers have long since crossed the line of decency. Every time there is a little confrontation on the field or a banter that is not exactly friendly, players just shrug it off when questioned by the media saying ``Oh it was nothing. It’s all part of the game.’’ I have always felt that things should be nipped in the bud so that they don’t fly out of control. But by just shrugging things off, shoving them under the carpet and putting on a pretence that the problem didn’t exist, things were clearly getting out of hand over the years and increasing misbehavior is but a culmination of what negligence and not tackling problems head on could lead to. I always cite the example of arguably the most disgraceful scene in the game – Rashid Patel chasing after Raman Lamba with a stump during the 1990-91 Duleep Trophy final at Jamshedpur – and remind my audience that it all started with both players taunting each other with chaste abuse words. Look how it ended just because things were not nipped in the bud.
What is needed is a big, simple, magnanimous response. The problem has now spread all over the cricketing world and the only solution is to get to the root of the cause. The cynics might say that the fans wouldn’t enjoy watching a game conducted largely in silence. I wonder how much they are enjoying the vulgarity that is being enacted out in the field in the guise of passion.
It is ultimately a matter of ethics. Players have the power to clear the air. Let them start something now, something that leaves cricket in a better state and spirit than they found it. God knows that the once great game is in need of a healing touch and for all the initiative taken by the BCCI, the ICC and CA who better to provide it than the cricketers themselves!