Michael Jeh August 7, 2009

Let cricket remain a gentleman's game

  Predicting the final outcome of the Ashes Series is a tough call

Mitchell Johnson doesn't need to get into the batsman's ear to prove he 'is around' © Getty Images
Predicting the final outcome of the Ashes Series is a tough call. Glenn McGrath was probably being a bit mischievous when he predicted a 5-0 whitewash to Australia but even he would not have expected a 1-0 lead to England after three Tests. What might be easier to predict though (and this will no doubt warm the cockles of McGrath’s heart) is that the remaining two Tests will be feisty and spirited, perhaps even bordering on spiteful and venomous.

I make this prediction, hoping fervently that I will be wrong, yearning for another repeat of the 2005 Ashes when both teams played entertaining cricket without the ‘mongrel’. I’m clearly on the conservative side of the debate when it comes to sledging and on-field theatrics and I will no doubt cop a volley of abuse from those who firmly lean towards a less genteel culture. Fair enough – we’re all entitled to our preferences. Not that it is likely to make much difference to the combatants – they will dance to the tune of their own masters and mentors.

Let’s take Mitchell Johnson for example. Apparently his form slump can be fixed with a bit of sledging and on-field aggression. Paraphrasing the great Shane Warne, Johnson needs to let the Englishman know that he’s around (presumably, that is a euphemism for “give them a bit of a spray”). It matters not that Johnson’s wrist position may not be behind the ball or that he is dropping his front shoulder or that he is scrambling the seam. According to those who know best, it should all fix itself if only he could manufacture a bit of hatred and aggression towards those nasty, selfish batsmen who keep plundering him for boundaries. Let them know you’re there Mitchell!

Interesting theory…my guess is that they are acutely aware that he’s there all right! His name is on the team sheet, he’s bowled a few overs, thumped a few boundaries at Lord’s and he’s not the Invisible Man. Of course they know he’s there.

What about the “let them know you’re in a contest” line? Another statement that seems to state the bleeding obvious. It’s a Test Match for goodness sake. Of course it’s a contest. Since when did any Test cricketer (match-fixers apart) not want to give 100%? I can’t see how getting verbally aggressive and glaring at batsmen will suddenly change Johnson’s form. He’s a damn good bowler, going through a temporary form blip and whether he comes good or not will have more to do with the quality of his bowling rather than the range of invective.

Johnson’s slight improvement in the second innings at Edgbaston was attributed to this sudden shift in aggression apparently. Fed this psychobabble often enough, both teams will come to believe it and the rest of the series may descend into a bit of a sledgefest. Flintoff, totally likeable character that he is (as is Johnson by the way), seems to have got a headstart in this regard with his constant snipings after every semi-dangerous ball. With Flintoff though, you can almost see an apologetic smile lurking beneath, a boyish grin peeping out from underneath the steely glare. It’s almost like he’s putting on an act, all this huffing and puffing.

The signs are there already of a series that is threatening to boil over. Anderson and Watson have exchanged pleasantries, Siddle and Broad feel obliged to stoke up the heat and Ponting has never been shy of a word or three (except when it comes from a spectator). Personally, I prefer just watching good cricket without the Hollywood tantrums and the unseemly manners that sometimes get confused with great performances. McGrath was a great bowler, full stop. Not because he was a serial sledger. In fact, I would go so far as to say, DESPITE that distraction he was still a great bowler. Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, David Gower and even genial souls like Mike Hussey prove that real class owes nothing to verbal abuse. It’s just a sideshow that threatens to distract from the sublime pleasures of watching a beautiful game.

For those who argue that this sort of behaviour adds to the contest, I will not argue with them, lest it becomes another online sledgefest. Despite the eloquent and polished interview Matthew Hayden gave to BBC’s HardTalk program recently, I still can’t bring myself to see cricket as 'war'. It may only be a euphemism for “competitive cricket” but I’ve seen enough of wars to not want to taint my love of cricket with something as abhorrent as that. Cricket's cricket. Nothing more, nothing less.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane