Michael Jeh December 27, 2009

Honour as an excuse for sledging

Every country has their own culprits but the theme is universal; refer to national pride, passion, honour, competitiveness etc and that buys you immunity from good manners

Shane Watson begins his antics against Chris Gayle© Getty Images

Pride. Passion (passionate). Competitive (ness). Fierce competitor. Honour (of representing state or country).

Some of the most over-used or inappropriately-used words in modern sport these days. Manufactured by media machines that churn out chillingly cynical, homogenous statements in order to protect their ‘product’ (note: no longer a game but a product/investment/franchise). Voiced by professional athletes (ad nauseaum), who do not realise words like pride, passion and honour actually contradict many of the actions they seek to excuse by invoking such cheap emotional blackmail.

Kevin Pietersen will no doubt be using some of these words when he returns to his hometown, Durban, a place where rejection and bitterness spawned his pride of playing for England. Perhaps some of his ex-countrymen haven’t yet forgiven him for deserting South Africa and their sense of misplaced pride may prompt a hostile response. Let's hope not.

Boxing Day for the Australians is all about such noble sentiments like pride, passion, honour etc. Well, supposedly every international match played by Australia evokes this nationalistic fervour. Hence, cussing, swearing and undignified conduct of any description can be attributed to such emotions coursing through the veins. It’s an easy excuse - “I’m so proud/passionate/honoured to play for my country/state/franchise/club/sponsor/paymaster that I got carried away and behaved like a complete idiot but I’m sure you’ll understand that my motives were entirely due to my fierce competitiveness and it comes from the heart blah blah blah”.

Rugby league players in Australia have this nonsense down to a fine art. Engaging in acts of violence that would see them charged with assault if it happened outside a rectangular patch of grass with goalposts at either end, they then elevate it to an almost holy plane by referring to the pride and emotional highs that they were experiencing from representing whatever (highly paid) jersey they were wearing on that particular day. Like cricket, behaviour that would not be tolerated at a lower level is almost eulogised at the highest representative levels, presumably because it shows off a player's commitment and passion for the cause. The greater the honour, the more we are expected to condone.

Lately, cricketers around the world have trotted out poor excuses for any behaviour that would normally be classified as childish or just plain rude. The Australians used it last week to try to defend themselves from their behaviour lapses this summer, Sulieman Benn is apparently a “fierce competitor” which is meant to excuse his abrasiveness. Going back a few years, players like Andre Nel and Sreesanth have used similar pathetic and patriotic appeals to hide behind when embarrassing self and country. Every country has its own culprits but the theme is universal; refer to national pride, passion, honour, competitiveness etc and that buys you immunity from good manners.

It’s particularly amusing to hear that rubbish in Australian cricket circles this week, coinciding with a survey by the Australian Cricketers’ Association that highlighted this ‘national pride’ thing for the woeful charade that it is. 67% of respondents claimed they would seriously consider playing Twenty20 cricket as freelancers. Of the CA contracted players (those very same individuals who waffle on about pride, passion etc), 22% of them would consider turning their backs on national contracts now and a further 39% of them were unsure of what they would do. Clearly, those heart-wrenching excuses about getting carried away in the heat of the moment because they were playing for their country don’t get in the way of becoming a hired gun for the next gunfight in the East.

It’s not a problem isolated to Australians mind you. Many “passionate and proud” countrymen have chosen to miss national tours because of more pressing mercenary commitments. After all, pride doesn’t buy BMW’s, bling or beach houses.

Not that I have a problem with players taking the money and running. It is their talent, their livelihoods and their decision to make. So long as they don’t pretend that passion, pride or honour plays such a significant role in their lives when they seek to justify their idiocy.

There was a time not so long ago when exactly the opposite was true. A time when representing your country/state/province/school was a time when you felt under even more pressure to behave in exemplary fashion, such was the pride you felt in representing that cause with honour. Bringing shame to that famous cap was deemed the ultimate betrayal and teachers or parents the world over exhorted schoolboys to learn this lesson at a very young age. One wonders if contemporary Watsonian excuses would have carried much weight in the headmaster’s office as he wielded his cane like a scythe.

“Honestly sir, I only called the opposition captain a **** and asked the umpire if he needed a f-ing guide dog because I was so proud to represent this great school and my fierce competitive spirit refused to allow me to sacrifice my honour by accepting defeat gracefully. Surely I’m a candidate for the captaincy next year sir. Or at least give me just 15% of the caning I deserve. And what’s more sir, he baited me!”

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