Cricket will need to adapt to cultural shift in Australia
At a time when Australian cricket is going through a bit of a soul-searching period, it is a good time to ask some questions about the long-term health (viability) of a sport like cricket in a country that, unlike the subcontinent, has many competitors for hearts and minds. The Australian Sports Commission have commissioned a report into sport that was highlighted in the Weekend Australian yesterday. Revealingly, the headline is entitled "Ugly truth of Australian sport" and the synopsis paints an interesting, perhaps even disturbing, picture of the landscape of sport in this country, especially in relation to the juniors who are at the at the very heart of our long-term future.
Specifically in relation to cricket, the report suggests that 97% of cricketers have experienced sledging at some point in their careers. Whilst past generations of Australian cricketers, even at club level, have shown a cultural tendency to view sledging as an entirely normal part of the cricketing experience, I am not so sure that this indifference will continue into the next generation with the same casual shrug of the shoulders and the promise of a beer afterwards in the change rooms.
Well, to begin with, it is now increasingly the case (in the cities anyway) that cricketers rarely tend to sit in the dressing room for hours afterwards, sipping a beer or three in their jocks and swapping tall stories, jokes and local cricketing folklore. The young lads that I play with (and against) tend to switch on their mobile phones as soon as they enter the change rooms after play and make immediate plans to meet friends at another location. I cannot think of the last occasion when they even stayed long enough to have a shower after the game. It's the modern style of social interaction and I have no issue with it but it is a significant shift away from the 'dressing room culture' that has long been a part of club cricket in Australia (perhaps elsewhere too). Perhaps bush/country/regional cricket still enjoys that sort of old-fashioned camaraderie where it becomes slightly easier to embrace the notion of "what happens on the field stays on the field". That philosophy has long been at the cornerstone of the Australian defence of sledging and until recently, that has generally been a system that has worked.
I have an inkling that this culture is about to change sometime soon and I suspect Cricket Australia will need to have their finger on the pulse to monitor this changing heartbeat and design a system that can cope with this cultural shift. To be fair, most of the cricketing authorities are already aware of the need to create a slightly less hostile environment for cricket, as evidenced by numerous 'spirit of cricket' type programs being implemented at the grass roots level. One local competition near Brisbane even has a 'red card, yellow card' type system to deal with verbal abuse and other unpleasantries. In its infancy, these programs are still more symbolic than anything else - I haven't seen anything (yet) to suggest that the umpires or administrators are enforcing these rules to any great extent but at least they are aware of the need to move with the times and have started moving in the right direction. Major cultural shifts like this take time and cannot be expected to happen overnight.
Anyone who has followed my blogs will know that I have always argued a consistent position against sledging, verbal abuse, mental disintegration etc so there's nothing new in my opinion on this issue. Previously, I have copped a lot of flak for being out of touch with the generation of cricketers I played with and to be fair, I have to concede that generally speaking, I was in the minority. I was often out of step with the general consensus that sledging was simply part of the game and that it was merely another tactic to get the better of your opposition with no malice intended. I'll stick to my guns and state my view that I think it's unnecessary and in poor taste but prepared to accept that I was outvoted in my era.
But the times they-are-a-changin' and I predict that Australian cricket will no longer be able to tolerate those frontier-style views of manhood in the politically correct, harassment-free, litigious and 'mum-power' driven junior sport culture that will soon graduate to men's cricket. For one thing, there are a lot more young cricketers from Asian families who are coming through the system. You've only got to read the cricket scores in the Sunday newspapers to see that trend emerging and generally speaking (and I am generalising here), those families are less accustomed to the traditions of "whatever happens on the field, stays on the field". As we saw when Brad Hogg referred to an Indian cricketer as a "bastard" and caused some offence, what is generally a low-level insult to some people can be escalated to a much higher plane to another person. We can beat about the bush all we like but that is the new reality of cricket in Australia, perhaps also in England, New Zealand and South Africa.
Family values too are now much changed from the culture that cricket flourished throughout the Ian Chappell, Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting eras. Mothers are now playing much more prominent roles in deciding what sports their sons play, and this will have an impact on what behaviours they are prepared to tolerate from/to their boys. I can only speak from my experience as a parent/coach/manager in junior sport (cricket and rugby union) and from the many interactions I have with other parents, there is a definite paradigm shift in the powerful and influential roles that mothers play. The mothers I speak to simply don't understand the macho posturing that tends to excuse verbal abuse as a tactical ploy. Not used to the 'what happens on the field stays on the field' sort of excuses that men tend to hide behind, women (and an increasing number of men in the circles I move in) are questioning whether they want their sons growing up in an environment that condones this naked verbal aggression.
Again, I can only speak for myself and for the groups that I am involved in but we've had many conversations about what defines the new style of manhood that we want for our sons. We spend all week trying to get our young boys to behave in certain ways, use their manners, respect women/authority, not say anything that is unkind/cruel/hurtful and it would be utterly counter-productive for us to then encourage them to play a sport that promotes this as an essential ingredient to success.
As a group of parents, we are concerned about a society that has an increasing drug, alcohol and associated violence problem. We want our children, especially male children, to grow up in a world that is a bit more genteel and less prone to aggression and domestic violence. It's not necessarily a moral position - we just want them to be safe. The following excerpt from the aforementioned newspaper article summarises the issue:
"Verbal abuse -- mostly by players, spectators and parents -- was dissuading volunteers, and seen to be reflective both of the individuals themselves and of society generally. Sledging by players, and even spectators, was taking the fun out of sport, and was attributed to the culture of sport in Australia as well as the individuals themselves. Almost every cricketer surveyed -- 97 per cent -- had experienced sledging."
So why would we allow our sons to play a sport that runs counter to every other message every other minute of the day? I never want to hear my son swearing at an umpire or opposition player, I never want to hear him telling the opening batsmen that he's going to "knock his head off" and I never want to hear him laugh about the fact that he got the better of someone because he needled him about his weight, colour, sister's virginity etc. If that happens in my family, I will remove him from that sport and find some other activity to engage him in. And that's the new environment that I think Australian cricket administrators are going to have to contend with when designing long-term plans for the future of cricket for a generation of cricketers, some of whom haven't even been born yet!
Talent cycles come and go. It has been ever thus. We've lost the Ashes in 2011 but we'll get it back again sometime soon. The more salient issue will focus on whether cricket (and sport in general) can re-invent itself to appeal to a new world that still wants to win at all costs but somehow wants to do it without the aggro. I love the fact that more women now control that family dynamic because my wife (and the other significant females in my life) has already changed me for the better. When I come home and recount tales of sledging from the cricket field, my wife gives me sort of quizzical look that shrivels me and makes me feel like a little boy again. It's a silent look of scorn and pity that reminds me that my behaviour a few hours ago would not be out of place in a kindergarten.
With more single mums and females making decisions around sport, cricket will need to appeal to that market if it wants to retain a mass audience of young boys who will need mum's permission to keep playing the game. Otherwise, as the numbers filter through junior sport and the pyramid effect continues to narrow the funnel, through sheer weight of numbers, we'll never keep pace with the juggernaut that is already India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This report by the Sports Commission indicates that these issues are indeed a real concern for sport administrators in Australia. The Minister for Sport was even moved to comment that "we need to urge the general community to take a tougher standard against inappropriate behaviour". Be the change that you want to be Minister - perhaps you can convince your fellow politicians to show us the way forward with their daily behaviour in Parliament!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane