July 8, 2012

Sledging is not necessary

So Paul Nixon, gifted ex-international cricketer and intellectual giant, thinks that sledging is a sign of wanting to win

So Paul Nixon, gifted ex-international cricketer and intellectual giant, thinks that sledging is a sign of wanting to win? Reading Jon Culley's excellent review of Nixon's autobiography saddened me because it just reinforces the false notion that sledging and winning go hand-in-hand. Too many great cricketers, Nixon not being in that category but a damn fine player all the same, confuse boorish behaviour and bad manners with winning habits. The two behaviours are separate things - good cricket and poor behaviour are often coincidental occupants of the one person, but let's get one thing straight…they operate independent of each other.

Let's just take Australia for example, although this analogy could apply to any of the major teams. The Australian teams of the last 40 years, since the Ian Chappell era allegedly, have generally been thought to have been consistently the worst sledgers in the game. Even if we assume that is true, it's clear from looking at the results that winning cricket and sledging are not symbiotic. Australia were quite powerful in the early 1970s, they were weakened during World Series Cricket, revived again when the WSC players returned to the ranks and then fell in a hole for much of the 1980s until the World Cup victory in India in 1987. Some of the players came through both experiences - losing and winning. Allan Border for example. His personal success straddled both the losing and winning cultures, but I don't think he started winning more games because he became a better sledger. He may have become a better batsman and he may have played in stronger teams but it's an insult to a man of his talent to suggest that winning was largely down to an ability to sledge better.

Back to that Australian team; through the 1990s and till perhaps 2005, they were a pretty powerful unit, made up of wonderful cricketers with immense skill. Their reputation for being the best sledgers, justified or not, just happened to be coincidental. Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, the list goes on and on. Great cricketers full stop. Sledging may or may not have been a part of their game but it's irrelevant to their skill level. Australia won many games during this period because they were more skilled with the bat and the ball than with their mouths. Otherwise, how come many of those players also lost an Ashes series in 2005 and a few of those players have also started tasting defeat more regularly now that the Australian team is not as strong as it used to be? Using Nixon's theory, surely all these players still "wanted to win" as much as ever before. They were just defeated by more skilled players on the day, coinciding perhaps with a downturn in their own form. Nothing to do with sledging and the desire to win.

I've played enough cricket at all levels, from Sunday friendlies to a half-decent standard to have seen sledging in all its manifestations. Funny stuff, vile comments, clever subtleties and plain boorish behaviour. They came from good players, awful players and everything in between. Some wonderful cricketers I played against didn't sledge at all and still wiped the floor with me. There were others who stooped to behaviours that were frankly utterly puerile and they too wiped the floor with me. I was regularly beaten by better cricketers. I was regularly disgusted by 'better' sledgers. The two were mutually exclusive.

In my eyes, people like Paul Nixon just don't deserve the game of cricket, in much the same way that cricket doesn't deserve them. It's naïve and disingenuous to cite the opposition player's comments after the game or the lack of an umpire's report as evidence that his behaviour was decent. In fact, it is quite rare for players to admit to being put off by sledging. And the best sledgers rarely do it within earshot of the umpires. It's down to you and your conscience. You know what you said, you know why you said it and you know whether it was said with malice or humour. If the Nixons of the world pride themselves on a career that was defined by their ability to be remembered as winners because they "played tough cricket" (aka rude, obnoxious, tasteless), they sell themselves short. Nixon was an athletic wicketkeeper and an innovative batsman who never threw in the towel. That's how I remember him. His predilection for abusing other cricketers (call it banter if you like but we all know what he means in the same way that friendly fire or enemy fire still leaves the victim with that same "dead" sensation!), is just a sign of a lack of maturity in my books. It does not speak to his considerable talent in much the same way that my distaste for sledging has very little to do with my lack of cricketing talent. I would not have been a better cricketer who won more games of cricket if I had become more skilful at abusing opposition players.

I think of players like Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. No one can argue with their greatness, yet I can't recall hearing their names being bandied around the circuit as being awful sledgers. I look at young Clint McKay who is the best of the current bowlers in the ODI series for Australia. He is competitive, he is trying his guts out for Australia and no one can fault his wholehearted commitment. Yet, watching him for many seasons, and knowing him from when he was at the Cricket Academy a few years ago, it is clear that he is a hell of a decent chap who can play international cricket without having to behave like an idiot. His ever-improving bowling has everything to do with hard work and nothing whatsoever to do with improving his "banter skills". Cricketers like him deserve every success and the game is richer for their involvement. Good on him.

If cricket had more administrators like Alan Fordham, the game would be a more civil place where the standards expected are more about your own conscience rather than an official report by the umpires. If the world operated on the sort of principles that Nixon eulogises, where winning any contest in life is about attempting to destabilise another person, it would indeed be a sad world. Perhaps he should just adopt his own book title and Keep Quiet. He wouldn't have won any more games in his life but he might have won a bit more respect.

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