November 27, 2013

The Brisbane schoolyard squabble

Cricketers often say they want to play hard but many forget that the key verb is "play", not "talk"

"He said the exfoliating scrub I use is for wimps" © Getty Images

Playing in two Ashes series in one year must feel like taking an extended holiday with your school friends. Inevitably, excessive prolonged proximity breeds contempt and in Brisbane the pot of simmering resentment boiled up in a froth of silly.

It was all a little bit Year Five, to be honest. As any parent will tell you, you shouldn't take sides. Your child may spin you a tale of woe, and you may be ready to storm the school and give the headmaster a lecture on the evils of bullying, but just before you pick up the phone, a half-forgotten instinct prompts you to ask the question:

"And who started it?"

"Well Jimmy said he was going to punch George, but George started it because he was mean to Jimmy, so Jimmy complained to the teacher, then Michael told Jimmy that Michael's friend was going to break Jimmy's arm and… "

At which point, you climb down from your high horse, shake your head and return to reading your copy of Bob Willis' latest, Fear and Moaning in Leamington Spa.

In the case of the Brisbane Brouhaha, it turns out that no one can remember who started it, and the spectacle of James Anderson complaining to the umpire about witless sledging was a particularly piquant cherry on top of the hypocrisy gateau.

But hang on a minute, what's the problem? Isn't relentless, witless abuse just part of cricket? Alastair Cook certainly thinks so:

"On the pitch it's pretty much a war, isn't it. There are always going to be a few words, and I think that's pretty much how people want to watch cricket being played."

Well, no, it isn't, but we'll come back to that. If what we want is cricketers swearing and shouting at each other, then why aren't we allowed to hear it? The Australian players union this week put forward the bizarre argument that it was not disgraceful for a player to threaten another player with a broken arm, but it was disgraceful for television to broadcast it. Why? If it's all part of the game and we all love it, then let's hear it.

Or rather, let's not.

It is often said that spectators like to see the game played hard. Personally I'd prefer to watch it played languidly, idly, and with a devil-may-care, amateurish attitude. Cricket without the grunting, grimacing and earnest running about may not be as brutally impressive, but it would be more in keeping with the innate beauty of the sport

Yet even if you want to see cricketers play hard, the key verb is "play", not "talk". I wasn't much of a cricketer, but I don't remember ever being instructed by my long-suffering coaches that the key to bowling was to work your jaw harder or to follow through with your abuse.

I'm not suggesting we demand Victorian tea-room standards of politeness from our cricketers. I don't mind a bit of swearing. In fact, I swear myself from time to time. As it happens, the sight of Anderson and Clarke trying to sledge one another caused me to yell, "Oh for God's sake just f******* grow up, you pair of ******* ********** ."

I'm not against the occasional bit of inventive sledging either. Where would third-rate Christmas cash-in cricket-celebrity-endorsed literature be without the same collection of dog-eared quotes, handed down from generation to generation like a particularly profane collection of holy scripture? Mind you, even the best of them are not exactly Oscar Wilde. I suspect if genuine wit were to make an appearance at the wicket, it would be wasted:

Oscar: The speed of a man's bowling is inverse to the speed of his thinking
Bowler: I'm going to break your f****** arm

So, swearing in frustration: fine. Occasional attempts at wit: if you must. But systematic, rehearsed, predictable abuse turns a majestic, absorbing game into a grubby schoolyard squabble, and having not being particularly interested in schoolyard squabbles when I was at school, I find it mind-numbingly tedious to see them being rehearsed by grown men.

If these chaps want to punch each other, then Australia is well furnished with boxing clubs, where they can put on big silly gloves and big silly helmets and pummel each other to their heart's content. On the other hand, if they just want to talk about punching each other in order to sound tough, then they deserve nothing but ridicule, after-school detention, and immediate curtailment of their Xbox privileges.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here