December 29, 2013

What's competitive about ugly on-field behaviour?

Today's on-field aggro is no better than the worst kind of bullying by schoolboy thugs. It's time to outlaw such conduct

Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad famously clashed in Perth in 1981, but it was heat-of-the moment aggression, not a premeditated attack © PA Photos

"Competitive sport is so ugly," my son's class teacher said to me in a voice that suggested quietly but firmly that she knew better than I did. This was in response to my proposal that the school's children who had sporting talent be permitted to compete in local tournaments, and that the school field cricket and football teams in competitions in the city.

The school, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation India, does not encourage competition in any form. I was attending a PTA meeting, and impressed by the talent of the budding cricketers (of whom young Anand Vasu, later a prominent cricket writer, was a promising paceman) and footballers of the school, I felt that the school was unfairly denying the kids a chance to pursue sport seriously. "Why shouldn't they go out and participate in tournaments? They compete the moment they step on to the ground, don't they, even if only in intra-school games?"

I was a little annoyed with the young teacher, who spoke in a condescending tone (after all, I was a mere former cricketer), more so because I had seen her first in pigtails and school uniform as she waited for her father (my boss) at my bank office back in the 1970s. "You are speaking to a man who has spent more than 30 years of his life as a cricketer," I said. "The game has taught me so many valuable lessons - to accept defeat sportingly, to be a team person, to accept the umpire's decision without dissent, to be magnanimous in victory. The game is ideal preparation for the ups and downs of life," I went on, all to no avail.

I came away feeling dejected and deflated, but also irritated at how indoctrination or conditioning can render a perfectly nice person smug and dogmatic, but not for a moment was I beset by self-doubt. I refused to believe that cricket had made me an ugly person.

Now, older, and hopefully wiser, I'm not so sure the teacher was far off her mark, especially after witnessing or reading about the verbal excesses of Australian (and English) cricketers in the ongoing Ashes series. "What happens on the field should stay there" is a popular assertion that makes no sense to me. What it means is that you can question your opponent's parentage or pepper him with dire physical threats with all the collective menace at your command, but you cannot breathe a word of it once you cross the boundary. Instead, you must hug and shake hands over the inevitable post-match pint or two with foe-turned-buddy.

Yet verbal excess or sledging does not seem to end on the field of play. Nowadays it is perfectly in order for rookie David Warner to make crude comments about the psyche of a senior, worthy opponent like Jonathan Trott. Immature as Warner's revelation that he saw fear in the eyes of English batsmen was, it would have been less damaging if Trott had not later withdrawn from the tour citing stress. (Though not always rude or insulting, much of the sound bites that junior members of international cricket teams proffer, and television and print journalists unprotestingly lap up as the gospel truth, before or after matches is about as edifying as advertisements for soap).

Verbal and physical confrontations on the cricket field are not exactly new. We cannot forget the infamous Dennis Lillee-Javed Miandad fracas in Perth in 1981, or the Rashid Patel-Raman Lamba episode in a 1900-91 Duleep Trophy match, but these were instances of unbridled aggression in the heat of the moment, not premeditated acts of provocation, made vulgar by the contempt of the aggressor for the victim, usually a hapless batsman already facing a barrage of fast and furious deliveries. Even Freddie Trueman's jibes at clueless batsmen were rarely offensive in the manner today's diatribes are.

Today's on-field aggro is no better than the worst kind of bullying by schoolboy thugs. How can such anti-social behaviour be an integral part of the so-called killer instinct alleged to be essential for sporting success?

Players in the distant past were no saints, but the verbal taunts before the Steve Waugh-led "mental disintegration" epoch were not often vicious; they were frequently softened by humour. I remember a nice little exchange in a local game in Chennai 30 years ago. The close-in fielders and wicketkeeper of a team desperately chasing league points were trying to persuade the stubborn Nos. 10 and 11 of Integral Coach Factory to throw their wickets away. "Humne ICF ka namak khaya hai, bhai [We are loyal to ICF, guys]" was the friendly retort. The duo managed to draw the match as well.

With nervous breakdowns and victims of depression now rife in the game, why can't cricket outlaw on-field misbehaviour like tennis did? Do we really believe that it will make the game less competitive? I, for one, do not.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 0:49 GMT

    Well written Article. In my memory, the West-Indies - Australia Test Series with the ' Tied ' Test Result, was one of the most fiercely contested game of Test Cricket - & yet, there was ZERO Sledging. The Rival Captains, Richie Benaud & Frank Worrell with their respective Teams were given a rousing recognition of their Sportsmanship, on the streets of Melbourne, by a crowd never seen since the Queen's Visit to Melbourne. The Cricket Lovers all over the world were awe-stuck with the intensity of the contest blended by the highest level of Sportsmanship - that was Cricket - this ' THUGGERY ' ain't Cricket. Michael Clarke should have been not merely monetarily punished with $6,000/= Fine ( literally peanuts for what he earns ) - he should have been barred from the next 2 to 3 games

  • Steve on December 31, 2013, 8:14 GMT

    Suman, I think the whole thing is way overstated. I repeat what I said before. If a few comments enough are enough to make you drop your bundle, you shouldn't be there.

    To claim that sledging provides a team with an unfair advantage or even ultimately allows a team to (undeservedly) win, makes the losing team look worse.

  • John on December 31, 2013, 7:51 GMT

    I totally agree - well said! The Ashes seems to have degenerated into a culture of hatred.

  • TR on December 30, 2013, 23:29 GMT

    What is right/wrong and to what degree etc all depend on the era, circumstances and the nature of the people involved.

    So, is it (abusing etc in cricket) right?

    I think yes, not because I like it, but because there are teams doing it already for decades. One can not jump in to the battle field and start a more righteous battle than what is already going on. It would be stupid to do so. Especially when one team does the first offense, the offended team has full right to exercise the same or even worse counter abuse attack. Thats what India team needed to do for decades and I appreciate some Indian players counter attacked Aussies. That is what is taught in Gita, the battle-field dharma.

    Should the administrators curb this? Yes, only if majority of the players dont like this. Otherwise no. Sure, admins can curb this (using the technologies).

    Right now, it seems like only few countries do it, so it should be possible to curb.

  • Dummy4 on December 30, 2013, 21:21 GMT

    Killerjools, yeah mate, some of the cocky young Indians did pay the Aussies back in their own coins and I kinda liked it as I hate taking insult lying down. But, that's hardly the point. No other profession would allow such behavior at workplace no matter how handsomely you are paid for it. Cricket is a game of skill and it's not supposed to be fight of abuses. I keep hearing about playing "hard cricket" and that's great, play as hard as you can but what's that gotta do with all the crap talk on the field?

  • Paul on December 30, 2013, 20:45 GMT

    Sorry, you've missed the point completely when you say "you cannot breathe a word of it once you cross the boundary." The whole point is that they don't want to breathe a word of it. It doesn't stay on the field because of some code of honour. It stays on the field because that's the only place it has meaning. It stays on the field because the players leave it there. It stays on the field because that's where it belongs and off the field the players relate to each other like relatively normal human beings. And if it was never part of your game, you'll never understand it. As for Warner being immature - what was he supposed to say? He saw fear in their eyes and was asked by a reporter what it was like out there - was he supposed to lie and say the English manfully faced up to Johnson and played strong shots? And I'm afraid you're looking at Steve Waugh's era through rose coloured glasses - it was just as vicious. Just don't cross a line, like Harbhajan and Lehmann have done.

  • andrews on December 30, 2013, 12:52 GMT

    Why, sir, do you talk about verbal excesses, and put England in brackets? England have been the leader in verbal excesses in Ashes Tests for some time now. Your paragraph on Warner is completely misplaced. He answered a question from a media man in an honest fashion. You criticize him for that, yet talk a about boring responses from players? A completely self-defeating argument. Arvind, you speak about what Johnson's anger at Pieterson will look like 50 years from now. This is not a delibarate attempt at winding up an opponent; it is a completely reasonable response to Pieterson pulling out at the last possible moment for ab out the fifth time in the day. One of those pull-outs was described definitivelky by the television commentary as an attempt to prevent another over before lunch. (More to come)

  • Mohit on December 30, 2013, 6:00 GMT

    You guys have been ever embarrassing to say the least! Cricket is a sports played by grown men using a LEATHER ball and a wooden bat, sweating it out for 5 days, most of the times in 40 C temperature. Knowing all this, you want them to behave as if they were playing chess? Every game has 2 aspects, one is the physical aspect and the other is mental. The mental aspect of the game consists of strategies and planning, this is where sledging and mental disintegration comes into play. If there is not getting around your opponent with the help of a little banter, cricket will reduce to a game played by brawns. Just because sledging isn't a traditional part of the game, doesn't mean it shouldn't be there. Look all around you, tell me one competitive aspect of our everyday life which is free from sledging and "mental disintegration". As far as these things don't spill out of the pitch or get violent/physical, i'm al game for it !

  • Dummy4 on December 30, 2013, 4:38 GMT

    @Killerjools: "Further, if someone having a bit of banter is enough to make you drop your bundle, then YOU ARE NOT TOUGH ENOUGH to play the game and you shouldn't be there. " Sounds like bully talk to me. Let me guess: Australia or SA is it? Just look at Mitchell Johnson's picture jawing at KP... It would make such a good one for a cricket memoriblia 50 years down the line wouldnt it? And do schools in Australia or SA have sledging sessions for their cricketers? The only way they are so good at it. Sledging is unfair, ugly and tries to hand the advantage to under skilled players who aren't good enough to compete on skills alone and must be punished as unsporstamnlike conduct with runs or wickets as in other sports.

  • Steve on December 30, 2013, 2:55 GMT

    Han, basically mate, complaining about sledging only makes the "victims" of it look worse. If you are only capable of using your skills at maximum effort in a vacuum sealed test tube in which you face no opposition of any kind, then your "skills" are crap. Further, if someone having a bit of banter is enough to make you drop your bundle, then YOU ARE NOT TOUGH ENOUGH to play the game and you shouldn't be there.

    I would have thought making a ton of runs (ala Tendulkar and Laxman) in the face of "mental disintegration" would be eminently more satisfying. In a nutshell, silence the boys with results, not tears.

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