January 9, 2014

Why send-offs are ludicrous

Why do some bowlers feel the need to jeer the dismissed batsman as he walks off?

If he introspects on his reaction to Johnson's wicket, Stokes is bound to feel a tad ludicrous © Getty Images

Ben Stokes' send-off of Mitchell Johnson after he bowled him for 4 in Australia's second innings of the Sydney Test was one of the silliest sledges of all time. At one stroke, Stokes reminded us how incoherent some defences for sledging are, what a despicable act the send-off is, and lastly, just how much maturity still awaits him.

As a reminder, when Stokes dismissed Johnson, a bowler who, at that point in the series had taken 34 English wickets, traumatised the English top order, and done a great deal to (I will resist the temptation to say "single-handedly") bring the Ashes back to the antipodes, the match and series situation was as follows: England were 0-4 down in the Ashes, the Australian lead was 415, and Stokes' team had previously lost Tests by 381, 218, and 150 runs, and eight wickets, and needed to bat again on a pitch that had offered Australia's fast bowlers - including Johnson - some assistance.

The head-to-head comparison, if so desired, runs as follows: Stokes took 15 wickets in four Tests at 32.80; Johnson in five Tests took 37 wickets at 13.97; Johnson claimed Stokes' wicket three times; Stokes, Johnson's once. These numbers might assuage those who will claim that Johnson brought it on himself with his glaring and his confrontations with English batsmen during the series. I do not know if Johnson, other than his eyeballing Jimmy Anderson earlier in the series, gave any English batsmen a "proper" send-off, like Stokes did.

Small wonder, then, that a commentator - possibly Ian Healy - immediately described the send-off as akin to Darryl Cullinan sledging Shane Warne. I do not often find myself agreeing with Channel 9's commentary crew but this was one time when a nod of the head was called for. I hope Stokes later, perhaps after he had been dismissed in the second innings for an extravagant 32, which transported his side from 87 for 4 to 139 for 8, 27 runs before the curtain was rung down on a 281-run defeat and a 0-5 final margin, paused for a moment of reflection and judged his own actions as just a tad ludicrous.

There is a broader point here. Defences of sledging often take recourse in the claim that it is a form of - to use Steve Waugh's unlovely neologism - "mental disintegration" , merely another weapon in the bowling side's repertoire of batsman-dismissing techniques. But if that is the case, why the need for the hand-and-finger-painted directions for the pavilion? The batsman is done and dusted; the walk to the showers has commenced. What mental disintegration needs to be carried out at this stage? Or are we now to be told that a little stomp on the opponent is necessary, an advance sledge for the next innings, the next game?

Sometimes we need to be exposed to a particularly egregious instance of bad-mannered - and in Stokes' case, ill-timed and tactically deficient - behaviour to see that apologia for it are just that. Stokes' callowness will probably have earned him some reprieves for this particular display, but all those who are more experienced than him, and should, hopefully, know better, should not meet with any approval for theirs.

That sort of triumphalism is distasteful in the extreme; the contest has ended, the bowler has won. That's all there should be to it. Some banter, hopefully witty, a few glares, the odd stomped foot or two, perhaps even a snide wisecrack; these all might be tolerable additions to a fielding side's arsenal. But the post-wicket jeer? I cannot imagine a coherent defence in its favour.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here