March 8, 2014

The b-word that symbolises the decline of civilisation

And why it's disappointing to hear Michael Clarke use it

"I obviously meant 'biceps'" © Getty Images

I've always liked Michael Clarke. I enjoyed watching him bat early in his career because he always did the same thing: an elegant leave or two, then a sequence of delicate glides, drives and flourishes on the off side, each more rousing and beautiful than the last, rising like a piece of classical music, from pastoral tinklings to soaring symphony.

Batsmen who always do the same thing are often criticised. But it's not the fact they always do the same thing that's the problem. It's the thing they always do that matters. If their thing is to nudge, poke and prod their way to a snoozy century with all the dash and flair of an elderly tortoise, then by all means fasten them in the stocks of public opinion and pelt them with rotten fruit.

But if their thing is to play perfectly timed late cover drives that would cause a statue of Wally Hammond or Victor Trumper to crack a smile, then let them get on with it. Life is too short and too tedious to stifle a Gower, a Pietersen or a Clarke.

I also liked Michael for having the courage to be pretty in a team full of snarling streetfighters and towering, ugly brutes. He could have tried to sprout a monstrous beard, or a ludicrous moustache, or a grimace suggestive of a debilitating bowel-related complaint, just to fit in. But he didn't do that.

Some people didn't like it. He was criticised for having a famous girlfriend and appearing in glossy magazines, by journalists who didn't have famous girlfriends and who were too ugly to appear in glossy magazines. He was mocked for not being sufficiently manly/hairy/drunk in public, and for representing a generation of Australian cricketers who had forgotten that the key to winning cricket games was shouting, scowling and chest hair.

Yet he sailed through all of that, his talent and sanity intact, and is now leading Australia out of the barren howling wilderness called transition, back to the promised land; a strange amalgam of David Gower, David Beckham and Moses.

So it does not come naturally for me to criticise him. But some acts are unforgivable, no matter how much you admire the perpetrator. There is a line over which you should not step if you wish still to be considered a civilised person. On Wednesday, Clarke crossed that line.

At the end of the match in Cape Town, he was involved in a verbal altercation with Dale Steyn. This is not particularly surprising. Verbal altercation is probably listed amongst Dale Steyn's hobbies on his Facebook page, along with crocodile-hugging, raw steak-swallowing, glaring and nostril flaring. No problem there.

But at the post-match apology seminar, Michael said this:

"There were obviously a lot of words throughout the game. Let's call it banter."

Let's call it banter. If there is one word that symbolises the decline of modern civilisation, it is the b-word. Originally used to describe the exchange of good-humoured, witty remarks between willing participants, it has become ubiquitous, a weasel word, inserted into conversations where an apology should go.

It is a word that belongs in the mouths of witless, stubbled presenters on Saturday morning football programmes, or on the Twitter feeds of knuckle-dragging imbeciles, where, accompanied by any number of "LOLs", it appears as an all-purpose intellectual cleaning wipe, with which they attempt to scrub away the smears of abuse that are the calling cards of minds stuck in the grubby jungle of the school playground.

It is not a word that I want to hear emerging from the mouth of one of the finest and most stylish batsmen of the modern era. Abusive shouting is not banter. It's abusive shouting. I don't mind if you do it, but please don't use the b-word to explain it. I'm not angry, Michael. I'm just disappointed.

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