January 30, 2015

Is cricket really vulnerable to physical altercations?

Cricket has had relatively few ugly on-field incidents when compared to other sports, so to start fearing the worst because of the verbal abuse going round is to take things too far

It's unlikely that the Lillee-Miandad incident would even figure in the top 50 undignified moments list in all sport © PA Photos

Here's something that cricket people never admit in the sledging debate: over the past two decades this sport has spawned an entire literary genre in celebration of sledging. There's stacks of these books. People buy them and people read them, too. Most of them are rubbish, of course, but people do actually buy them in sufficient quantities that they keep getting published. That's not much of a moral high ground to start on.

Fans who don't mind a bit of sledging are always quick to remind us that it's been around since our distant ancestors first picked up bats and balls, but it's actually only been in the last 40 years that it's been written about at length. There is an irony at play here for those who are broadly anti-sledging but still keep track of what's written about it; the more you read, the more wearying it is when each new outbreak of sledging debate occurs. To borrow a John Cooper Clarkism, it bloody gets you bloody down.

Everyone had another crack at it in the weeks following Australia's recent Test series against India, which is fair enough, but as far as I could see only Ian Chappell said something I genuinely didn't expect when he warned that an escalation in sledging might soon result in a physical altercation on the field. You can never underestimate Chappell's thoughts on the game, nor the weight they carry, because they are well considered and come from a place of knowledge and passion.

This new angle of his is interesting on two levels, though. Firstly, and of less consequence, it makes you wonder whether Chappell himself feels a degree of either guilt or indignation on account of sledging incidents in his own career and the way they were portrayed in the media.

Cricket publications of the '70s and '80s are full of blustering editorials about Chappell's indiscretions. Here's an irate Peter Philpott in the January 1976 issue of Australian Cricket talking of Chappell's attitude towards sledging: "... most [cricketers] have bitterly resented the damage he is doing to the game" and "I just hope he does not negate his achievements in the game by harming the game to which he has given a great deal."

Or Geoff Prenter in the same publication five years later: "It was Chappell and [Tony] Greig who introduced sledging into the game". None of that disqualifies Chappell from holding an opinion on the current state of sledging, but it is at least an interesting backstory to his stance now.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think Chappell's suggestion that the end point of sledging will be an incident of physical violence is far more interesting and worthy of examination. He's not actually the first one to suggest this, to be truthful. Most notably and in the wake of the Monkeygate affair (or "Bollyline", as it was briefly known) Scyld Berry used his 2008 Wisden editorial notes to make a similar case.

Under the subheading, "The Threat of Violence", Berry starts, "I fear the day is approaching when a high-profile, televised cricket match will see an outbreak of physical violence on the field." Preventing this would therefore require "vision and leadership". This, despite the fact that genuine on-field violence hadn't occurred between players in a Test since the Lillee-Miandad incident of 1981. Berry doesn't go as far as offering conclusions on what form such violence might take, nor what the fall-out would be.

His examples are worthy but not damning; Zaheer Khan pointing his bat at Kevin Pietersen during the Trent Bridge Test of 2007 after accusing the England batsman of stashing lollies in his pockets to assist with shine on the ball; Monkeygate (which never got violent, but Andrew Symonds found catharsis later in the year by shirt-fronting a ground invader at the Gabba) and three relatively minor collisions between running batsmen and bowlers. Cricket would be "so easy to destroy", concludes Berry, though you rather doubt it based on the evidence tendered.

Both Berry and Chappell have seen enough Test cricket to have developed an innate sense of its mood and subtle changes in tone, but I can't help but conclude that international cricketers - particularly the ones from the wealthiest cricket nations - have far too much to lose in a career and financial sense from stepping their arguments up to the physical.

In cricket, there remains a far greater stigma around physical contact with opposition players than in most sports. Does that distort our view?

From the perspective of a player like David Warner, for example, there's never been more to lose from overstepping the line. Surely even he realises that. Even the Joe Root incident, regrettable as it was, remains a red herring in this debate because it occurred in a bar and under the fog of alcohol, not on a cricket field.

In cricket, there remains a far greater stigma around physical contact with opposition players than in most sports. Does that distort our view? Perhaps this is why even the inevitable bumps and brushes between bowlers and batsmen as they follow through and run still seem like a bigger deal than they probably are. Two thousand one hundred and fifty-six Test matches is a reasonable sample size from which to draw the conclusion that actual biffo is probably low on the agenda of most players.

In Test cricket, only one historical incident of violence stands out - Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad's aforementioned display in the Perth Test of 1981. An awful sight? Definitely. "One of the most undignified events in Test history" was Wisden's disapproving verdict. Lillee ended up with a A$120 fine and two-game ban for his role.

Come with me for a moment though. Consider every awful act you've ever seen perpetrated on the fields of the various football codes of the world. Would Lillee-Miandad even make a Top 50 undignified altercations list? I'm not excusing it or suggesting it wasn't worthy of fuss, but the more I watch it the more convinced I am that Lillee's two other actions - his deliberate bump on Miandad as the batsman completes his run and then lastly using umpire Tony Crafter as a human shield - are far worse than the kick itself. If that was cricket at its worst - and remember that neither player was hurt - we're probably not a bad lot.

Stepping down a level to first-class cricket, the most high-profile example of on-field violence in recent eras was Rashid Patel's fracas with Raman Lamba during the Duleep Trophy final of 1990-91. Bowling to Lamba near the end of his undefeated 180 as North Zone compiled 729 for 9, a frustrated Patel hurled a beamer down at the batsman and then chased him to the boundary's edge with a stump. The crowd duly rioted and Patel and Lamba wore 13 and ten-month bans, respectively. Neither was physically hurt.

"Look," explained Patel years later, "cricketers are generally good guys, but things happen in the heat of the moment, when the pressure gets to you." More recently and strangely not the source of any notable debate beyond initial news reports, there was a near-identical incident in 2005 when Hyderabad's Arjun Yadav - son of current BCCI interim president Shivial - attacked Andhra Pradesh and now India batsman Ambati Rayudu with a stump during a Ranji Trophy match. You can only find half a dozen mentions of it online.

So what am I saying? High-profile professional cricketers have rarely lost control of themselves to the extent of physical violence and the suggestion that they soon will just seems dubious. Chappell's right - it would be a good thing if outright abuse and inane chatter disappeared from the game because they add nothing, but to suggest that the next step for sledgers is physical violence not only ignores history but misinterprets the motivations of modern players.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko