Does sledging drive people away from the recreational game?
"The easiest and most effective line to draw in the sand is to tackle any remark that is made about the other side."
This recent suggestion by Mark Williams, the MCC Laws of Cricket Advisor and Middlesex Premier League umpire, in a recent issue of the Association of Cricket Officials' newsletter, will no doubt prompt a variety of reactions. From umpires: scepticism about the practicality of enforcing such a standard. From players, especially long-time ones: something approaching derision, for is not banter, verbal sparring, even choice invective, a traditional part of the fabric of cricket?
Such appeal to the status quo is expected, and also unconvincing. Sledging, in its myriad forms, may have been a part of the game in its recent and indeed not-so-recent history. It does not follow that is either an inherent or desirable facet. It should be evident that what may have been acceptable in years gone by does not automatically equate to being so today.
This is not about idealism. It is not a misty-eyed appeal to sentiment. It is an argument born of sheer pragmatism. The ECB players' survey, cited by Williams, "identified poor behaviour and an aggressive, insulting atmosphere" as a factor in causing players to leave the recreational game - in particular, inexperienced players. Intoning "if you can't stand the heat..." is all very well. The problem is that there may be no one left in the restaurant, let alone the kitchen.
Nor is this an anti-competitive rant. The skill to deal with pressure, physical, psychological, verbal and otherwise, is a valuable one to acquire. Yet, moving the focus from talking well and onto performing well enriches rather than weakens the game, by spotlighting skills rather than sounds. Would allowing pressure to build up from the actions inherent to the game - hostile fast bowling, mesmerising legspin, batsmen charging, overs ticking away - rather than being artificially introduced through verbals, be such a negative arrangement?
This will not satisfy some. The idea of outlawing all batsman-directed comment, as promoted by Williams, will reek of over-protective nannying. Condemning outright abuse is one thing, but to condemn all chirping seems over the top. Surely this is a step too far, they might understandably maintain, for banter adds a light-hearted element that can actually defuse tension rather than cause it. To which one might answer: it certainly can, but is that the exception or the rule? Is the intention honestly to provide amusement for batsman, bowler, fielders and umpires, or is it to gain a psychological edge over the batsman, to make him (or her) "think about something other than the ball he is about to face", to use Williams' words?
It is possible to be overzealous in this regard. An irradiated, sterile game with no opening for individuality to shine through is unlikely to provide much enjoyment for its participants. One of Williams' other recommendations, that "loud collective 'whooping' when a batsman is dismissed" be clamped down on, may strike some as excessive. Send-offs, wanton abuse of the parting batsman, are entirely unacceptable, and do betray a lack of respect. More general expressions of delight, however, are not inherently "disrespectful", as he suggests, but rather flow from satisfaction from successfully executing one of the aims of the game. Since appreciation of the batsman's ability also adds to the satisfaction of the dismissal, one could argue that such celebrations actually reflect a degree of respect for the batsman. It would be injudicious to attempt to police such displays of satisfaction.
However, on the subject of sledging, Williams observes that "league teams will often target vulnerable players when they first come in: the young, known debutants at that level, or players known to be out of form." If players can only gain satisfaction from their cricket by resorting to bullying newcomers, then perhaps a spot of soul-searching is in order - not to mention more time in the nets, for therein lies a tacit admission that purely cricketing skills have, up to that point, proved inadequate.
It would be totally illogical to lay the whole blame for player drop-off at the door of sledging. Work patterns, lack of cricket in state schools, rival leisure options and numerous other factors have all been highlighted as contributing to the fall. It may not even be a primary factor. Yet even a secondary or tertiary factor deserves attention, and what marks on-field behaviour apart is the fact that there is no need to wait for centralised reform: it is an area where each player can make an impact. To use a press-conference cliché, it's a controllable that can be controlled.
Cricket, at its best, provides wonderful opportunities for self-learning, social bonding and character development. It would be regrettable - indeed it is regrettable - to see players give up the game because of the behaviour of others, and thus miss out on the many benefits that cricket offers.
Recreational cricket, after all, is supposed to be a form of recreation. A time when off-field concerns about family, work and life can be placed on hold; a time to be boosted, energised, recreated. Players cannot be blamed for looking elsewhere for their leisure if the on-field atmosphere wears them down. The question is: will the current generation of players be willing to adapt?
Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar