South Africa v Pakistan 2003-04 October 22, 2003

We're not in the playground now

Wisden Comment by Kamran Abbasi
Test cricketers should be mature enough to shrug off the sort of spur-of-the-moment swearing that led to Shoaib Akhtar's ban, argues Kamran Abbasi

Why did South Africa do it? What was Graeme Smith thinking? Has Paul Adams never been sworn at before? Shoaib Akhtar is a naughty boy, for sure, but spitting two familiar swear-words at South Africa's quirky spinner hardly constituted a capital offence. There can be few cricketers - professional or amateur - who have not reserved their choicest Shakespearean prose for an opponent.

And there can be few cricketers who have been personally wounded by a couple of common-or-garden swear-words, the kind of language you could hear in any playground in the English-speaking world - and I mean little children here. Picture the scene:

"Please Mr Lloyd, that boy with the girl's eyes, floppy hair, and bendy joints called my friend an f*$%ing twat, can you please ban him from the playground for a week or I'll tell my mummy?"

"Did he hit Paul?"


"Did he spit at him?"

"No, sir."

"Did he mean it?"

"I don't think so, but those bulging eyes frighten us."

"Have you ever sworn at him?"

"Not really, sir, but some of my friends have said that, and worse, to him before."

"How did he react to that?"

"He just laughed at us sir, which made us very cross. It's not fair sir, he's supposed to look up to us."

"I've heard enough, Graeme. I know what it's like in the playground, people swear at each other all the time; they even did it my day. Oh, the things my friend Viv used to say. There was a time people just accepted it as part of playing, part of growing up. I think they still should, after all, I am the man who once said that what happens in the middle should stay out in the middle. But as you've asked especially nicely - and I know you and your friends didn't really want to be at this school in the first place - I'll suspend Shoaib for seven full days. How about that? Anyway, these curries day and night are wreaking havoc with my constitution, and that Aleem Dar has the stinkiest feet."

Agreed, this would never happen. What's absurd for children is preposterous for international cricketers participating in a gladiatorial contest, where the battle is tough and emotions run high.

We don't want our cricketers to be softies. We don't want our fast bowlers to smile pleasantly at batsmen and enquire: "Are you all right old chap?" Cricket was a gentleman's game - and it still is, except that gentlemen have changed.

We don't mind a bit of swearing in the heat of battle: we love the intense emotion of it all. We don't want physical contact (Andrew Hall). We don't want a captain to support bad behaviour (Graeme Smith). We don't want a batsman poking his bat in people's faces (Yousuf Youhana). But we do want our heroes to be real people who feel anger, frustration, joy, and ennui. We don't want a sport sanitised by bureaucrats with more time on their hands than common sense in their heads.

Graeme Smith is a fine batsman and a smooth communicator, but he is in danger of leading South Africa down the road to nowhere. Fearless leadership has graced the greatest teams of our time. Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh never flinched in the face of their sternest adversaries, accepted the toughest challenges with a lick of their lips, and never offered an excuse for failure, just responded with resolve. For Pakistan, Imran Khan was hewn from the same rock, and for South Africa, Hansie Cronje was too before he chose the smell of leather jackets over the sound of leather on bat.

For a team ranked second in the world, South Africa have been found wanting on this tour. Their middle order lacks the grit of Cronje and the bounce of Jonty Rhodes. Their bowling misses the venom of Allan Donald, and even the guile of Pat Symcox. Their team is troubled by genuine pace and tortured by legspin. It is a young team, like Pakistan's, and this tour is an important learning experience. But Australia and England know that to win in Asia you have to embrace Asia. South Africa, with their initial reluctance to tour and now their silly complaint against Shoaib, are barely embracing the norms of international cricket, let alone the added challenges of the Asian experience.

South Africa spent much of the one-day series spitting venom at Pakistan's players. Andre Nel and Andrew Hall particularly enjoyed themselves, tempting Pakistan's players into indiscretions into the bargain. But Pakistan, like any other international team - other than South Africa, apparently - accepted it as part of the rules of engagement.

Ironically, by complaining about Shoaib, South Africa gagged their own players, rendering their own attack virtually impotent. That, as much as Pakistan's excellence and South Africa's other failings, cost Smith's side the first Test.

This silliness cannot continue. We need Richie Benaud's wisdom to restore some sanity, reset the benchmark, and allow us a fitting, highly charged conclusion to this exciting (if badly behaved) little tour, which everyone who has seen it has cherished every minute of.

Kamran Abbasi is a cricket writer and the deputy editor of the British Medical Journal.