January 11, 2008

Sledging: a convert writes

I used to enjoy sledging because it mirrored life. Not anymore. There is only so much trouble everybody can stomach

McGrath v Sarwan in 2003: 'sledges involving wives and Brian Lara get a bit out of hand' © Getty Images

The other day Tim de Lisle called in these pages for the end of sledging, as he has done before, as have many other respected commentators and cricketers for a while now. It was not a sentiment I ever agreed with. I was foolish.

I felt it unwarranted because sportsmen, as we are reminded often, are products of the world around them. It is to our benefit that they mirror it, as art - which sport is - should. Not to advocate nastiness, but I felt it was not absurd, or even out of place, for cricket to contain the less edifying aspects of our behaviour, to occasionally disturb. Besides, much of cricket's bad behaviour is kind of Tom-and-Jerry amusing. I did not find Andre Nel offensive; I found him silly, endearing and entertaining. To take him seriously was to miss something.

I felt, too, the onus on sportsmen to set an example while throwing themselves into the most competitive, over-hyped, ego-fuelled of endeavours was not entirely fair.

This was wishful and misguided reasoning. As we have now seen too often, there is no containing the flames. One moment it is a cricketer mouthing off, the next there are hundreds of thousands going at each other on message boards. One moment a confrontation has added to the viewing drama, the next entire communities have drawn battle lines against one another. It is patently not worth the price.

What a useless spiral it all is. The Australian team's demeanour has generally been obnoxious, the response of Indian crowds to Andrew Symonds was deplorable, the Australian provocation of Harbhajan Singh was petty, Harbhajan's alleged response woeful. Most pointless of all have been the debates emerging out of the affair. One man's pig is another man's monkey. How far down this road do we want to go?

More jingoism, more rabble-rousing, more unpleasantness. As it is, watching cricket, at least in India, is an increasingly disagreeable affair. The more the supposed confidence of the nation grows, the more graceless it becomes in acknowledging the efforts of opponents, the more hungry it becomes to beat its own chest. Every new controversy brings fresh rage, fresh ego, fresh delusions. This is bigger than "a few idiots".

Players could help by taking the lead. Often they miss the wood. As Peter English illustrated beautifully, Ricky Ponting's inability to connect with anything outside the mood in the Australian dressing room was startling. So is his hypocrisy. The contrast with Anil Kumble has been embarrassing.

No lover of the game wants a sport stimulated by, in Peter Roebuck's words, "a dangerous pill called vengeance". If Ponting is genuinely concerned about cricket played "hard but fair", he should leave the decision-making to the umpires and instead approach rival captains to agree to, in modern lingo, "control the controllables". That is, hold back abusive behaviour.

Most pointless of all have been the debates emerging out of the affair. One man's pig is another man's monkey. How far down this road do we want to go?

There will never be clean demarcations on sledging. Most seem to like the funny ones, even when they involve wives, children and retards. Or wives and biscuits for that matter. (Though ones with wives and Brian Lara get a bit out of hand.) Maybe there needs to be a far greater upholding of the right to take rather than give offence.

We also know that match referees tend to worsen things. Nothing is funny with lawyers around. Umpires, preferably of reliable vision and hearing, are best placed to feel the pulse of a game and they must be not merely empowered but instructed to be more proactive. If nothing, there might be some worthy sledging from the white coats, at which point there can be a new war. At least it will be different.

The elders have been wise all along. There is only so much trouble everybody can stomach. And it certainly cannot be justified by some artistic ideal of being able to observe the panorama of human character unfold before you. I suppose there is life itself for that.

And now that all of that is out, to tell a happy story. The moment of the controversy, courtesy television. Breaking news: Steve Bucknor not to stand in Perth. The anchor (loudly, breathlessly): "And we have with us now on the phone line the doyen of Indian cricketers, the legendary Mr Tiger Pataudi, and welcome to the show Mr Pataudi, and what do you think of this decision: was this a great day for Indian cricket or a bad day for world cricket?' Silence. The response (slow, hesitant): "This is not Pataudi. This is Sharma. Pataudi's secretary." What Indians will call a mooh-tod jawaab, and not an abuse in sight.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04