When I look at boorish behaviour on a cricket field, especially that which takes place in full view of millions of followers of the game, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with Indian tennis icon Ramesh Krishnan several years ago. On learning about the arrogant conduct of some cricketers, he asked in genuine puzzlement, "What is the use of your extraordinary talent if you lack good manners and courtesy?" The sport he pursued with great passion and pride had been plagued by the tantrums of the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and even Andre Agassi, but those who run the game have since taken firm steps and stamped out on-court coarseness and abuse altogether in professional tennis.
Does a fast bowler, who has everything going for him - pace, bounce and movement, even the advantage of vicious intimidation, real or feared, need adventitious aids to create doubt in the batsman's mind? And "disintegrate him mentally?" And isn't it humiliating and demeaning for a bowler to have to resort to verbal abuse after a batsman has played some gorgeous shots off his bowling? Can he not let the ball do the talking?
How would it be if the laws permitted batsmen to take a few threatening swings with the bat at bowlers who are troubling them, just to put the fear of God into them? After the batsman has hammered you for a few, isn't bowling an unplayable delivery the ultimate prize, your real badge of honour? And finally, what have you achieved when the batsman conquers your bowling and your abuse? Who's the winner?
The rationale that verbal and body-language aggression is a prerequisite for attacking bowling, or that so-called soft behaviour will somehow emasculate the game does not make sense to me. The great West Indies fast bowlers did not need vocal ammunition, and even the volatile Fred Trueman only indulged in badinage that served to lighten the mood, though the batsman at the receiving end was rarely likely to be amused. The one exception must have been the batsman who once said, "Well bowled, Mr Trueman", after playing and missing a few and eventually getting bowled. Even he must have allowed himself a wry smile when Trueman replied, "That was wasted on tha!" And we all know that some of Trueman's classics were aimed at his own team-mates.
What of chatter from close to the bat? This is certainly the lesser of the two evils, and sometimes even welcome diversion, provided the close-in cordon does not stoop to abuse. Loud conversations between the fielders and the bowler can bring some cheer and amusement, at least to the umpires or struggling bowlers, even if it does not result in the downfall of the batsman. In any case, good batsmen rarely fall to sledging tactics, while the poor ones hardly need to be softened verbally before their eventual dismissal.
The Australians probably pioneered crudity on the cricket ground. Unfortunately, two of them, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, were among the greatest bowlers of all time, especially as a pair, and that fact seemed to justify their rudeness. Australian cricketers of the same era also set new standards of gamesmanship and oneupmanship, by way of dubious catches they claimed and umpiring decisions they argued over, probably paving the way for the DRS.
England are not far behind. Today James Anderson is one of the best pace bowlers in the world, and Stuart Broad his superb ally, but there are other world-class bowlers, fast and slow, who do not seem to need to snarl and curse on the field. Sadly, instead of condemning bullying and offensive behaviour, a large number of English cricketers and commentators seem more concerned about MS Dhoni's charge of a Level 3 offence against Anderson, ready to read ulterior motives into that charge, rather than to criticise the bowler for his excesses. Hopefully, such public posturing apart, good sense will prevail and cricket will see sportsmanship on the field again. As in many dire situations in life, extreme bad behaviour on the field can bring about a welcome clean-up of the sport.
Perhaps legislation is the only way forward to eliminate sledging in cricket, as captains and umpires seem powerless in the face of the rampant abuse that several cricketers - even those whose young children are watching them in action - perpetrate on the field, in the name of legitimate aggression.
V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s