Let's ban sledging

It's a drama unfolding on the other side of the world, and I wasn't watching the match. But something about the Harbhajan Singh affair doesn't feel right.

In fact, three things don't. First, it takes two to tangle. Andrew Symonds is a well-known sledger, as is Harbhajan. Mike Procter is asking us to believe that one party was severely at fault while the other was not at fault at all, and that doesn't ring true.

The second problem is that Procter listened to eight hours of evidence and then swallowed Ricky Ponting's view of things whole. Ponting is a sledger too, and he and Harbhajan have been needling each other on and off for nearly seven years. Ponting has often got out cheaply to Harbhajan: if anyone were to call him Bhajji's bunny, it would be harsh, and cheap, but fair.

The third problem is the amount that is being asked of Procter. The guy's an ex-cricketer, not a high-court judge. His job as a match referee requires him to decide whether Harbhajan called Symonds a monkey, and if so, what he meant by it. Procter had to look at the remark through the lens of racism, but he might equally well have peered through the lens of speciesism. Bringing monkeys into a sportsmen's spat is demeaning to monkeys.

It does seem likely that the remark was intended as a racial insult, if it was ever made: the India fans who chanted it at Symonds a few months ago clearly meant it that way. But that was recorded on video, whereas this time, there is doubt over whether the offending remark was made. The eight hours of evidence are a vivid demonstration of that doubt - this is a vastly magnified version of those moments when an umpire takes so long to decide about a thin edge or an lbw that you just know he should keep his finger down. And if there was doubt, then Harbhajan should have been given the benefit of it.

Cricketers say a lot of stupid things to each other. It has been known for one to address another as a Pommie bastard, or Pommie wanker. Is that racism? There isn't (usually) a skin-colour dimension to it, but it's still racial. And pathetic. If the pot calls the kettle black, is it being racist too?

You can argue endlessly over whether one remark or another has a racist element. What is needed is a big, simple, magnanimous response. Beneath it all lies a deeper malaise: sledging itself. Cricket shouldn't just be trying to ban racism. It should ban sledging.

This is a front on which every team is guilty. Australia have often led the way, but Sri Lanka have had their moments, as did India especially under Sourav Ganguly, and so have South Africa and even those nice, educated boys from New Zealand. England are certainly not innocent bystanders: one reason it was a relief to see Matt Prior dropped this week is that he was particularly potty-mouthed - and when he was criticised for it, the England coach, Peter Moores, was dumb enough to argue that the answer was to switch off the stump mike. Not that Duncan Fletcher was any better: he makes it clear in his recent book that Chris Read was ditched as keeper because he didn't join in Paul Collingwood's doomed attempt to out-sledge Shane Warne in his final Test.

Sledging has been rife for years, and it stinks. It's a sad, feeble way to try and take a wicket. Bowlers should use the ball, and their talent: that's what they're for. Batsmen who answer in kind, like Kevin Pietersen, who allegedly yelled "Fetch it!" at Symonds last year to give the impression that he was a specialist fielder, are little better.

It's sometimes said that fans wouldn't enjoy watching a game conducted largely in silence. But the outpouring of emotion on all sides this week - including an impressive number of two-eyed Australia fans - shows that the cricket-loving public are deeply disgruntled as it is. And silence is no problem at all. Curtly Ambrose didn't sledge, and people loved watching him.

Talking is the commentators' job. And the fans'. And the captains' - as long as they are addressing their own side, or the umpires, or the media, and not saying anything as crass as Ponting's claim that this row was "one little incident". If it was so little, why did he report it to the umpires, and set the ball rolling towards turning the incident into a diplomatic one?

Twelve years ago, a great Australian cricketer was asked for his views on sledging. "If a fellow attempted it under me," the old fellow replied, "I would have given him one warning and, if he repeated it, I would have made sure he was not selected again." That was Sir Don Bradman, speaking at the age of 87. Bradman wasn't always right, but he certainly was on that occasion. Sledging demeans everyone who practises it. It sours the game.

After five years as England captain, and more Test victories than any of his predecessors, Michael Vaughan has the authority to take that sort of stand. After five years as Australia's captain, and 16 victories in a row, Ponting has it even more so. So if the ICC won't ban sledging, Ponting and Vaughan should agree a pledge and ask the other national captains, Test and one-day, to sign up to it. It should be short and simple enough to be expressed in the modern sportsman's preferred form of off-field verbal communication: a text message.

Their fellow players might give them a few funny looks, or even a verbal onslaught. But cricketers know, deep down, that sledging is wrong. You can tell by the fact that they use euphemisms to denote it, like factory workers making sure they put on rubber gloves to handle the toxins they include in everyday products. Steve Waugh called it "mental disintegration"; others prefer "a bit of banter" or "a bit of chirp". Rare is the player who will call a sledge a sledge while he is still playing. But they know it's not cricket. If somebody seizes this moment and takes a stand, the whole cricket world, sooner or later, will thank them.