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Ed Smith

Sledging's inevitable? That's just silly

The idea that trash talk is a by-product of competitiveness, and essential to spice up a contest, is laughable

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
The marketers would have us think that the public loves scenes like this  •  Getty Images

The marketers would have us think that the public loves scenes like this  •  Getty Images

At a recent social event I bumped into a fast bowler who I'd played against many times. It was the first time I'd seen him since my retirement, and at first I couldn't work out what was odd about the conversation. He seemed sheepish, unable to look me in the eye, embarrassed about something. But what? As he was still playing the game professionally, I tried to draw him out about how things were going. "As you'll remember," he eventually replied, nervously, "I'm an idiot on the pitch, but I'm working on that these days." The point, however, is that I didn't remember. I had completely forgotten that he had sledged quite a bit. He'd remembered, I'd forgotten.
We should recast the debate about sledging. It is not about the sledged or so-called "victim", who is usually completely unaffected. It concerns the values and standards of the sledger. How does he want to live his life? It was the boxer Floyd Patterson, I think, who said that "trash talk" (as boxers call sledging) is easy - the hard thing for lippy fighters was accidentally bumping into an opponent with his wife and kids at the airport.
The fourth Test, in Melbourne, was not an especially fractious affair, though it had the occasional silly moment. So this column is not specifically about the last Test, nor even targeted only at this Ashes series. Instead, I want to expose some of the myths that threaten to undermine the sport we all love. It is time to ask a simple question: who are the real victims of sledging?
There is a nasty little theory going around that Michael Clarke and his Australians have "toughened up" this series and that their improved performance is somehow bound up with this hardening of their external behaviour. Thus the diplomatic, pointedly courteous Clarke who led Australia to defeat in the English summer is reincarnated as an Aussie battler with a sharp tongue and a nasty streak in the victorious campaign of 2013-14. It is a seductive theory, just the kind of easy, populist history that displaces complex truths with simplistic myths.
I see the causal chain working in the opposite direction. It is not sledging that leads to winning, it is winning that leads to sledging. Ironically, that makes it worse. Far from being an explanation of success, it is simply a failure of grace and dignity. Far from being a subtle strategic art, sledging is just an embarrassing version of playground bullying. The people with the real problems are the players who lose their dignity. Within education, in schools suffering outbreaks of bullying, improved behaviour often follows from asking the bullies themselves how they can be helped to get over their evident psychological problems. The focus, quite rightly, is on their inadequacies.
England, apparently, had quite a bit to say for themselves during their 3-0 victory. Now Australia have relished an opportunity to talk down to England while they have been playing above them. What guts, what bravery! To swear at opponents when they can't get a run or a wicket!
There is a lot of selective history about "toughness" and superficial behaviour. The fact that Allan Border's Australia lost in 1985 and won in 1989 is often framed by reference to his famous quote, "I'm sick of being seen as a good bloke and losing. I'd rather be a prick and win." But in terms of explaining the crucial improvements in 1989, I would look first at the 41 wickets of Terry Alderman and the 1345 runs that came from the bats of Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor.
The way sportsmen perform is determined by the complex interaction of skill, talent, resilience and context. The way they behave is simply a personal choice. And many of the greatest players, in all sports, have chosen to behave very well. Garry Sobers, Don Bradman and Rahul Dravid did not sledge the bowlers they dismantled, any more than Michael Holding sledged the batsmen he terrorised. There is scarcely a scrap of critical evidence to pin against the behaviour of Rod Laver, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the tennis court.
Nadal is arguably the toughest competitor, both mentally and physically, in any sport in the world. Toughness, of course, is playing at the limit of your capacity as often as possible. Yet nothing could be more ridiculous than the idea that Nadal would become tougher by unleashing a stream of abuse at Andy Murray just before the start of a match. And yet that is exactly the presumption of people who believe in a correlation between sledging and toughness.
Which leads me to another of cricket's self-destructive myths: that demeaning behaviour is inevitable, that it is the logical result of "market forces" and "the pressures of modern professional sport". Not true. Last January, I met up with Brad Drewett, then chief executive of the ATP, at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Drewett was dying from motor neurone disease, and the meeting had the poignant subtext that it was likely to be the first and last time we would meet.
Drewett described how the impressive culture at the top of men's tennis today is unrecognisable from his own time as a player in the 1980s. Back then, flashy rivalries degenerated into personal contemptuousness and many big guns treated the junior players with dismissive disdain. With the tantrums and outbursts of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, tennis was indulging the idea that "nice guys finish last".
"Roger Federer helped to change all that," Drewett explained, "and Rafael Nadal fitted in with the standards he set. After them, everyone had to follow their example."
Far from being a subtle strategic art, sledging is just an embarrassing version of playground bullying. The people with the real problems are the players who lose their dignity
Following the trajectory of the 1980s, tennis today ought to be an uninterrupted expletive-ridden tantrum. But it hasn't happened. Quite the reverse. A few good men radically altered the course of a whole sport. They changed the image of being a winner. They enhanced the expectations that follow from being a champion. And they will pass on to the next generation a sport in better health than the fractious environment they inherited. Alongside all their other achievements, Federer and Nadal disproved one of the silliest myths of professional sport: that there is some competitive disadvantage in being a decent person. In doing so, they demonstrated a truth rarely acknowledged: cultures are always in flux; they can improve as well as decline.
This fact has eluded not just cricketers but also broadcasters, and worst of all, even administrators. Pundits routinely opine that undignified behavior "adds spice to the contest" and "makes the sport dramatic to the viewer". Has anyone asked the public? The reply follows: "But look at the huge crowds at the MCG and encouraging TV viewing figures. Our brand strategy must be working!"
Well, a few new people with low attention spans are temporarily attracted to vulgarity, just as drivers slow down to look at car crashes on the other side of the road. But for the silent majority, cricket's past and cricket's future, the sport is not enhanced by macho posturing, it is demeaned by it.
The brand experts are mostly quack salesmen who know nothing at all about real brand value. Indeed, the phony profession of brand marketing is only a few decades old. In contrast, real brands - such as the Ashes, for example - have been around a lot longer than the whole concept of "branding".
Anyone who really understands brands - whether it is a business, a reputation or a family name - knows that they are very hard to build but all too easy to destroy. By legitimising playground bullying - indeed celebrating it - cricket believes it is winning some subliminal battle for relevance, for modernity, for a share of the sporting market.
I am not a brand expert, but I have a sense for how sports grow and evolve. And how they can decay and wither. Lowering behavioural expectations will not heighten interest in cricket, not over the long term. Only good cricket can do that.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here