They said the India-Australia series was a summer of spite but, if you believe Robin Uthappa, it all began in the Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa. The Indian team were huddled in a team meeting ahead of the game against Australia when the way to tackle Australia's aggression came up for discussion. "We said they [Australians] generally talk a lot," Uthappa recalls. "We decided that if they start the sledging, we won't sit back and take it. We will give it back. We won't and didn't initiate anything."
The game was meandering along when Uthappa says he had a look at Matthew Hayden and was surprised at the response. "I just looked at him and he went, "What are you looking at? I have played 11 years of international cricket. Give me some respect." And I thought, 'Here is someone I have been looking up to for the last eight or nine years and this is the kind of person he is.' When he said that he became very human to me, like any other mortal. So I give it to him nowadays.
"Don't get me wrong, I am a massive fan of Hayden. I hold him in a very high regard. If he had not started it, I would have never started it. He started it and my regard for him dropped."
That sowed the seeds for what happened during the Tests and, especially, the subsequent CB Series; the meltdown in behaviour during the Sydney Test and in its aftermath has passed into cricket infamy. Some of the sledges appear as simple mind games, some plain funny while a few get personal and abusive.
Uthappa's favourite is one directed at Hayden. "This boy has got an average of 27," Uthappa recalls Hayden telling his teammates as he walked in to bat. "Let's bring it down to 20 before he leaves Australia." "I turned around and told him, 'You know Matt, if you had batted in different positions that I have batted in you wouldn't even have had the average of 20."'
Uthappa waited for Hayden to come out to bat so he could have a go. "Boys, here is the person who talks about averages but he has hardly won any games for his country." And, on a funnier note: "Here is the guy who has hardly any hair but does head and shoulders ads."
It wasn't all funny, he concedes; a few sledges got personal and abusive. "It does get personal but it doesn't have to. Sledging is an art; you don't have to use abusive language. The best sledging happens when you don't abuse."
How did the sledging affect the players? Uthappa believes it did work against the Australians. "These little things that you say really ticks them off. They don't expect us to retaliate and, when we do, they don't know what to do. You can make out that it's affecting them. You can pick cues, especially with Ponting. When he came out to bat, we would say, 'There's an edge coming across. It's just a matter of time.' With Symonds, it would be pretty much about his hair, with Adam Gilchrist, it was about him having a good farewell."
Did the vitiated atmosphere in the middle affect relations off the field? Not to the full extent, Uthappa says, though he traces change in personal equations from before the tour and once the hostility began. "Even with Symonds, in India, we had a good time. We went out one evening; we went for a drink and chatted about the game. With Brett Lee, too, there is this constant sledging between us but off the field we are very good mates. We end up talking and going out.
|You can pick cues, especially with Ponting. When he came out to bat, we would say, 'There's an edge coming across. It's just a matter of time.' With Symonds, it would be pretty much about his hair, with Adam Gilchrist, it was about him having a good farewell."|
"At the end of the CB series I went and met Gilly. I am a great fan of his and have enjoyed his batting all through his career. I spoke to Lee as well, met Ricky briefly, and didn't really speak to Hayden. Symonds wasn't around. I spent around 30 minutes in their dressing room. It was quite good."
With the series done, Uthappa says sledging will be off the agenda - unless it is against Australia. "We would never initiate it but now I know, if I am playing Australia I will sledge because I know they won't keep quiet later. So I might as well start. I'd say the whole team will get aggressive."
To most observers there seems little difference between sledging and abuse so the question remains of how far the line can be pushed. Uthappa maintains that the team that fields first draws the line. "If they start sledging, they draw the line. They can take it as far as they can take it. At what level they stop, the other team shouldn't cross. They have the right to take it up to that level."
Ultimately, what will be of concern is the effect of on-field behaviour on spectators, especially children. To the general feeling that cricketers are role models and should behave appropriately while on the field, Uthappa responds by saying it's the parents' responsibility to counsel their children.
"One has to understand it's a sport. When you are playing sport it [sledging] is understandable, I think it should be allowed. Fine, it's our responsibility as well to be well-behaved and I think we do a fairly good job of it. I think its responsibility of people watching as well to make the children understand that what level and where you can do some thing like that."
So will aggression be wired into the DNA of future Indian cricketers? Uthappa is, again, unambiguous: "It's good for Indian cricket that aggressive young Indians are coming up. When you see the Aussie youngsters, or any youngsters for that matter, they are quite brash and come across as quite confident. I think you need youngsters like that in India. You don't want quiet boys going out there and playing cricket."
Uthappa pauses before adding, "No one in cricket is a saint."
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo