Many books have been written on the history of the Ashes, but none quite like Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps by Simon Briggs. It’s the story of a great contest – to see who can come up with the best insults, put-downs and ripostes. What goes on the field, stays on the field, the players like to say, but thankfully this rule is often broken. Briggs's book is so full of good lines, it almost convinces you that sledging is acceptable.
But which side does it better? I suspected it was Australia, but Simon has immersed himself in 124 years of sledging, so let’s ask him. “Well,” he replied, “WG [Grace] was an early leader. I tend to think that England were the villains in first 30 years, as they thought they had a God-given right to beat the colonials and would use any methods. Then it was Warwick Armstrong giving it back to them.
“In the modern era, the Aussies definitely lead. Ian Chappell’s mob upped the ante, and then you have Allan Border, Merv Hughes and Steve Waugh. Some of it comes from grade cricket being much rougher than English clubs, and some of it comes from just being better. Verbal aggression and on-field dominance are a bit chicken-and-egg, it’s hard to do one without the other. You can’t sledge from a crap position, partly because you don’t have the close fielders.”
Here, in possibly the first book extract ever to appear on a Cricinfo blog, are ten of Briggs’s favourite Ashes sledges. (Warning: fruity language.)
1 Mark Waugh to Jimmy Ormond on his Test debut, 2001: “Mate, what are you doing out here? There's no way you're good enough to play for England.” Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I'm the best player in my own family.”
2 Merv Hughes to Graeme Hick et al: “Mate, if you just turn the bat over you'll find the instructions on the other side.”
3 Hughes again: “Does your husband play cricket as well?”
4 Mike Atherton, on Merv Hughes: “I couldn't work out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with ‘arsewipe’.”
5 Dennis Lillee to Mike Gatting, 1994: “Hell, Gatt, move out of the way. I can't see the stumps.”
6 Derek Randall to Lillee, after taking a glancing blow to the head: “No good hitting me there, mate, nothing to damage.”
7 Ian Healy, placing a fielder yards away at cover when Nasser Hussain was batting: “Let's have you right under Nasser's nose.”
8 Tony Greig, England’s South African-born captain, to the young David Hookes, 1977: “When are your balls going to drop, Sonny?” Hookes: “I don't know, but at least I'm playing cricket for my own country.” Hookes hit Greig for five consecutive fours.
9 Rod Marsh, late Seventies: “How's your wife and my kids?” Ian Botham: “The wife's fine – the kids are retarded.”
10 Bill Woodfull, Australia’s captain in the Bodyline series of 1932-33, responding to Douglas Jardine's complaint that a slip fielder had sworn at him: “All right, which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?”
It makes you wonder about some of today’s players. They may be able to walk the walk, but can they talk the talk?
To order Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps, click here.