When I first absorbed the idea that cricket was the gentleman’s game, I understood it to mean it was played by men who showed a gentle nature to each other – under a hot sun, on a green field, to the sound of soft applause, with breaks for lunch and tea. Call me an idealist if you like. But to me it epitomised the fun sport could be in an often serious society.
Then I began playing professionally. As soon as money and status take over, sport changes for good. A different language permeates the field; and cricket’s curse – as well as its charm – is that no game is more suited to conversation. Golf offers scope for chat, yet – unless it’s match play – the battle is generally with the course, not the man. In tennis, the net gets in the way.In athletics, individuals are too focussed on their personal pursuit. In rugby or football, breaks occur in play for the quick quip or throwaway threat. Cycling and long distance running occasionally free up moments.
But Test-match days contain 540 balls, each with an average lifespan of five seconds or so, from the start of the bowler’s run-up to the batsman’s retort. That’s around 45 minutes of live play per day. In the opportunities cricket provides to speak in the heat of the battle, it rules the lot.
In England, this chatter has always been a mix of wit, whinge and worry; in Australia, slang, sex and sledge. The Australian way under a hot sun is to let rip with colourful language, a release of culture and climate. When the heat gets under an Aussie’s collar, when he faces pressure or the prospect of defeat, he releases the pain. Too often, it becomes crudely personal. And that is when cricket’s spirit and integrity are lost.
During the second of the two Ashes series, Australia found their voice again. At Brisbane and Adelaide, the verbal combat was appalling and on full display. Jeff Crowe, the match referee, had no hair to pull out; yet, believe me, he tried. His disdain for the sledging that went on – particularly from the Australians –couldn’t be conveyed in public. But, behind closed doors, there was a lot of effing and blinding (ironic, I’ll grant you). The two captains quietly accepted his point that a repeat of the physical contact between Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes at Adelaide would not be tolerated, but it was no coincidence that things calmed down only after Australia had the series in the bag, and England had all but given up. And while Andy Flower was keen on a truce, Darren Lehmann was not.
The pain of three successive Ashes losses had been too much for Australia. Former players, administrators and sections of their media began conjuring up a battle plan to change the course of history. Stung by six Test defeats in a row, Michael Clarke opted for a new approach. Most relevant, he decided, were the stories of Ashes folklore that depicted Australia as tough uncompromising and resilient. And chief among these was Allan Border, who had turned Australia around in the mid-1980s. Clarke’s search for change included his own game face, his mode of leading a bruised band, as Border himself had done against David Gower’s men 24 years earlier. In essence, Clarke (a gentle, misunderstood man) learned that Border (a gentle, humble man) had put on a mask. He felt encouraged to do the same.
The mask hid Border’s natural decency, although his fighting qualities were always evident when defending his wicket. In 1989, he didn’t need to be cordial any more. Instead he became Captain Grumpy, snarling, snorting and sledging his way to victory. Clarke, too, had had enough of being Mr Nice Guy. On the stroke of winning the First Test at Brisbane, he stormed up to James Anderson and unleashed hell. His face changed colour, his finger jabbed, his mouth screamed an obscenity. It was so unlike Clarke, so well acted, so unnatural. The effect was immediate: Australia hated England. This, the players convinced themselves, was war. It was a vocabulary even the pacific Alastair Cook tapped into.
Too many Ashes Tests in one year, too much greed and overkill – that was part of the problem. Hatred and vengeance built up. (And let’s be clear: it wasn’t just the Aussies who sledged – Anderson was no angel.) But these two proud nations needed to back off, smell the roses, go back to the family. The tone of the series was wrong. Yes, Australia played superb cricket for most of those live 45 minutes each day, but the other 315 were spent venting and frothing. It was not pleasant to watch. And it reduced England and the spectacle to nothing – unless, of course, you were an Aussie. It was the ultimate in mental disintegration.
When David Warner talked about England’s “scared eyes”, he did the game a disservice. Rightly, he was pulled into line by Lehmann, who had himself been pulled into line by Cricket Australia for calling on his countrymen to disrespect Stuart Broad. (Broad’s crime? He didn’t walk. Oh, the hypocrisy!) Both men apologised, but the tactics were clear, and Australia were not going to let up until the Ashes were regained. Yet even Ian Chappell, once a sledger himself – though he drew a distinction between personal abuse and more general, cricket-based observations – called for a truce before the whole thing descended into fisticuffs.
Of course, sledging is all part of the act, the masking of one’s doubts about oneself. Don’t the psychologists say that what you think about and do to others mirrors only what you think about yourself? Can cricket not be played at the highest level in a quieter environment? Of course it can, and by many teams it is. That Australia chose not to was simply a reflection of their own fears and confusion. The sledging masked that. It was an inglorious disguise.
Take Mitchell Johnson. England had ravaged him in 2009 and – with the exception of Perth – 2010-11. Now he came armed with new-found bullets and an old-style moustache, and he was relentless. Sledging had never come naturally to him, and even here it didn’t look quite right. But the mask was convincing enough, and his speed was undeniable. England were spooked. By the end, he was able to laugh in their “scared eyes”: fear had been replaced by cockiness.
Does cricket need to get as personal as it did during the Australian summer? Is not the pride of nation against nation enough? Or is patriotism just masking the real purpose – to win at all costs? I experienced very little sledging. In my first Test series, aged 19, Greg Chappell’s Australians – Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson among them – went out of their way to be friendly, and engaged at stumps with a cold beer and warm advice. It was after the 1989 Ashes, with Merv Hughes in tow, that the tune changed. His behaviour, which regularly included spitting, was boorish. I ignored it all, and continued to enjoy the camaraderie of the semi-professional era.
The only other team that bothered to sledge during my time was West Indies, who reserved it for moments when they met with resistance. Yet when they toured New Zealand in 1986-87, it was umpire Fred Goodall who copped it, and not us players. Goodall had famously been barged by Colin Croft during West Indies’ ill-tempered visit seven years earlier, and was blamed by them for the hostility that ensued. Now, he was attacked unmercifully. On the fifth day of the Second Test, after the First had been drawn, Viv Richards subjected Goodall to a fearful tirade. It worked, too: the decisions he went on to make were in favour of the sledging skipper. I was the non striker for much of it, and it was disgusting to observe. It put me off sledging for life; Goodall stood in only one more Test before retiring, a broken man.
The truth is, we have all been guilty of taking cricket too seriously. Instead, we should consider the consequences of winning at any cost. Sport is an athletic activity, not a religion or a ritual. It’s not about life or death. It needs to be natural, light, free, healthy and humane. When we add in boring made-up and acted-out elements, we miss the point. Winning becomes not merely everything: it becomes the only thing. It’s not. Loving and learning are.
We know cricket was created to express freedom of movement without bodily contact, that it was meant to stimulate the intelligence over long periods, and combine individual character and team culture. It was never meant to be simple or easy. It was a game designed to stretch us. But it was also meant to be played at a faster pace than we see now. The game needs speeding up: it needs less time for banal diatribe.
Are we becoming obsessed with this urge to win, to the point where minds are snapping and the damage is spreading? Or am I not manning up enough? All I know is that I’d like to see less pretending. Let’s get back to a shared spirit, which is gentlemanly, absorbing, compelling and fair. Let’s get back to a genuine, forgiving and rewarding game. Cricket is already muddied by bookies, mercenaries and politickers.
Too many masks are being worn, and young folk are growing up believing that sledging is winning. Frankly, it’s the opposite. Cricket needs to reinvent itself. It could start by calming down.
This article appeared in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2014. You can buy it here.