Saturday, 11 February 2017

The case for sledging

Sam Perry in Cricinfo

Around a decade ago a 20-year-old man walked to a suburban wicket with his team in a precarious position. The previous week they had conceded a glut of runs to a rampaging opposition that included a recently discarded international player. In a message to selectors and anyone else who wanted to listen, the deposed veteran made a score that dropped jaws.

And so the 20-year-old strode to the crease, his team 40 for 4 in reply. Two overs remained before lunch. Slightly shaking but presenting the bravest face possible, he asked for centre. In an attempt at familiarity, he addressed the umpire by name. It was a disastrous overcompensation, seized upon gleefully.

"Do you know him, mate?" offered the point fieldsman. Chuckles ensued from those in earshot. The batsman glanced behind him to see four slips waiting. Each stared, stony-faced, directly back. Two had arms folded, two had hands behind their backs, like policemen strolling their beat. Robocop wraparound sunglasses were the day's fashion, as was the gnashing of chewing gum. The batsman probably shouldn't have addressed the umpire by name. It played on his mind.

"Rod, do you know this bloke?" came the follow-up from first slip. It was the veteran record-breaker, speaking to the umpire, capitalising on the moment. All heads turned to the man in white, now a central character in the contrived pantomime. Rod chuckled. "Nope!" he replied, followed by more laughter. A ball hadn't yet been bowled.

The veteran continued, "Mate, what's going on with your socks?" Now we had a problem. Unbeknown to the batsman, he had tucked his socks into his pants before affixing his pads. "Is this Under-12s? Rod, am I playing Under-12s?" Guffaws followed from all but the already humiliated batsman. He was out for 5, caught at gully off the last ball before lunch.

Sledging has utility and that's primarily why it exists. While few of us ever will, were we to step into the private confines of a professional dressing room, we would likely find believers. You won't hear this publicly, though, as the word itself has become villainous to cricketing morality. Very few are willing to openly defend sledging, though many privately believe in its value. Pragmatism often trumps principle.

So in this Trumpian world, perhaps it's time to air the views of a silent majority. Maybe sledging is effective. Maybe sledging makes a difference. Maybe sledging helps teams win.

We accept that cricket is a mental game, and let's face it, the majority of us cannot control ourselves very well mentally

Contrary to popular conception, sledging is rarely a series of witty one-liners of the sort found in internet listicles. Nor is it often outright verbal abuse. In large part it's merely a stream of hushed expletives, passive-aggressive body language, conversations between team-mates, and assorted noises, the worst of which is laughter.

We accept that cricket is a mental game, and let's face it, the majority of us cannot control ourselves very well mentally. We are not purveyors of unadulterated Zen and focused positivity. We are mostly flawed individuals, who carry our nerves, insecurities and awareness of weakness into most of life's important moments. We all learned at an early age that humiliation, embarrassment, and feelings of not belonging compromise our confidence. Ergo, if you accept that confidence is critical to cricketing success, then isn't it the opposition's imperative to weaken it?

Which brings us to sledging's ethical considerations. Among the many and overlapping guiding principles for a player's behaviour, particularly at the professional level, standing as tall as any is this: "What will help us win?" It's here that we confront sledging's mythical line. For most, the line is simply about what you can get away with. Or as Nathan Lyon described it, "We try to head-butt the line." If there is an upside or edge to be exploited in pursuit of victory, aren't players arguably justified in doing so? When it comes to sledging, for many the question is less "Is this right?", more "Will this work?"

Of course, it doesn't always work. Some personalities thrive under sledging, while others are immune. But these are rare birds. It's more likely than not that sledging hurts us. If we succeed, we do so in spite of it and not because of it. And so in our new, Trump-led world, where the prevailing doctrines seem to be less about honour and more about winning, it is fitting to view sledging as a viable tool in the arsenals of fielding sides. No one will say so, mind.
Beyond its capacity to mentally disrupt the opposition, in some countries sledging seemingly has a cultural allure too. You don't have to travel far on YouTube to witness the bipartisan adoration for former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, whose ability to deliver withering verbal takedowns and comebacks is arguably without peer. He is adored for his capacity to verbally undermine his opposition, and it's understandable that many may seek to emulate that when it comes to facing opponents of their own.

This potent yet fragile tool for psychological disruption remains as alive as ever. Ask any batsman whether they'd prefer to be sledged when they bat or not, and the honest answer will be no. And it is for this reason that they will engage in sledging themselves when fielding. While many might express a glib, deep-voiced indifference to "chat", we would all much prefer friendly, welcoming, encouraging environs when out in the middle. The reality, however sad or unethical, is that sledging usually makes one's innings more difficult. So long as professional pragmatism and the doctrine of winning prevails, so will sledging, whether publicly acknowledged or not.

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