The view from Billinudgel

It’s just not cricket
Sledging is unlikely to improve, on the field or in politics

As what is left of Australian cricket segues from its dismal autumn into a miserable winter, there is at least a tinge of irony in the disaster.

Last week, Malcolm Turnbull, still drooling with spittle and bile after another session of parliamentary question time, gave the world a homily about the evils of sledging before returning to denigrate, abuse and generally defame his political opponents, principally Bill Shorten.

Rank hypocrisy, yes, but it made a weird kind of sense. After all, such fine judges as John Howard and Ginger Meggs regard the positions of prime minister and captain of the Australian cricket team almost on a par, so why shouldn’t the two occupants behave equally badly?

The answer is sadly simple: until recently, we still had some faith in Steve Smith and his players: they had done some pretty awful things, but we had not completely given up on them. While with Turnbull … well, it is just a matter of waiting for another week and the 30th Newspoll.

As politics has become more and more irredeemable, cricket, for a long time, has remained a sort of light on the hill, a timeless reminder of the way the world could be, if only we got rid of Hansard and embraced Wisden.

This idealism has sometimes been over the top: about 50 years ago an eccentric New South Wales Liberal politician named Douglas Darby proposed an idea to evangelise the teeming masses of China by introducing them to the great game. He believed that once they had donned flannels and played a few cover drives they would inevitably become what he called “civilised”.

Obviously it didn’t work. But the mystique of cricket endured the traumas of bodyline, underarm, attempts at match fixing and innumerable assaults on what used to be called the spirit of the game; the hope remained that there was something unique in the culture of cricket that could transcend the transgressions.

But then, there was a moment or two when the same could have been said of Malcolm Turnbull. We know better now. So it is unlikely that sledging will improve either in the parliament or on the field. And it has to be said that the modern versions are both more vicious and less funny than those of olden times.

It need not be: there have been some great sledges in the past, and some even better responses. Among the most memorable occurred during a match between Australia and Zimbabwe, where the acerbic Glenn McGrath was bowling to Zimbabwe’s, Eddo Brandes. The latter was short, chubby and kept missing the ball, but McGrath could not get him out.

Eventually, exasperated, the bowler strode down the pitch and snarled: “Eddo. Why are you so fat?” To which Brandes replied instantly: “Because every time I f**k your wife she gives me a biscuit.” Even the Australian fielders roared with laughter. Alas. None of them are laughing now. But then, nor is Malcolm Turnbull.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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