A couple of days after the second Test between Australia and India ended at the Sydney Cricket Ground amid acrimony and indignation, I boarded the tram for an evening’s practice at my cricket club with 15-year-old Bill. A bright boy, Bill. I knew him to be keen on his cricket, and was interested in how his career had progressed since last I’d seen him.
I found that Bill was no longer quite so keen on his cricket. In the nets he was still a tidy player who essayed a pretty cover drive and lobbed a passable leg break. But, Bill explained, he wasn’t playing so much these days. He’d joined a club where the coaches had impressed on their charges how important it was to be as verbally aggressive as possible – to, as they say, sledge. Why? Well, everyone does it. And while his club wasn’t very good, it had won a few more games than the players’ talents justified because they were capable of putting opponents off by being “in their faces”, by appealing for everything that appeared remotely out, by carrying on a bit if they did not get their way. Bill, he thought that was a bit stupid. His parents weren’t keen on it either.
I’m pretty inured to petulance and cynicism among international cricketers these days, of which Sydney was merely the worst episode since the last episode which was the worst, following the one before that. The conversation with Bill, however – that was dismaying. For it is this aspect of sledging and general malcontentment on the cricket field that has become most pernicious: not that it is ugly or offensive or dehumanising, but the sheer rote-learned nature of it. Now and again, there is a flash of exasperation, frustration, anger, even humour. Otherwise, it is a part of the game that has become noisily, and annoyingly, automated.
The skirmish between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds owed nothing to the spur of the moment or the heat of the contest. Harbhajan knew he had a way of irking Symonds; they had even discussed it off the field. The Australians knew Harbhajan to be a provocateur; the Australians entered willingly into the confrontation, aware of exactly what was acceptable boorishness under Paragraph 3.3 of the International Cricket Council Code of Conduct and what was not. Thus did a relatively small objective, a short-term tactical edge on an opponent, masquerade as a very big issue.
The game’s ugliest image was provided by neither Harbhajan nor Symonds, but by Australia’s captain, Ricky Ponting, finger aloft, bent forward at the waist, daring the umpire to doubt his assertion that a snick to slip had carried, turning even his lip service to good manners – a pre-match agreement with India’s Anil Kumble to rely upon the fielders’ word where low catches were concerned – into an emblem of Australian obduracy. The appeal for a catch at the wicket when Rahul Dravid missed a ball by nine inches, meanwhile, was a miracle of harmony to rival The Beach Boys.
As it usually does, the charge of racism immediately deprived everyone of rational thought, entailing the inevitable he-said-she-said claim and counterclaim. And if Australia’s cricketers are the world’s biggest bullies on the field, India’s administrators are easily their match off it. At once there were threats that the Indians would take their bat, their ball and, most importantly, their money home. A tit-for-tat charge was laid against Brad Hogg for barking at Kumble and his partner, Mahendra Dhoni, “I can’t wait to go through you bastards.” And so it became a busy week for the average cricket hack. Peter Roebuck, in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, not a little impetuously took India’s part. The Australian reopened the culture wars on a new front, passing off hectares of partisan comment in support of star columnist Ponting as news. Kerry O’Keeffe laughed uproariously at his own jokes – so, no change there. I was interviewed by a reporter from a television current-affairs show who, apparently unable to raise Roebuck, proposed that Ponting should be sacked no fewer than six times. I also participated in a surreal radio debate with a Punjabi editor who insisted that racism in India, presumably like homosexuality in Iran, does not exist.
Between times, just to bring it all back home, I played my weekly club game. While opening the batting I was called a homosexual, a paedophile, a cheat for not walking when I missed a ball by two feet, and a loser merely for existing. While bowling we faced a batsman whose idea of fun was to goad each fielder in turn and who, when a comment was made that this was obviously how they played in Frankston, droned on for several overs about “racial vilification”. Monkey see, monkey do.
For this is cricket circa 2008, a game still hugely rich and various in its skills yet massively alike in its behaviours, in which you do not merely play to win but to dull your opponents’ love of the game, and thus their appetite for the contest. This has become a means, in fact, by which groups define and unite themselves. Bradley Hogg wasn’t questioning anyone’s parentage in Sydney; he was, after more than a decade hankering for Test selection, clamouring for membership of the tough boys’ group. And Australian captains have been such noisy apologists for verbal aggression, psychological dominance and “mental disintegration” over the years that the route to self-exculpation at lower levels of the game is obvious: The role model made me do it!
On reflection, then, part of my conversation with Bill was quite hopeful. People, even 15-year-olds, have agency. They can make choices. They can reject recommended and prescribed behaviours. Alas, they might have to leave cricket behind in order to do so. And here the fault is not in our superstars but in ourselves, in that we have colluded in turning a game with perhaps more scope for individual expression than any other into another means of instilling mass conformity.
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