|Illustration: Robin Chakraborty|
“It’s red, round, and weighs about five ounces in case you were wondering,” said Greg Thomas to the great Vivian Richards after going past his bat with some rippers in a county game between Glamorgan and Somerset at Taunton. The Welsh fast bowler did get Sir Viv charged up, as the next delivery was smashed out of the ground and landed into a nearby river. The charming West Indian turned around to a hapless Thomas and remarked, “Greg, you know what it looks like, now go and find it.”
Sledging is the fine art of verbal exchange among opponents. The intention is to hurt the concentration and focus of your rival, to piss them off so they can make a mistake. The Americans call it trash-talk, Indians call it bakchodi, and if you’re an Aussie cricketer, it is known as Monday morning at The Gabba. The Australians, for long, championed both the game as well as the verbal barrage, earning a reputation as the bad boys of cricket. Australian legend Dennis Lillee had a famous routine where he’d tell a batsman, “I can see why you’re batting so badly, you’ve got some shit on the end of your bat.” When a gullible batsman looked at the bottom of his bat for some dirt, Lillee would walk away saying, “Nah, wrong end mate!”
With the game going global, the influx of different cultures and the monetary stakes involved, the sport got incredibly competitive and teams started to give back as good as they got (and the Australians haven’t taken it well). Dada’s Indian team in the early aughts, shed all the politeness that its predecessors were known for. Sourav Ganguly and his boys were no longer submissive. There was a cultural shift in the way the game was played. Who can forget the Indian captain violently waving his jersey from the Lord’s balcony at the end of the NatWest Series final in 2002?
Today, aggression has become the norm. Now when India play Australia or the Ashes are around the corner, there are op-eds in newspapers and debates on TV about on-field behaviour and chatter on the ground. Indian skipper Virat Kohli has become the poster boy of aggressive cricket; the bat, his tongue, and his provocative fingers all come into play.
There have been multiple instances over the last couple of decades where situations got out of hand and lines were crossed on the field. One such undesirable incident featured Aussie great Glenn McGrath and West Indian batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan.
Glenn McGrath: “What does Lara’s dick taste like?”
Ramnaresh Sarwan: “I don’t know, ask your wife.”
Sarwan didn’t know it then, but Jane McGrath was undergoing treatment for cancer and the Aussie pacer was furious, with the players almost coming to blows with each other on the field. Who can forget Monkeygate, featuring our very own Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds, that caused a storm between the two teams as well the cricketing boards?
“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen,” said former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. For the cricket purist, sledging is a violation of the “spirit of the game”.
There is also a cheeky demand that Fox Cricket and Sony Ten share commentary remuneration with Rishabh Pant and Tim Paine, for all the entertainment they’ve provided from the stump microphone during the India-Australia series.
Image Credits: Getty Images
Sledging, much like Virat Kohli, has always divided a crowd, with one side deeming it ungentlemanly and crass, and the other side defending it as a bit of fun banter. There is no right or wrong answer. Test cricket has the capacity to get dull, and a humorous comment can lift up spirits of those out there in the middle. It can act as a tool of motivation. But at the same time, players are role models and you don’t want to showcase a version of the game that is vitriolic and mean-spirited. The general belief among fans and experts has been that there’s nothing wrong with a friendly quip or a witty remark but personal abuse and swearing is downright unacceptable. The art of sledging lies in knowing where that line is.
Sledging isn’t about getting personal with your opponent or putting him or her down, it’s simply about getting them distracted, to get them to make a mistake, with a funny observation or a chirp in their ear. “To sledge with style requires a ripe vocabulary, an ear for cadence, a fastidiousness as to the positioning of epithets and respect for your opponent. You want to topple him from high estate to low. You don’t want him down and out to start with,” said British novelist Howard Jacobson.
The ongoing India-Australia series has been a glorious endorsement of two things – competitive Test cricket and a good old-fashioned sledge. Tim Paine and Rishabh Pant seem to have auditioned for a roast battle that the entire cricketing world would pay to watch. With a smile on their faces, they’ve constantly had a go at each other in the most civil and hilarious manner, setting new standards in harmless, uncontroversial, and top-class banter.
Right from Tim Paine’s “Can you babysit?” to Rishabh Pant’s “Ever heard of a temporary captain?”, the “contest” has been loved by commentators and fans alike, with the clips going viral on social media and the remarks attracting discussion in post-match shows. There is also a cheeky demand that Fox Cricket and Sony Ten share commentary remuneration with Pant and Paine, for all the entertainment they’ve provided from the stump microphone. The fact that there is no bad blood but good camaraderie among the players was evident from Bonnie Paine’s (Tim Paine’s wife) Instagram post, where Rishabh Pant is playing with the Paine kids and the image is captioned “Best babysitter!”
The India-Australia series has been a testament to the fact that the games can be fiercely competitive, but they can also have an edge about them that doesn’t make us collectively cringe. That the gentleman’s game can not only survive, but thrive with a bit of healthy sledging and banter. Let’s have more of it, for not only does this keep us entertained and injects a bit of life into Test cricket, it also makes for wonderful anecdotes for years to come.
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