Cricket: The art of talking a good game

Stephen Fay declares Tests are fast becoming slanging matches
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CHRIS CAIRNS'S glare is not a pretty sight. The mouth moves and you know he is not talking about the weather. This is sledging, and television draws attention to it, but television does not tell even half the story. Take the episode at Lord's when Cairns lingered in front of Graham Thorpe and was much criticised for his actions. From beyond the boundary the usual reaction is that sledging like this "isn't cricket".

But reports from on the field suggest that it was Thorpe who started it. Thorpe, a cocky figure who assumes an air of superiority especially against a side like New Zealand, came in, promptly hit Cairns to the boundary and said to him: "You're in the big boys' game now." When Cairns's slower ball bamboozled Thorpe a few balls later, he raced down the pitch shouting: "Who's playing with the big boys now?" The participants describe this as gamesmanship.

But there is more to it than that. New Zealanders also reminded Thorpe of a brief affair he was alleged to have had in Auckland when England last toured there, which had set off a domestic crisis. The intention is to break his concentration. Is that gamesmanship or abuse? It is certainly sledging.

Cricketers say that sledging has always been part of the game. W G Grace was a sledger, they say, as if that automatically validates it. But the scenes at Lord's persuaded the match referee, the South African Peter Van Der Merwe, to intervene. "There are limits," he says. He has spoken to the captains about it.

It is difficult to define limits, however, until you know what players really say, and sledging is an element in the game that remains a mystery to most spectators. If there is any danger of it being overheard by the stump microphone, experienced Test wicketkeepers place a foot over it. Perhaps it is time to break silence.

The Oxford Companion to Australian Cricket claims that the word sledging originated Down Under in the Sixties. The first use was when a player called Chris Corling swore in mixed company and was accused of being as subtle as a sledgehammer. At the same time Percy Sledge, the black American soul singer, had a hit with When a Man Loves a Woman, and Corling became known as Percy. By the Seventies the meaning had stretched from ungentlemanly behaviour towards a woman to verbal abuse intended to unsettle batsmen. (I have not made this up, I promise.) David Gower declared Australia the world sledging champions. Its prominence suggested "the game was tougher, occasionally nastier, than before", says the Oxford Companion entry.

The deed preceded the word. Talking to batsmen has a long history in club cricket, especially in the north. Sledging has a long tradition in South Africa. For example, in the 1956-57 tour, Peter Heine told Trevor Bailey: "I want to hit you, Bailey. I want to hit you over the heart."

Australians sometimes leaven a fundamentally crude approach built on swear words beginning with "f" and "c" with some wit. When David Steele made his England debut at Lord's in 1975 when he was already grey and 34, Jeff Thomson scrutinised him as he approached the crease, and said: "Bloody hell, who've we got here, Groucho Marx?"

One trigger is a refusal to walk after a poor umpiring decision. A classic case occurred last summer at Old Trafford when Mike Atherton stayed put after he had gloved a ball off Allan Donald to Mark Boucher. Donald glared and said: "You better be fucking ready for what's coming, because there'll be nothing in your half." Later, Donald called Atherton a "fucking cheat".

Atherton later said he could not take offence because he could not understand Donald's Afrikaans. That was a grown-up's attempt to defuse a fiery confrontation. Donald was, in fact, speaking English.

We know this because he says so in White Lightning, his autobiography (published by CollinsWillow) which is the text for modern sledging.

Donald shows that a pleasant, open nature, like his own, is not a deterrent to violent verbals on the field. He writes that it is impossible to undermine Australian confidence, but finds that the Indians are more easily disconcerted. When Mohammad Azharuddin complained to Hansie Cronje after Donald was perfectly beastly to Rahul Dravid, Cronje replied: "Go fucking cry somewhere else." Donald's own sarcastic commentary: "Pretty subtle stuff, you'll agree."

Donald claims the master of the art was his colleague Pat Symcox, and he describes a passage during last summer's Test series. "Symcox said to me, `Why don't you start niggling at [Alec] Stewart... Stewart's not like Atherton - he would mix it, he wouldn't turn the other cheek'. So we gave him some stick after lunch. I said to him, `Now there's a man out for the hook. Don't fuck it up now.' And he answered, `Sorry - can you speak up?' So I said, `You heard me - don't fuck it up!' I went round the wicket to him, giving him the bait of the short ball, knowing he'd go for it at some stage. Finally, he fetched a wide one round to deep square leg... a few of our guys shouted at him, `Thanks very much - you've just lost the match and the series'."

That remark is just like the one attributed to Steve Waugh - who is, of course, impervious to sledging himself - after Herschelle Gibbs dropped him on his way to a match-winning century. Within days, it was confidently asserted that Waugh had said: "How does it feel to drop the World Cup, Hersch?" Sorry to spoil a good story, but Gibbs says that Waugh said nothing of the kind.

It is hard to distinguish between gamesmanship and personal abuse, as Stephen Fleming does, because the abuse is the gamesmanship. Umpires - often former players themselves - generally accept the gamesmanship case. But, during a particularly heated session last summer, Peter Willey said to Allan Donald: "I'd rather face you on a green wicket than be standing here, with so much going on." Apparently, it never occurred to Willey to intervene and stop it.

Sledging shows that cricket is the most violent of ball games. A baseball player who pitched at a batter's head and accompanied this with a barrage of abuse would be fined and banned. It is more likely to win a cricketer Man of the Match.