Steve Waugh, the former Australian cricket captain, called it the art of (causing) “mental disintegration”. More commonly, it’s known as sledging. And following the acrimonious end to the first Ashes Test, in Brisbane, which saw Australia crush England, there is fierce debate here about whether Australian players who baited their opponents overstepped the bounds of sportsmanship.
“For me, a guy threatening another guy with physical violence – I think it’s just not cricket, not the cricket I grew up loving,” says Peter FitzSimons, a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, referring to the Australian captain Michael Clarke’s warning to the England fast bowler James Anderson to “get ready for a broken fucking arm”.
Earlier in the match, Australia’s David Warner lambasted England’s Jonathan Trott as “pretty poor” and “pretty weak”, and claimed England had “scared eyes” as they faced Mitchell Johnson’s fast bowling. Trott, who put in a lacklustre performance, abruptly left the Ashes series yesterday, blaming a long-standing stress-related illness.
There is no suggestion that Warner was aware of Trott’s fragile state; even so, his remarks – which were made at a press conference, contravening the unwritten rule that sledging is acceptable on the field, but not off – caused “a fair bit of unease”, according to insiders. Mr FitzSimons, who used to play rugby union for Australia, calls them “nasty”.
Others, though, dismiss such qualms, agreeing with Clarke – who was fined one-fifth of his match fee yesterday, after his aside to Anderson was picked up by a stump microphone – that verbal sparring is “part and parcel of the game”. Even Alastair Cook conceded that “on the pitch, it’s pretty much a war… so there’s always going to be a few battles, a few words”.
Certainly, the atmosphere surrounding this Ashes contest is highly charged, with Australia desperate to win the series after losing the last three – and with lingering fury here about Stuart Broad’s failure to walk after edging a ball to slip in July at Trent Bridge.
Brisbane’s Courier-Mail has waged a campaign against Broad, with headlines such as “He’s so arrogant not even his own team likes him”. Rather than refer to him by name, it calls him “the 27-year-old English medium-pace bowler”. It cut him out of a front-page photograph, leaving just an empty silhouette. The Courier-Mail’s editor, Christopher Dore, wrote that Broad’s “dastardly deception… set the tone for an English summer of outrageous misfortune for the hapless Australians”. But he was tickled to see the Englishman walk into a press conference with a copy of the paper. “In the vernacular from the stands, maybe he’s not such a smug Pommy dickhead after all.”
Malcolm Conn, a cricket writer for Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited papers, welcomed the sight of Anderson – whom he called “England’s worst sledger” and “a constant abuser of Australians” during past Ashes series – getting a taste of his own medicine.
The term “sledging” seems to have originated in Australia during the 1960s. During the 1970s, the cricket team captained by Ian Chappell was labelled the “Ugly Australians” because of their aggressive playing style and propensity for verbal abuse.
Some incidents are legendary. Shortly after being called a “fat bus conductor” by the Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad, the Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes dismissed Miandad, then ran past him, calling out: “Tickets, please!”
The English are no slouches in the sledging department. During an Ashes Test in the 1960s, Fred Trueman was fielding near the gate to the pavilion. As a new batsman entered the arena, he turned to shut the gate. Trueman told him: “Don’t bother, son, you won’t be out there long enough.”
That kind of good-natured banter, though, seems very different from the Australians’ behaviour in Brisbane in recent days. Richard Hinds, a News Limited sports columnist, attributes the extra friction partly to the fact that this Ashes series has – unusually – begun only a few months after the last one ended.
That means “memories are still fresh, wounds are still raw” from, for instance, the Broad incident at Trent Bridge, Mr Hinds says, and the player line-ups have barely changed. “You’re putting the same dogs back into the same backyard.” He thinks Australia are indulging in “a bit of tit for tat… Guys like Anderson were pretty good in the lip themselves over in England; now the Australians are responding in kind, just like England did when it was on top.”
And it’s no longer a case of “wild colonials beating the gentlemen tourists of England”, Mr Hinds adds. “Nowadays you’ve just got two professional outfits going at each other very hard.”
There seems little prospect of manners improving when the second Test begins in Adelaide next week. Johnson, who relishes “a scrap”, has said he expects the tension “to continue through the series… You’re going to see a bit more of it.”
Mr FitzSimons says that since England’s success at the London Olympics, Wimbledon, the Ashes and the rugby, “there’s been renewed interest in beating England… It was pretty much blasé when we beat England seven or eight series in a row.”
He adds: “It’s obviously been good for cricket that England are back with it and have won three times in a row. But there’s a sense of ‘that’s enough now, let’s go back to situation normal, which is that we smack you’. And we seem to be going back to it.”