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James Lawton: Nastiness and intimidation orders of the day as sledging drags cricket downhill

Marsh is said to have asked Botham: 'How's your wife and my kids?'

Mike Procter, a fine South African cricketer and a charming man who has spent much of his life negotiating the treacherous ground of racism in sport, had no option in banning India's guileful spinner Harbhajan Singh for three Tests. Not after concluding he had called Australia's Andrew Symonds a "monkey". Though Procter was in a terrible corner, he could tell himself he didn't make it. Cricket, by neglect, did.

Procter was no doubt fully aware that a potentially glorious series between two brilliant teams would immediately come under threat. But if the decision of the match referee was a dismal no-brainer, it is now dwarfed by another problem. It is the game's inability to draw a line between sledging, which in the past has been greeted, especially in laddish circles, as an entertaining enrichment of the game, and something far more sinister.

The question can be isolated easily enough: when does a natural, verbal outcrop of hard competition slip into something quite different, something that in recent years appears to have become part of a winning team's tactics almost as fundamental as field placings, the balance of pace and spin, and the selection of an extra batsman?

Lest any of us should believe that this is a controversy on the other side of the world, with no relevance to our own preparations for the tour of New Zealand, it perhaps needs to be pointed out that one of the reasons offered by former England coach, Duncan Fletcher, for his extreme reluctance to play Chris Read, far and away the best wicketkeeper at his disposal, was that he wouldn't have made his mark as a sledger even in Salvation Army circles.

Read was far too passive, suggested Fletcher while approving the decision of the regime that followed him to elevate the now discarded Matt Prior above Read. The latter's failure was that he was not so good at "putting pressure on a batsman". Translation: he didn't have a natural aptitude for hurling abuse.

No matter that Read, unlike Prior, didn't need an outsized fish net to catch anything that came down his right side. No, if Prior was at least theoretically a better batsman, there was no question about his ability or willingness to harangue an incoming batsman.

In one respect at least, he had a touch of the great Australian sledger Rod Marsh, who is alleged to have once greeted Sir Ian Botham with the cheery enquiry, "How's your wife and my kids?" Botham is credited with the quickfire response, "The wife's fine but the kids are retarded." Maybe it wouldn't have survived a script meeting of Men Behaving Badly, or Top Gear, but for such hard-nut characters as Marsh and Botham that kind of exchange was part of their remit to wage war on opponents they loved to hate.

What may be developing now is something more sinister, a trend which is not about the natural collision of aggressive performers but the equivalent of psychological carpet bombing, a wall of hostility which has to be manufactured if it doesn't spring naturally from the collision of highly competitive and able cricketers.

The Aussies, of course, are generally credited with inventing and significantly developing the art of sledging and certainly it appears possible, if not likely, that their proficiency in the murky business was a key factor in their record-equalling achievement of winning a 16th successive Test match in Sydney.

True, vicious tongues would not amount to much that was decisive if they didn't happen to be accompanied by matchless professionalism and a competitive streak that at moments of pressure can stretch as wide as the Tasman Sea. However, the question that lingers in the mind is whether cricket has even begun to assess the potential damage when different cultures, with sharply varying views on the depth of an insult, compete for the highest prizes and the most lucrative rewards.

Some thought the Indians may have reacted excessively when, last summer, England played the childish prank of littering the pitch with sweeties. But then one man's playful jibe is another's insult to the bone a fact underlined many years ago in Pamplona at the running of the bulls, when an American tourist spotted a young Spaniard sleeping off an excess of red wine at a caf table. The American placed coins on the boy's eyes. He was lucky to escape with his life.

Sledging will never be eliminated, and nor is there a pressing reason when it carries an edge of humour. But this is not the same as tolerating systematically applied malign spirit. When sledging is acceptable it is about wit and psychological enterprise, not dull bullying or gang aggression.

Some of the best of it predates the Australian mastery of the art, with one of the finest examples coming from a frustrated seam bowler named Charles Kortright. Five times he was frustrated when he appealed for the wicket of WG Grace; five times the decisions of the umpires were greeted with disbelief not only by Kortright but the entire ground.

Finally, Kortright uprooted two of Grace's stumps. The great man lingered at the crease for a moment or two, then reluctantly departed for the pavilion. But not before Kortright exclaimed cheerfully, "Surely you're not going, doctor, there's still one stump standing." What would cricket have given for such a touch of irony in the Sydney Cricket Ground this week? Unfortunately for Mike Procter, and all of cricket, it was on another planet and in another age.

Daley right to shun bright lights in pursuit of perfection

Remember a conspicuous absentee at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show when finishing second was not a matter of regret but apparently pretty much the acme of competitive ambition?

It was 13-year-old Tom Daley, who is being heralded as the wonder boy after becoming Britain's senior platform diving champion and the conqueror of Olympic silver medalist Peter Waterfield.

Tom sent his proud parents to collect his trophy for Young Sportsman of the Year, saying on a video clip that he could not afford to break training even for 24 hours. Imagine, in this age of celebrity, a kid choosing to slog it out at training camp rather than hobnob with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Gary Lineker.

Daley is widely seen as a potential world champion and Olympic medalist and beyond his talent there is a powerful will. It is a reminder of another British teenager who years ago said he didn't mind how many years it took, or how million balls had to be hit, he was determined to turn himself into a golf machine. Nick Faldo went on to win six major titles.

There was another kindling of memory when Tom told the audience that work came first. It was of Andrew Flintoff two years before being persuaded to get up in the small hours of the Pakistan morning on the day of an important match so he could receive his award live. For the moment at least, the priorities of a potential world-beater seem rather more secure. We can only hope they are allowed to stay that way.

* If Fabio Capello is really in any doubt about the calamitous message that he will send out if he goes along with the cry to give the inactive David Beckham his token 100th cap he should consider the identity of the leader of the pack.

Presumably Sven Goran Eriksson believed he was doing his favourite and most indulged player one last favour when he called for his selection at a tribute dinner in London on Sunday night. Logic insists it is not so. Capello's job is to sweep away the legacy of Eriksson and his assistant Steve McClaren. It is to declare a new purpose, a new edge, a demand for performance today and tomorrow and not the preservation of old, played-out preferment.

Eriksson, who once said that he saw no problem in the captaincy of a player who declared that he had deliberately conspired to be sent off, not only advocates a "tribute" international match for Beckham but promises a stiff phone call to Capello if the Italian does not meet his demand. If it happens, Capello's English teacher should suggest a phrase that has never appeared in an English-Italian dictionary. But it consists of just two words, is not hard to pronounce and is universally understood.