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.

News
people
Sport
Yaya Sanogo celebrates scoring the opening goal with Arsenal's English midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
champions leagueLive: All the latest from the Emirates and Bulgaria, where Liverpool face Ludogorets
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire