The art of sledging is becoming more sophisticated, and not just because of the Sochi Games. England’s new wicketkeeper Jos Buttler has begun to undermine the batsmen by questioning their ethical code rather than his parentage.
“Come on boys, there’s a really guilty shot coming,” said the Buttler, who didn’t do it but apparently knows who did. The quip came during the third one-day international against West Indies (Sky Sports 2, Wednesday), and he was referring to the belief that Lendl Simmons should have been given out caught behind off the previous delivery. Next up he was out, crashing the ball into his own stumps in cricket’s equivalent of suicide. Even though he was innocent, the sheer pressure of moral opprobrium was too much for him.
Buttler had thrown the wicketkeeper’s gauntlet. He looks set to be an integral part of the new England team. But even in the revitalising sunshine of Antigua a shadow loomed just beyond the boundary edge.
First there had been Steve Waugh’s tactic of “mental disintegration”, which did for English hopes in the Ashes over a 16-year period. Then along came Kevin Pietersen and all that changed – until he got in a pickle over some text messages and had to be “reintegrated” into the team. That didn’t work, as we now know, so we find ourselves in a process of “wholesale restructuring” without KP.
Amid all this verbal ingenuity, England were questioned in midweek about ball-tampering, or more accurately “unnatural deterioration”.
It sounds rather painful – as if this winter in Australia had not been bad enough. But in the new world order of cricket the real pain was being felt in South Africa as the Aussies clinched a fiercely contested series (Sky Sports 2, Wednesday). Mitchell Johnson carried on where he left off against England, battering the South African captain Graeme Smith into retirement. Then the hosts’ fast bowler Morne Morkel gave the Australian skipper Michael Clarke a fearful working-over.
On the last afternoon, as South Africa got within five overs of pulling off a remarkable rearguard action, they were pummelled and pelted by all the Aussie quicks. It was gruesome to watch. The contest was decided by Ryan Harris who was, as Charles Colvile observed, “quite literally on his last legs”. It doesn’t get much more painful than that.
Yet that thrilling climax between the world’s top two teams was marred by the same controversy over the condition of the ball, which players deliberately scuff up in order to achieve the right conditions for reverse swing. Clarke was spoken to by umpire Aleem Dar on the same day that Stuart Broad was given a public dressing-down by Marais Erasmus (pictured).
“We shouldn’t make assumptions – they are said to be the mother of many things,” said Mark Nicholas. “But we’ll assume that there has been some sharp practice.” Well practice is always a good idea in elite sport.
Yet as the players fizz the ball into the hapless keeper on the third or fourth bounce, it actually looks like they haven’t been practising enough.
Meanwhile Smith, who has been an indomitable leader in South Africa post-apartheid, will see out his playing days at Surrey in the company of Pietersen.
Having served his team and country unstintingly for a dozen years – captaining them in 111 Tests – he must recalibrate his moral bearings and learn to think about himself for a change. KP will be able to help with that.