The joy of sledging

Wives, mothers, children – when a war of words breaks out, nothing is off-limits. Chris McGrath relives the history of verbal duels without which an Ashes summer really wouldn't be cricket
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The Independent Online

Douglas Jardine had appeared at the door of the Australian dressing room, objecting that he had heard himself described as a "bastard" on the field. Vic Richardson, the vice-captain, turned to his team. "All right, which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?"

It is a vignette that unravels every tangled strand of the bitter "Bodyline" tour of 1932-33. As always, there are variations on the tale. Some claim that Jardine was actually complaining on behalf of Harold Larwood; others attribute the sublime response to Bill Woodfull.

Click the image on the right to launch our guide to the best Ashes sledges.

For what it is worth, the Australian captain would never have used such language – unlike the salty Richardson, whose own grandsons, Ian and Greg Chappell, would themselves serve as a conduit for the same, viscerally competitive spirit that will doubtless animate this, the latest generation of Australians to engage the old enemy.

But if the practice has become definitively associated with one nation, it would be disingenuous to pretend that their hosts will be no better versed in "sledging" than the Jamaican bobsleigh team. It is just that modern Australian teams seem to have given the craft the same attention as any other dimension of the game that made them tougher to beat. In other words, no less than in batting, bowling and fielding, it has been difficult for other sides to give quite as good as they get.

Test cricket depends exorbitantly upon mental strength. Concentration must be sustained through five days of attrition, and the batsman is in a constant state of isolation. Sledging is simply the crudest tactic in the strategy of "mental disintegration" successively identified with Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.

The term is credited to Carl Rackemann,

at The Oval in 1989. With the series long sewn up, Border was pondering a target to set on its final day. Rackemann persuaded him to keep England on the rack with another, unexpected morning in the field. The tactic left less time to get 10 wickets, but guaranteed that only one side had any chance of winning – and the mental and physical "disintegration" of the English fielders, in the meantime, was such that it looked like sufficing had the weather not intervened.

Waugh himself always disparaged the sledging debate. Those who were unsettled, he reasoned, lacked the necessary fortitude to succeed anyway. A lot of players, in fact, almost seem irritated by prying, squeamish concerns that sledging is "not cricket".

The game's guardians, of course, are chronically prone to melodramas of conscience, perceiving themselves as a bastion against the decaying mores of the world beyond the boundary. As Messrs Jardine and Richardson demonstrated, these anxieties are scarcely novel ones. Those of us who play the game at a frivolous level do probably hear more insidious mutterings behind the stumps than was once the case. But it's a chicken-and-egg situation, a behavioural osmosis between broad trends in society, on the one hand, and the example of elite players, on the other.

In claiming autonomy to keep sledging within reasonably civilised limits, however, the players ensure that when matters do get out of hand, it can be too late for officials to salvage the situation. The most infamous recent example was the Australian tour of India in |2007-08, when an orgy of insult and sententiousness between individual players sparked a test of political muscle in the global game that was no less unseemly.

The consensus is that you can say pretty much what you like "so long as it doesn't get personal".

That series showed what this really means. Namely, that you can say what you like, so long as the relationship between particular players or teams has not been poisoned. Words that might be forgotten over a beer in one situation will cause a diplomatic incident in the next.

As is so often the case in cricket, sledging is really a test of class. If you show humour, subtlety or character, even "personal" insults can intensify the sense of mutual engagement that ultimately sustains fellowship, even goodwill. In the same way, an essential decency will alter the nature of other, more blatant tactics of intimidation. If a fast bowler decks a batsman, and then shows gentlemanly concern, none need doubt his sincerity if he promptly bowls another bouncer. Stalking indifferently back to your mark, however, will often be recognised as insecure posturing.

There was very little class, for instance, in a puerile exchange between Ramnaresh Sarwan and (not altogether surprisingly) Glenn McGrath, during a Test at Antigua in 2003. After going for 21 runs in two overs, McGrath came up with an ingenious question for the young West Indian vice-captain. "What," he wondered, "does Brian Lara's dick taste like?" Fighting inanity with inanity, Sarwan promptly retorted: "I don't know, ask your wife."

McGrath went berserk. Having started to walk away, he spun round and towered toe-to-toe over his diminutive antagonist. If Sarwan ever mentioned his wife again, he roared, he would rip his throat out. It was well known that

Jane McGrath was being treated for the cancer that finally claimed her life last year, but even the Australian fielders seemed to acknowledge that Sarwan had not spoken maliciously. The bottom line was that McGrath had ignited the spat, and when Sarwan reached his hundred three overs later, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer sheepishly shook his hand.

Allowances might be made for his emotional vulnerability, on that occasion, but there was a broader sadness to see McGrath, of all people, protesting to David Shepherd about a rival's want of decorum. No umpire better embodied the game's soul, wry but dignified, eccentric but dependable. When Shepherd retired back to Devon, a couple of years later, he will not have missed moments like these. That same evening the chief executive of the Australian Cricket Board telephoned Waugh, and urged his team to examine their conduct when things were not going their way.

The trouble is that the margins between gladiatorial intensity and rank bad manners can be very precarious. After all, perhaps the most cherished sledge in history apparently concerned none other than Mrs Glenn |McGrath. Everyone knows this one. Eddo Brandes, the chicken farmer who batted at 11 for Zimbabwe, was surviving in entirely haphazard fashion. The exasperated bowler wandered down the pitch and drolly enquired: "Eddo, why are you so fat?" Brandes promptly replied: "Because every time I make love to your wife, she gives me a biscuit." The Australian slip fielders succumbed to paroxysms of laughter.

That is the story, anyway. Exactly who said what tends to become frayed with each rendition of all the classic sledges. But one man seems to finds his way into the cast far more frequently than anyone else. There can be no mistaking Merv Hughes as the greatest "sledgend" of all. That monstrous moustache of his always seemed to be flecked with venom. |Hughes certainly had a role in the "mental disintegration" of Graeme Hick. "Mate," he would say, "if you just turn the bat over, you'll find the instructions on the other side." Or: "Does your husband play cricket as well?" Mike Atherton, a rather more robust victim, remembered: "I couldn't make out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with 'arsewipe'."

Atherton made a point of getting to know Hughes, off the field, and learnt to laugh him off. And, of course, that is the whole point. Hughes only got under your skin if you made

the mistake of taking him too seriously. On one occasion Hughes was being hit all round the ground – in some versions by Viv Richards, in others by Hansie Cronje. Hughes stopped halfway down the pitch, and broke wind lavishly. "Let's see you hit that to the boundary!"

Then there was the time Javed Miandad for some reason got it into his head to call |Hughes a "fat bus conductor". A few balls later Hughes had him caught, and galloped past shouting: "Tickets, please!"

Ian Healy, the Australian wicketkeeper, once advised Shane Warne to put a Mars bar on a length, to tempt the portly Sri Lankan batsman Arjuna Ranatunga out of his crease. And Rod Marsh is supposed to have greeted Ian Botham at the wicket one day by asking: "How's your wife – and my kids?" Botham is said to have replied: "The wife's fine. The kids are retarded."

The last, epic Ashes series here, remember, was played in a magnificent timbre throughout. Perhaps some Australians wonder whether that contributed to their defeat. Given good judgement, however, nothing fortifies the spirit of cricket better than getting beyond its hollow pieties. Perhaps the best sledge in history, after all, was reserved for a team-mate.

Raman Subba Row had spilt a catch between his knees. At the end of the over, he meekly apologised to the bowler, Fred Trueman.

"I'm sorry, Fred," he said. "I should have kept my legs together."

"So should your mother."