When mind games amount to conduct unbecoming

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The Independent Online
NO ETHIC in sport has suffered so spectacular a decline as respect for the opposition, which had its happiest days when the impulse to take up a game was not necessarily the impulse to make a great deal of money. Verbal intimidation is not something that has recently risen up but we have reached a sorry state when the cricketers of England and New Zealand cannot be relied upon for conduct becoming to their status.

That the cricket authorities should feel compelled to lecture this moderate bunch on standards of comportment before next week's third Test at Old Trafford tells us plenty about the way sport has gone since it fell into bed with television.

So far, there has not yet evolved a decent ethic that can discipline games for an audience that has its mind more on the importance of victory than aesthetic entertainment. In an interview with Brian Viner on these pages yesterday, Richie Benaud saw sledging in cricket as a reflection of society. Benaud is a man of wise and independent virtue and his objections are clear enough, but they would be better for being more vigorously stated.

Unfortunately, the trend today in all areas of sports journalism, print and electronic, is to go along with things as they are or take a stance that is often irritatingly passive. Thus, a great deal more was made of England's technical shortcomings at Lords last week than ear blistering exchanges and bellicose gestures.

Allowances are now made on the basis that the pressures of modern sport are so great that it takes considerable character not to blow up when the difference between winning and losing appears to turn on a stroke of bad luck or the gaining of an unfair advantage.

It is anybody's guess what past heroes of sport would have made of this nonsense but as a teenage professional footballer I was advised against the effectiveness of name- calling. "You can do more damage with your feet than your tongue," a renowned hard case was in the habit of saying.

I was reminded of this many years later after Colchester United defeated Leeds United to cause one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history. In an attempt to rile Leeds, one of the Colchester players, John Gilchrist, passed a disparaging remark about Terry Cooper when the England full-back screwed up an intended clearance.

Foolishly, Gilchrist then questioned the value of John Giles's many caps for the Republic of Ireland. Giles didn't look for trouble, but opponents provoked him at their peril. After the match, Gilchrist could hardly walk. "He [Giles] never spoke but look what the bastard did to me," he said rolling up his trouser legs to reveal cuts and bruises. "I should have known better."

Once, in a match against Manchester United at Old Trafford the great Tottenham Hotspur half-back and captain Danny Blanchflower was slammed onto the running track by a belligerent youth who had no respect for reputations.

Blanchflower's response on seeing fire in his assailant's eyes was classic. "I didn't look at the programme," he said, "so I don't know your name. What is it?"

Remarks like that are far too smart for the majority of games players and coaches whose support for the practice of sledging ensures that they will never amount to more than a small footnote in sporting history.

The plea of the performers criticised for running off at the mouth in combat is that it is natural. So, of course, is emptying the bowels. Let's admit, however, that a word in the right place when under fire can be disconcerting.

Muhammad Ali's daring strategy against George Foreman in Zaire saw him arched back over the ropes for three rounds taking terrible hooks to the body. When Foreman paused for breath Ali fired off fast head punches and teased the champion. "You gotta another 12 rounds of this, sucker," he said. If Foreman didn't know it then, the words would soon sound to him like a death knell.

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