If proof were demanded that the pre‑Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was right to observe that “everything is in a constant state of flux”, recent events in Brisbane supplied it. The cricketing tradition of sledging, though widely assumed to have reached a plateau of mind‑numbing predictability in the 1970s, has metamorphosed.
For this insight, our thanks go to Australia’s Channel 9 for mistakenly leaving a stump microphone on during a commercial break, thereby capturing Aussie captain Michael Clarke courteously advising our own Jimmy Anderson to “get ready for a broken f——— arm”. The host Ashes broadcaster has since apologised to Clarke for the error. But while admiring the Australian media’s refined sensibilities – a Sydney newspaper marked the mentally anguished Jonathan Trott’s departure with the delicately diarrhoid headline “Trott Does A Runner” – it had no need.
The stenciling of the L’Affaire Clarke on to the honours board of live mic fiasci, where it sits astride “Yo, Blair!” and Gordon Brown’s depiction of Rochdale’s Mrs Gillian Duffy as a bigoted woman, is a blessing. Sledging – the offical cricketese for “desperately lame attempts at intimidating wit”, as its kissing cousin “banter” is Australian for “moronic sub-playground insults” – has been confused for too long with one of the higher comedic forms.
The first recorded sledge inevitably involved WG Grace, who once responded to being bowled by announcing, “Twas the wind which took the bail off, good sir.” “Indeed, doctor,” interjected a Wildean umpire, “and let us hope the wind helps thee on thy journey back to the pavilion.” From that vaudevillian exchange, it was a downhill sledge ride all the way until the holy trinity of subjects deemed seemliest for manly mirth were closet homosexuality, cuckoldry and girth. The latter pair have often been artfully combined, as in the side-splitter that has a batsman reply to enquiry as to why he is so fat with: “ ’Cos your wife gives me a cookie every time I f—- her.”
We could enjoy countless more examples, all exquisitely subtle variations on a theme, but why risk a run on Boots’ supplies of ribcage repair kits when the genre seems so outmoded? Sledging has finally come of age, with any ambition to replicate the cut-and-thrust that delights fourth-formers when the teacher is out of earshot now replaced by blatant physical threats.
This is an excellent development. The compiler of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations may be traumatised, but those who prefer George Orwell’s sober apercus will recall his analysis of international sport as war without weapons. With the Ashes elevated to a plane of honest and exhilarating viciousness, the Orwellian theme is taken up by the England captain Alastair Cook. “On the pitch,” he said, by way of acknowledging the essentially martial nature of the game, “it’s pretty much a war, isn’t it?” It is. Despite Test cricket’s reputation among those who disdain cricket as a languid and mannerly sport, the Ashes is a relentlessly brutal struggle between borderline psychotics, and deserves the poisonous verbals to match.
With the accusations and counter-accusations still flowing, the tension approaches a level of intensity unknown since the height of the Cold War. There is even talk of the England manager Andy Flower and his counterpart Darren Lehmann planning a crisis summit, presumably modelled on the SALT negotiations, to discuss some non-proliferation “sledging ground rules”.
Allow me to propose just one for their consideration. The stump microphones must be live at all times. If the Aussie opening batsman and chief thug David Warner informs Graeme Swann, “I’m gonna cut out yer liver, put it in the blender, garnish it with one of yer retinae, and force feed it to you via a funnel”, I want to hear it. If Kevin Pietersen ratchets up hostilities by pledging to sharpen the end of his bat for use as a makeshift axe with which to castrate the aptly simian banana-addict Peter Siddle, ditto.
Should Anglo-Australian relations deteriorate until a Test can be distinguished from a game of ice hockey only by the lack of ice and Michelin Man protective clothing, so much the better. Not since the early 1970s era of Dennis Lillee has the prospect of serious physical violence injected such a powerful shot of adrenaline into the bloodstream of the Ashes.
But even if things calm down and the need for a fully equipped field hospital on the square leg boundary abates, there must be no return to the kindergarten sledging. For too long the limp wisecracks were lionised by those who come over all Kriss Akabusi at the drop of a sensationally unfunny quip, and for this I blame the Victorian who inadvertently started the nonsense. If that anonymous bowler had set the tone by telling WG Grace “If thou fails to get thy f——— self out of here within the next 10 seconds, good doctor, I vouchsafe to ignite this Lucifer and set fire to thy f——— beard”, he might have spared us a deal of misery.