Today I write on “Sledging Considered As One of the Fine Arts”. Sledging, for those not familiar with the term, is the practice of on-field verbal intimidation much favoured by Australian cricketers though by no means confined to them. Every cricket team sledges, though some do it with more aplomb than others.
As with all aspects of sport, national character is the first determinant of success. The more refined and well-mannered the culture, the less accomplished its sledgers. I don’t say the corollary follows – I am too fond of Australia to put its love of vilification down to something primitive in the country’s psyche – but you only have to read Australia’s national poem, “The Bastard from the Bush” (“Fuck me dead, I’m Foreskin Fred, the Bastard from the Bush”), to see an essential connection between verbal violence and a remote colonial lifestyle.
That said, it’s important to place sledging in a tradition of insult-flinging to which even the most sophisticated literature owes a debt. Drama, we are told, originates in the sacrificial, propitiatory rituals of ancient communities. We put on a show for the gods and hope they applaud. Poetry originates in the impulse to exchange insults with fellow mortals. “Get back to where you come from, that’s somewhere in the bush” is how the Captain of the Push responds to the challenge to his authority thrown down by Foreskin Fred. “May the itching piles torment you, may corns grow on your feet,/ May crabs as big as spiders attack your balls a treat./ Then, when you’re down and out, and a hopeless bloody wreck,/ May you slip back through your arsehole, and break your bloody neck.”
Indistinguishable from the satisfaction of getting your own back, hurling abuse and imagining someone else’s suffering is the joy of deploying rhyme and rhythm. We never curse better than we curse in verse. Primary school playgrounds resound with the scurrilous ditties small children make up about one another. My best friend Martin Cartwright couldn’t leave the classroom without hearing “Farty Marty/ Spoils the party”. For years I had to put up with “Howardy Cowardy Custard/ Thinks his pants have rusted”. And a poor religious boy called Manny was yoked with such tireless invention and horrid ingenuity to fanny that his parents had finally to remove him from the school.
Flyting, it’s called in Scotland – where poets would formalise the loathing they felt for each other into a contest of invective strictly governed by the laws of poesy. “Come kiss my Erse,” was how the 16th-century poet Montgomerie began his assault on the poet Polwart. “Kiss the Cunt of the Cow,” Polwart retorted in kind. We can perhaps look forward to a resumption of such well-honed hostilities when the campaign for Scottish independence begins in earnest.
At carnival time in Trinidad, some of the country’s smartest poets, singers and comedians take to the stage to compete in Extempo War, an off-the-cuff battle of wits in which the grosser they are to one another, the more the audience likes it. Whether the Dozens – the game of dissing, snapping and toasting played on the streets of Harlem and St Louis – is an offspring of Extempo War I don’t know, but it seems likely. It values the same qualities of quickness of wit and coarse discourtesy.
Another name for it is Ya Mama – unmannerliness to one another’s mothers being part of the fun. “You wanna play the dozens, well the dozens is a game,” rhymed the comedian George Carlin, “But the way I fuck your mother is a goddam shame.”
Which is a bit ripe even for the Gabba where the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, was heard to say to say to an English player, “Get ready for a f****** broken arm.” I resort to asterisks, not because Clarke did, but because that was how most of the papers reported it. Myself, I think asterisks make what he said even worse. Clarke himself has a baby face, so his outburst appeared doubly shocking, but some among his team look as though they were born with asterisks in their mouths.
What concerns me most about this incident, however, is the placing of the expletive. What Flyters, Extempo Warriors and kids in the school playground all know is that word order matters. Put a fucking where a fucking shouldn’t be and you take fatally from the affront. “Get ready for a fucking broken arm,” doesn’t work for two reasons. 1: It doesn’t scan. And 2: The epithet’s misaligned; it’s not the “broken” you’re meant to be cursing but the “arm”.
I haven’t played much cricket myself. Table tennis was my game. But I was always careful at the table to be precise when I swore. Attentive to both the music and the meaning, I’d have said to my opponent, “Get ready for a broken fucking arm.” Except that I wouldn’t, of course, have said that because it’s pretty difficult to break someone’s arm with a celluloid ball measuring 40mm in diameter and weighing 2.7g.
This could be the reason so few words are exchanged between players in the course of a game of ping-pong. You look ridiculous issuing threats when you don’t have the equipment to carry them out. Or the will, come to that. Somewhere at the back of every table tennis player’s mind is the knowledge that your opponent is as sad as you are. Why compound the lack of self-esteem that made him a table tennis player in the first place?
So humanity comes into the equation after all. To sledge with style requires a ripe vocabulary, an ear for cadence, a fastidiousness as to the positioning of epithets and respect for your opponent. You want to topple him from high estate to low. You don’t want him down and out to start with. Australians don’t always get that.