Just give them some sportsmanlike verbal

Mark Lawson
Monday 09 August 1993 23:02

A RUMBLING sporting controversy of the summer has been 'sledging', a typically pithy Australian phrase that refers to the shouting of typically pithy Australian phrases at opponents during cricket matches. Tennis has a code of practice limiting these outbursts, and football usually moves too fast for such verbal mud to stick, but cricket is ideally suited to language tactics, its structure resulting in a captive batsman being confined in a small space by a ring of fielders.

Much of the stuff shouted or muttered is merely expletives aimed at the batsman's lack of family, or talent, or both. There might be a suggestion that, to use a sanitising paraphrase, the player tragically didn't have a daddy to teach him how to bat. Teams have, however, included linguistic spinners as well as pacemen. One reported insult thrown at a crouched, sweaty batsman in an Australian state match was: 'Your sister says your wife's no good in bed', a googly that went right through local concerns with family and masculinity.

Some, unwilling to attribute England's failures this season merely to indifference at cricket, have argued that 'sledging' gives Australia an unfair advantage and should be banned. (We lost to Pakistan last summer, you may recall, because, while verbally circumspect, they allegedly did something funny to the ball. We just can't win, you might say.) Upholders of the latest excuse point to the fact that Mervyn Hughes, the fast bowler who has had a notably successful tour, seems especially keen on the bowling technique of a ball around the ears followed by a few words in them.

This weekend there were suggestions that some of the younger England players had retaliated by 'sledging' the Australian batsman Mark Waugh when his team was, for once, in the descendancy. The phrase used in some newspapers was that the Australians had been 'given a taste of their own medicine'. As Mark Waugh went on to score a century, it might gently be objected that the medicine seems in this case to have been a tonic rather than a purgative, but the principle remains worthy of examination.

The growing belief that sport has as much to do with mind as body has already led to some teams employing a psychotherapist alongside the physiotherapist. Now it seems that they will need to find room on the bus for a linguist as well. Instead of saying every five minutes that 'Catches win matches', the old players in the commentary boxes will growl: 'Metaphors win Tests.'

You can already hear Freddie Trueman saying: 'They need some more variety in this attack. There's a young lad down at Leicester doing some very promising abstract nouns.' A literary critic will attend all Test matches, sitting in the box beside the new 'third umpire'. This putative 'word judge' (I am willing to serve) will listen to audio playbacks of the action and assess whether there had been illegal use of language. If England's attempt at retaliatory 'sledging' failed on Saturday, it was probably because our boys were out of practice. They should have had a net first. ('No, son, you're sending it down far too short. Try a longer word, like 'bastard'.')

But the discovery that Australian supremacy at cricket is largely a matter of vocabulary is particularly thrilling news for those of us who have paid more attention in the last few years to the accumulation of verbal muscles than physical ones. It suggests, for the first time, that an ability with words could make up for a lack of talent at sport. If true, this could change my sporting life.

Every week, I play tennis with a financial journalist. He always beats me. Until recently, I had foolishly assumed that this was because he was better at tennis than I was. But the examples of this summer's cricket led me to realise that I had been neglecting the lexicon. A words man against a numbers man, I should be able to turn the match in a few short phrases. So, last week, I added 'sledging' to my game.

At 30-40 on my own serve, already one break down in the first set, we met at the net, retrieving balls.

'Good rally,' he said, for he has always been what the English call sporting.

'Except the wrong bastard won it,' I replied.

'Sorry?' he said, obviously perplexed at the departure from my usual good-loser disposition. He limply scooped my next serve in to the net. Deuce. Just before I served for the game, my opponent politely hit back four or five stray balls from his end of the court, the traditional receiver's protocol in park tennis. I surlily returned most of them, shouting: 'Two will do it.' This is always a risky bit of kidology, as shamefacedly asking for more balls in two shots' time can easily surrender any psychological advantage. This time, however, two shots was all it took.

When he was 30-40 on his own serve in the next game, I shouted: 'Break point]', a small piece of psychology, but, coincidentally or not, he mis-hit a smash to my lobbed return, losing the game.

'I wonder who your wife's in bed with while you're playing here,' I snarled, as we towelled and ate bananas on the park bench beside the court. (The fruit, reputed to give energy, is

another copycatting of contemporary sporting professionalism.)

'Are you all right this morning? Actually, she's in bed with our one-year-old son,' he said. 'He's been throwing up all night . . . .'

This exchange was followed by my easiest service game of the match. I began to see my opening. The only question was whether I had the nerve to take it. Clearly, I had to target the baby. There was a slight complication here in that the child in question is my godson, but Mervyn Hughes, I knew, would sledge his own grandmother if she was on the other side in a close


'A lot of these childhood viruses can be cured,' I said, as we faced each other after an exchange of volleys at the net went to my opponent. 'I'd put it right out of your mind.'

He mis-hit a backhand return for 30-40 and the loss of one set point.

'Still one set point]' my opponent yelled down the court. I was a little thrown by this. I had somehow seen my psychological warfare as happening on an empty battlefield, not really allowing for the possibility of being sledged back. I was brooding by the baseline, trying to think of the next insult, agonising over to what extent my godson was fair game, when the ball roared past my shoulder.

'Ace] First set]' came the shout from the other end.

'Er, I wasn't ready]' I said. But he gave me a Merv Hughes look, and won the second set, as usual, as well. I think I may have bad news for the English cricket authorities. Sport is not in the end a matter of manners or language. The only psychological warfare that really works is to be better than those you play against. 'Sledging', if a factor at all, is just the strychnine-

flavoured icing on the cake of Australian talent. And if the masters of the game want to bring in any rules on language, they might start by fining any losing English players or officials who use the word 'excuse'.

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