Bored by the lack of an Ashes contest, past players are creating mischief by calling for a return to sledging. These calls must be rejected.
This Ashes series, let’s face it, has been less than compelling. In fact it has been a squib of great dampness.
Sport cannot command real interest when the teams are mismatched, one side confident and self-assured, the other timid and uncertain, exposed for a lack of both skill and resolve. The sense of competition has been largely absent, England unable to mount any sustained challenge. They have competed for the odd hour, the odd session, but never for as much as a whole day.
For the aficionado, interest in the series has had to be sought off the field. A feature of some of the commentary of former players during the Ashes has been calls for (wait for it) a return to the bad old days (their days) when sledging and abuse of opponents were rife. These past players, on both the English and the Australian sides, seem to have had difficulty accepting that their successors were getting on well, smiling at each other and chatting amiably before play. You can’t have that! It gets in the way of aggression, a key quality which must be maximised.
Let’s look at recent history. Since the Australians’ ill-fated tour of South Africa in 2018, the Australian team’s behaviour has improved. It hasn’t been perfect ꟷ witness Tim Paine being fined for swearing at an umpire last summer and his petulance towards Ravichandran Ashwin in the New Year Test at the SCG. The then captain, frustrated as his opponents fought from a difficult position to a memorable draw, told Ashwin he couldn’t wait to get the Indians at the Gabba the following week. Australia, after all, rarely lose in Brisbane.
As it turned out, they did. India, despite fielding a much-weakened team, took the series.
Paine’s words were silly, but at least the vicious edge to Australia’s sledging had largely disappeared. No longer was David Warner, once seemingly the appointed “attack dog” of the side, shouting abuse in the faces of opposing players. Faced with suspension if there were further misdemeanours, he had become the mild-mannered “Reverend” in his teammates’ banter. The “chirp” from close-in fielders had, under Paine, become less obvious and less nasty even though it had not disappeared entirely. It was still there and still annoying, but Paine expressed himself proud of the way his team was behaving. The standard had been raised, but not to a genuinely high level.
Some past players evidently regret the change, limited though it has been. Glenn McGrath, no slouch at the sledge in his day (and who apparently came off on the wrong side of some on-field exchanges too fruity to be recounted here), thinks the English and Australian teams this summer have been “too matey”. Too much use of friendly nicknames; too much polite chat.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan was of a similar mind. England, he thought, were “too nice”. They had to be more “nasty.” More animosity seemed to be called for.
Come again? Respect between opponents (and indeed for the Spirit of Cricket, incorporated nowadays in the preamble to the laws of the game) is being shown, and we should go back to old, hateful ways? At best this is casual, careless madness.
Vaughan and McGrath are not alone: many former players have been of similar mind. Greg Chappell, writing recently in The Sydney Morning Herald, cited a couple of exchanges which showed how central sledging had become in the minds of the game’s Australian elite. Darren Lehmann, the coach in South Africa in 2018, apparently told Chappell later that sledging was an imperative: you simply had to do it to win. And, Chappell wrote, his fellow selectors in 2016 had voted to replace Peter Nevill as wicket-keeper with Matthew Wade on the grounds that Wade had more “mongrel”.
Aggression, in other words, had to include a nasty verbal element. The worth of sledging had been “proved” in Steve Waugh’s time when belittling, personal comments were employed to bring about “mental disintegration” among opponents. Waugh’s teams were hugely successful, and a conflation of success with sledging and abusiveness developed.
Chappell claimed to have rejected the views of Lehmann and his erstwhile fellow selectors. In truth what they were saying and doing was ethically dreadful, and intellectually ludicrous to boot. But the myth of the necessity of sledging was deeply ensconced. It had been elevated to strategy.
The behaviour of the Australian team hit a low in 2018. In South Africa, players baited each other mercilessly on and off the field. An alleged past indiscretion of a player’s partner was raised, and the local crowds joined in the baiting enthusiastically. Two players almost came to blows. There was also blatant cheating as seen in the scuffing of the ball with sandpaper.
In the wash-up of “sandpapergate”, players were suspended, heads toppled at the highest administrative level and team managers were forced out. A review commissioned by Cricket Australia found rottenness in the team’s behaviour and suggested that the governing body had done little to excise it.
What had happened, it was concluded, was the development of a team culture in which anything that could enhance the chances of victory ꟷ including even brazen cheating and then covering it up ꟷ could be accepted. Winning was being tacitly encouraged “without counting the cost”.
And verbal abuse aimed at destroying the opposition was seemingly alright too. The players were pushing hard against an imaginary “line” which separated what was permissible from what wasn’t. Conveniently, the line was poorly defined; it could be drawn where it suited. The players’ definition of its location was little challenged by the administrators.
The administration at the top level was turning an almost blind eye. Ethical leadership was lacking.
Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board should show that leadership now. They should repudiate the comments attributed to McGrath, Vaughan and Lehmann, because those comments have the capacity to bring undesirable features of the game back again. Past players need to be aware of their responsibility to the game and to recognise that they must not condone, let alone laud, poor behaviour. That will only encourage it.
These ex-players are not thinking clearly. They have not understood, or worse they reject, the lessons of recent times. They seem to believe ꟷ and this is common among “yesterday’s men” in many fields ꟷ that the way things were done in their day is how they should be done today. They have not examined their own attitudes or consciences.
None of this is about “aggression”. Aggression, playing hard and with determination, is part of sport. It cannot be excluded, but abuse (like sharp practice which amounts to cheating) must be.
Some past players should read the preamble and reflect on their defence of the indefensible.
Also recommended: Osman Faruqi on cricket’s racism scandals.