It’s not Cricket! Grounds for confining sledging to the history books

Jul 5, 2023
Cricket player silhouette Image: iStock / OStill

Elite sport has the potential to uplift, inspire and connect individuals and groups in a way that is unrivalled in our culture. It can represent the soaring ambition and capabilities of our species, as well as our innate capacities for collaboration and compassion. Sport can be an unmatched training ground for developing character and creating role models. But so often there are aspects of sport culture that undermine its value proposition and bring out the worst in us. Sledging in cricket is one of those aspects.

Sledging is thought to have first arisen in the 1960’s in Australia, but the practice of banter aimed at opposing players has been around forever. Back as far as the late 1800’s, cricketing legends W.G Grace and his brother, E.M Grace, were known for being noisy and boisterous on the field. There are opposing accounts of how it came to be called sledging – from the reference of a player ‘reacting like a sledgehammer’ to a comment aimed at him, to another, somewhat more theatrical origin story. According to the BBC’s Pat Murphy – ‘My understanding is that it came from the mid-sixties and a guy called Grahame Corling, who used to open the bowling for New South Wales and Australia … apparently the suggestion was that this guy’s wife was having an affair with another team-mate, and when he came into bat the fielding team started singing ‘When a Man Loves A Woman’, the old Percy Sledge number.’

Whatever the origin, by the mid 70’s sledging had become an adopted strategy by a number of players and teams. The 1974–75 Australians were labelled the Ugly Australians for their hard-nosed cricket, verbal abuse and hostile fast bowling.

It is important here to recognise that sledging is something altogether different from good natured banter that is designed to heighten the enjoyment of the game for all. This type of good humour serves to connect rather than separate players, and certainly has its place at all levels of sport, when delivered conscientiously.

Since the 70’s, sledging has become a firmly embedded aspect of cricket culture, worldwide. Another Australian cricketer, Mark Taylor, suggested that the fans want to see ‘combative cricket’, and Justin Langer said that cricket would be ‘dull’ without sledging. It has also gained a solid foothold in Indian cricket with a host of players being in support, saying things like “If there’s no sledging, there won’t be any enjoyment left in the game”, “sledging is ‘part and parcel’ of the game”, “sledging is fine, but verbals must not extend to ‘family”. Other Indian players have claimed that there is an ‘art’ and a ‘certain charm’ to sledging. The proverbial final nail in the argument comes from South African, Mark Boucher, suggesting that sledging “will never completely leave the game”.

Clearly there is a widespread understanding that sledging the opposition provides some performance advantage and is generally okay as long as it doesn’t cross ‘the line’ (though there are as many interpretations of the line as there are players). There seems to be broad agreement that the advantage arises from getting opponents out of their concentration, riled up, out of control. That makes sense. Batsmen are already under incredible pressure, and some finely crafted comments could be enough to get them off mental balance at key times. Or a prolonged barrage of banter could wear down their defences and their mental energy, so they have nothing left in the tank to focus on their game. And as many have pointed out, it is just an expression of competitiveness, a bit of healthy aggression, which is what we should want and expect from our top class performers. Under Virat Kohli’s captaincy of India, his players were expected to have “top fitness, high intensity and an aggressive mindset”. So, from this perspective, sledging comes under the umbrella of high-performance behaviours.

But that is a depressingly narrow and limiting perspective on high-performance sport. It wildly misses both the big picture and some malicious side-effects of the practice itself. The argument around sledging should not simply be about the effect on the sledgee and whether it achieves the desired objective or whether it is on the correct side of the line of respect of the player being harangued. Implicated in this are also the sledger, their teammates, coaches, any young players looking up to them, and all those looking on from the sidelines.

If winning the game was the only thing that mattered, then perhaps the argument for sledging would hold up. We say ‘perhaps’, because actually it will often be taking the sledger out of their psychological poise just as often as the sledgee. You simply can’t be in flow when you are engaging in petty sniping. Rather than being focussed on their own job, the sledger is distracted by trying to disturb that of another. Add to that, that some batsmen will up their game and positively thrive in the face of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The West Indian master batsman, Viv Richards, was renowned for punishing bowlers that sledged him, so much so that opposing captains often banned their players from sledging him.

But the fact is that winning is absolutely not the only thing that matters. There is an increasing recognition, globally, of the damage that has been wrought by a win-at-all-costs approach to elite sport that arose out of its professionalisation in the 90’s. From the countless cases of physical and psychological abuse of athletes to doping, financial foul play and corrupt practices, it has become blindingly evident that elite sport loses all meaning and value if it falls too far short of its true promise. For the athletes themselves, a sports career can be a profound gift, but that has little to do with the titles and awards they win and far more about personal growth, relationships cultivated, unique experiences that are on offer and the opportunities to transcend themselves and connect to something altogether bigger.

Playing the game with integrity and sportsmanship is worth far more in the long run to each and every cricket player than the potential advantage gained from harassing the opposition. They might possibly win a game or two more over their career but they will have missed out on the truly golden opportunity of building their character in an authentic and dignified way, that will stay with them for life. The top sport psychologists now base their work with athletes on a foundation of knowing their core values and following a values-led path. This approach provides a guide for how to live up to the best version of themselves, in all areas of life, and not to lose themselves in the face of external pressures.

Nelson Mandela said that “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” So much of this power is derived from the example that elite athletes set – becoming inspirational role models to young people. Indeed, professional athletes, as a collective, now have by far the biggest cultural impact in society, compared to other equivalent demographic groups. Even junior elite athletes have younger players and peers that look up to them. It is therefore nothing short of a travesty when our sporting culture accepts, and even encourages, the pros to behave in underhand and borderline unethical ways. Providing the greatest possible examples to younger generations should be at the very top of the priority tree for leaders in sport. In the same way that diving in football should be firmly stamped out by those in charge, so should sledging. Every child that sees their heroes engage in verbally abusing an opponent, or cheating to try and gain a free-kick in football, and thinks that is an acceptable, or even desirable way to act, undermines the potential for sport to make a positive impact in the world. Of course, there will always be malicious actors in sport, and athletes can make mistakes and overreact in regrettable ways just like the rest of us, but we should never accept behaviours that are detrimental to the overall value proposition of sport to be sanctioned aspects of the sports themselves.

And then we can add in the fact that sledging inhibits peak performance – otherwise known as the flow state. This is the holy grail for all sports competitors – an almost mystical experience that every athlete knows well and is seeking again. In flow, an athlete loses their sense of self and merges with the activity. Time seems to lose significance, achieving top performance becomes effortless. This is a state in which the ego is fully diminished, and teammates and opponents alike can experience an intense feeling of connection, all striving together for the achievement of something far more valuable than the win – peak performance. Our sporting systems and cultures should be set up so as to align as closely as possible with the pursuit of this state of effortlessness, connection, and joy. Sledging is a purely egoic act, designed to separate sledger and sledgee, and to undermine focus and flow. This undermines the opportunity for the sledger to achieve flow just as much as sledgee.

Perhaps most significantly of all, we must consider the fact that sport, at its heart, is primarily about relationships – our relationship with ourselves, our teammates, opponents, officials, fans, and our wider environment and community.

So much of the joy and pain, thrill and tedium, pride and shame that we feel, both as active participants and spectators, is in relation to others. Similarly, if we talk about investing in a good society, it is about relationships. If we talk about building a great organisation or team that lives its values, it is about relationships.

If we talk about sport being all it can be, we are talking about relationships.

Behaviour is contagious so how we behave to ourselves and to others, will impact on how others react and how others behave and will impact far beyond – to our teams, fans and communities. Just look to one of the highest profile ethics scandals in sport of recent years – Lance Armstrong’s doping – to see how far and wide his treatment of himself and others maliciously spread.

We are defined in all aspects of life by how we behave in relationships, and sport presents countless critical life opportunities to show up as dignified and quality individuals. Every such critical moment is a chance to live up to the best version of yourself and to infect others with your example, and should be regarded with the appropriate reverance.

Seen through this lens of striving for the highest quality relationships, sledging is nothing more than toxic. As former Australian Test cricketer, Paul Sheahan points out, in the professional world, it would come under the label of workplace bullying. Of course, there is space for friendly banter that can certainly enhance relationships, but there is a line, however blurred, across which players of dignity and quality should never want to step. A recent, damning report by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket found that racism, sexism and elitism were ‘widespread’ in English and Welsh cricket. In response, ECB chair, Richard Thompson, said that addressing the findings and making cricket the country’s most inclusive sport, is the ECB’s “single biggest priority”. It is not hard to see the connection between the long-standing on-field culture of verbal abuse and the types of abuse that are highlighted in the report. When behaviour that is meant to belittle and harm the receiver is accepted, and even expected, on cricket pitches from grassroots to schools, academies and all the way up to senior Test level, then we are talking about a fundamental building block of a culture that chooses to look the other way. It is no wonder then, that the same goes for demeaning behaviours off the pitch.

Back in 2015 when Brendan McCullum was captain of the Kiwi team, where he oversaw a shift away from the sledging culture, he said, “It’s not what we want to do any more, and since we changed our approach we enjoy our cricket a lot more. There’s less frustration, less animosity, and it’s amazing the relationships you develop with the opposition.”

It should be clear as day to all who read this, that an approach that encourages more enjoyment of your endeavours and that creates amazing relationships with all you engage with, teammates and opponents alike, is a foundation for better performances too.

At the time of writing, the 2023 Ashes has gotten off to a flying start. Australia clinched the first Test in dramatic fashion, as the cricket world was rapt. In amongst the talking points from that first Test was the verbal abuse that England bowler, Ollie Robinson, gave stand-out batsman Usman Khawaja after dismissing him. In response to criticism of the aggressive send-off he gave Khawaja, he said “We all want that theatre of the game, don’t we? I’m here to provide that.” Well firstly, the drama was provided in spades by the scintillating quality of play and high tension throughout that Test, and there was little need for Robinson’s style of theatre to keep us entertained. But more importantly, his comment points to the unconscious acceptance that all drama in sport is equal and valid. Hopefully this article has laid a convincing argument for how we must be far more discerning about the kinds of drama (read – behaviour) that we deem acceptable on our sports fields – as players, teams, leaders, and fans.

On the one hand, one could say that sport is simply in the entertainment business, so why worry too much. But on the other, and in our view, it has an unmatched potential to influence our cultures and impact the world, in the best and worst ways.

The world should be a better and more humane place because of sport, and sledging simply has no part to play in that vision.

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