How to sledge

It’s cricket season again and the Poms are over trying to defend the Ashes. We’re two tests into the series and with them down 2-0 it’s not looking good for them.

Like every year I’ve watched the cricket pretty closely. I was pretty confident going into the series that Oz would reclaim the urn, but England have been more disappointing than I expected. Right now they’re on the verge of being a rabble.

In Brisbane they were well in it for three days before collapsing in a heap. In Adelaide they were behind right from the start, rallied briefly, before once more losing by a lot.

One of the ongoing conversations has been about sledging. It seems an issue most series these days. I’m not fussed much by it one way or another, mostly because it never really did much for me. If I was ever sledged it was more likely to fire me up than put me off, but mostly I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t much of a sledger myself, but only because I couldn’t be bothered. If anything I was more likely to sledge when I was a batsman than I was when in the field, though I stood by many times as team mates would sledge opposition batsmen. I found most of it pretty lame. The best stuff had some wit to it.

I remember I used to think you had to earn the right to sledge. Once you actually achieved something of merit then you could have a crack at the other team, but not till then. I still watch the coverage occasionally these days I find myself disapproving of some of the sledging – not so much because of what’s being said, but because it seems an unworthy or wasted effort. For me it’s rarely a moral judgment – though I adhere to the common convention that personal life should be off-limits – and more of a practical consideration.

As an Australian sledging comes easy. We’re notorious for it, but I don’t think our critics understand the source of it. I don’t know if it’s any different today, but growing up as a schoolboy I was subjected to sledging all the time, and gave it back to. Most of it was the good natured rough and tumble between friends and familiars, but the interaction day on day meant that the words came easily to the lips. Others might think it strange, but it was normal to abuse and mock within our circles.

I thought nothing of it myself until I went travelling and discovered that most cultures don’t have such a robust give and take. They’re gentler, with affection expressed You take it for granted until it becomes second nature. That’s why an Australian giving it, and receiving it, is so different to other cultures.

It says a lot about the Australian character I guess, and particularly Australian masculinity, a subject oft debated. That’s a discussion for another time, but fair to say this history of behaviour has informed so much of what we do and how we act – some of it positive, and a lot more not.

I suspect it’s not nearly as pronounced as it once was, but still for someone coming to compete against Aussies on the field this is something that must be adapted to. By the time an Australian cricketer dons the baggy green he’s endured years of ruthless sledging coming up through the ranks. He’s seasoned and hardy and tough, and most of it comes natural.

I think that’s one of the problems the English are having this tour, and past tours. They have made a focus of sledging, and have tried to compete in that area. The problem is that it’s not natural for most of them (Jimmy Anderson and Broad go okay) and so it is forced and mostly ineffective. Ultimately it’s become a distraction, and as an Aussie watching I reckon they would go better ignoring it and concentrated on the cricket. It’s our comfort zone, not theirs.

That’s something that gets lost in the cultural haze. I know the Indians in particular would get upset at the sledging they received. Because they had no cultural understanding of it they misunderstood the intent. I admit, as an outsider the nuances are easily overlooked. In my time at least, you’d go hard on the field and be best mates off it. Something might be said on the field, but it was never intended personally. The sole purpose was to upset the game. With the game done for the day it was time for a beer. It’s that mentality than means that Aussies are also more likely to shrug off sledging, until it crosses the line.

That’s where it has occasionally erupted over the years. Though it’s unregulated, sledging in Australian cultural mores has unspoken rules, primary among them that it’s not personal, and that after play all is forgotten. The problem is that cultures unused to sledging when confronted by it don’t have an understanding of those mores – and the boundaries they draw. Without those unspoken rules they will react to what they feel are unwarranted insinuations and lash out, sometimes crossing those lines – which is when the Aussies will become genuinely upset. It’s not playing the game after all.

All of this is pretty confusing if you’re not an Aussie, and fair enough to. There is something occasionally hypocritical in Australians complaining in those moments because the line they see so clearly appears so arbitrary to others. I know it because I was born to it, but I understand it may bewilder others not born here.

There’s a larger question about sledging. I’m not fussed about it, but that’s probably because a) I’m an Aussie, and b) I’m a pretty rugged character. I understand for the purist they may see it as being neither sporting or fair. As long as it doesn’t ‘cross the line’ I don’t mind it – in fact I think it’s just another element of the game. It adds an interesting edge, and another challenge to overcome.

In any case it’s another area the Australians are handsome winners in this series. What teams need to understand is that as soon as you react, you lose. It seems a truism, but it is so often forgotten. If it is seen to be getting to you then the Australians, far from backing off, will go harder. If you show vulnerability then we’ll be on you like a pack of dogs. And that’s what England have shown.

It’s a cliché, but England would do better by not engaging, and doing their talking with bat and ball.

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