Cricket was once said to be a game for gentlemen. There are two parts to that proposition. First, cricket is a game. A game is something that you play. The full OED definition is: ‘A diversion of the nature of a contest, played according to rules, and decided by superior skill, strength or good fortune.’ The relevant definition of ‘gentleman’ is quaint: ‘A man of chivalrous instincts and fine feelings.’ It may be simpler to say what a gentleman is not – a cheat, or a bully, or a lout.
It is not surprising, then, that the Laws of Cricket – they are big on upper case – say that ‘The umpires shall act upon any unacceptable conduct’.
If you were playing a game of golf and your opponent sought to put you off your game by insulting you or trying to intimidate you, you might think you were playing with a cheat, or a bully, or a lout. (And the hardest insult to survive is that you cheat at golf.) You would certainly know that you were not playing against a gentleman – or a lady. And you would also certainly have known that this conduct was unacceptable.
You might then be surprised to learn that at the highest levels of cricket, umpires do not think a player who seeks to put another player off his game by insulting or trying to intimidate him is engaging in unacceptable conduct. That conduct is called ‘sledging’ and umpires have tolerated it. So have I – but no longer. I will just turn the cricket off if they start at it again.
Attitudes change, but all this looks to me now to be petty, childish, and vulgar – and entirely unacceptable under each heading. To go back to where we started, cricket is hardly a game at the top level. Hardly any sport is now at that level. It is part of an entertainment industry that gets more vulgar by the day – as a matter of commercial policy. Those running cricket have deliberately sought to popularise it to raise more money. The financial motivation of the entertainment industry has debased the game of cricket. With that debasement has come an acceptance of what we should plainly see as misconduct. My sense is that most people who care about cricket, or having people represent their country, have had enough of sledging.
Certainly, one thing that people are utterly sick of is this talk about ‘crossing the line.’ At least two propositions are entailed – first, that some criteria exist to allow the line to be defined; secondly, that players will be able to identify that line and avoid crossing it.
I have trouble with each of those propositions. We are solemnly told that there is a line between, say, ‘You’re as weak as piss’ or ‘I can see the brown stain starting’ and ‘Your mother’s a tart’ or ‘Your wife has a colourful history.’ ‘You black bastard’ is on any view out of bounds. I’m not sure where ‘You fucking sook’ or ‘We’ll break your fucking arm’ stands. Neither, you may be sure, are the players.
Presumably, that line turns on something as nebulous as taste. Courtesy can’t come into it because the exercise in all cases involves trying to put someone off their game by insulting them. There is in truth no satisfactory intellectual or moral basis for drawing any such line. Too many players are incapable of seeing or adhering to such a line. If I am right on that, the only answer is a blanket ban on sledging.
May I mention three related points?
First, it’s about two generations since parents could tell their children to emulate their sporting heroes, but that is no reason to tolerate forms of misconduct that can only serve to mislead or coarsen our youth.
Secondly, the behaviour of some of our cricketers is getting uncomfortably close to the truly scandalous behaviour of our tennis players. I got turned off tennis about thirty years ago. McEnroe misbehaved to obtain an advantage. That’s called cheating – or bullying. Too many tennis players are what were called ‘bad sports.’ We can’t afford to let cricket go there.
Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly, some people want to defend sledging as being in some way tied to the way Australians play cricket. In its customarily anaemic style, Cricket Australia said: ‘Australia has always prided it itself on taking a highly competitive approach to international cricket.’ That’s obviously bullshit. Aren’t the English, Indians or South Africans highly competitive? But it’s worse than bullshit. It’s an appeal to nationalist instincts in the context of an appeal to pride. We are in the realm of the last refuge of the scoundrel. In truth it’s worse than that. We have relapsed into the era of the macho Marlboro man. And as my old man said, the Marlboro man went out with hessian drawers. It’s revolting to see grown men behaving like that now. It’s as bad as Donald saying that his button is bigger than Kim’s.
One of the tragedies of our sport is that too many of us don’t get to follow our national team in footy. I happen to follow an NRL club. I take an interest in Origin games. And I take a real interest when the Australian side gets an outing against New Zealand or England. It’s not the same as a rugby union test, but it is a test match. And when Cameron Smith and Jonathon Thurston come out in my colours they carry my pride and trust. Boy, do they ever. They, and other Kangaroos, doubtless indulge in what’s called gamesmanship, but I don’t see or hear of the coarseness that some of our cricketers show – and that’s in a sport that is as rough and tough and down-market as you can get. The Australian cricketers no longer carry my pride or trust. And if you know anything about footy here, that means our cricketers have a real problem.
Our coach has failed to set the right tone. He should go. The captain is weak; he needs to grow up and be firmly told that he is not a shop steward to represent the comrades, but the captain of a national team that wears our colours and purports to represent all of us. The vice-captain has so much form that he should be fired from that position and be given some time to be at home with his Lamborghini. The piddling penalties handed out suggest that the game is now being run by the players. Cricket Australia is responsible for this. They were utterly gutless in allowing Indian money and caste to run over them when the Indians thought it was OK to sledge one of our players of colour as a monkey. Cricket Australia needs a new CEO.
The time may have passed when cricket was a game played by gentlemen, but at the rate we pay these spoiled brats, they could at least try to feign some manners. Otherwise, our only remedy is to turn them off while they falsely wear our colours. Cricket Australia can tart up and trivialise either form of the pyjama game as much as they like. But in the only real game – test cricket – our players are claiming to represent us as a nation, and it’s time that they learned again how to do so decently.
Finally, can anyone imagine Victor Trumper being so crude? Of course not – and Trumper was and is our hero and our idol.