The gentleman’s game. What a laugh. If cricket really was that, David Warner wouldn’t be anywhere near the field at St. George’s Park in Port Elizabeth when the second Test against South Africa begins on Friday (March 9). By not throwing the book at him and banning him for at least a game, cricket’s authorities have failed miserably to clamp down on atrocious behaviour.
In his defence, this is part of what Warner said. “I’ve always felt that when it comes to family or racism comments or anything like that, that’s just a no-go zone,” he remarked. “I’ve been called everything under the sun out in the field and that, quite frankly, doesn’t bother me."
“Each individual is different, of course, but if we are going to jot down everything that is in that sort of spectrum, whether it is calling me a slowcoach on the field or whatever it is, it is up to the individual, but at the end of the day, the other day was, I felt, was probably out of line.”
The line. That mythical creation that only Australian cricketers seem to understand. That boundary either side of which they get to decide what personal abuse is and what isn’t. After the incident, I spoke to an Australian friend of mine, who was on the beat for years. “It’s complete bullshit,” he told me, of the notion that Australian cricketers don’t get personal and only their opponents do. “We’re the worst. Bullies who don’t like it when it’s directed back at us. We start fights and try to weasel our way out of it by claiming provocation.”
So, making jokes about Quinton de Kock’s surname is banter. Calling sometime else ‘fat’ or ‘slow’ or a ‘spastic’ is fine. But God forbid that I bring your wife into it. But see, here’s the thing. Once you open your potty mouth and abuse me, you’re opening yourself up to anything that I may choose to respond with. If I decide to mention your wife’s past, that’s my prerogative. If I want to talk about your grandfather’s peccadilloes with sheep, that’s fine too. You don’t get to decide my response. Once you start the fight, I can finish it however I want to. Can’t take it? Then zip it and get on with playing the game.
Part of the problem lies with the media as well. Every so often, we bring up the amusing old sledging anecdotes – Darryl Cullinan and Shane Warne, Kumar Sangakkara and Shaun Pollock – and talk of how it adds to the game’s tapestry. It probably does. But the fact is that for every such humorous exchange, there are a few dozen instances of men like Warner and Jimmy Anderson just unleashing four-letter word after four-letter word. The Sangakkara sledge was funny because he was clever and witty. Most chronic sledgers are unimaginative boors.
“I wasn’t there, I can’t categorically speak for another person,” said Ottis Gibson, the current South Africa coach who grew up watching a generation of Caribbean greats who let bat and ball do the talking. “There’s this thing and I have seen it recently now about the line. They are saying they didn’t cross the line, but where is the line, who sets the line, where did the line come from?”
Bear in mind too that we’re not talking about an over-the-top wicket celebration, however unedifying those can be, or a player having a strop at an umpiring decision that goes against him. We understand that they’re not robots, that things will be said and done sometimes in the heat of the moment. No, we’re taking of relentless on-field abuse, which trails a player even back to the dressing room. It’s constant, and it’s moronic, and it reflects poorly on the captain and coach that allow it to happen.
The line should be drawn by the umpires, but when was the last time you saw a truly obnoxious cricketer banned from the game? Cricket has a pitiable record when it comes to clamping down on misbehaviour. It’s perhaps time for yellow and red cards to be introduced, and for umpires to be empowered to use them. And while we’re at it, let’s turn the stump microphones on to full volume as well. The Sangakkaras of the world don’t need to fret. Genuine banter of that sort can continue. But let’s go out of our way to embarrass the dimwits who have nothing more than abuse to offer.
There were so many words spoken soon after the tragic death of Phillip Hughes about the need to play the game in the right spirit. And yet, how little has changed. It surely isn’t a coincidence that almost every ugly flashpoint over the past two decades has involved Australia. There is actually a line – it’s called civilised human behaviour. Maybe Warner and the louts that keep defending him could look it up. Till they grasp what it means, they should be prepared to cope with whatever bullies have coming to them.