The monkey incident: cricket’s darkest hour?

Those who claim the ‘Bollyline’ affair is just not cricket are wrong: the game has always been a mental war of attrition.

Blimey, what on earth’s going on in the world of cricket? An Indian cricketer suspended for allegedly calling a mixed race Australian a ‘monkey’. The Aussies bleating about racism and sledging. An Indian mob burning images of a black umpire. It’s a race row, Jim, but not as we know it.

The allegation that India’s Harbhajan Singh called Australia’s black all-rounder, Andrew Symonds, a ‘monkey’ has thrown the cricket world into turmoil. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BBCI) has threatened to call off the tour unless Singh’s three-game suspension is overturned. The dispute has been exacerbated by Indian complaints about Australian gamesmanship and poor umpiring. In an apparent attempt to defuse the row, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has dropped Jamaican umpire Steve Bucknor from the next Test match. Somewhat surprisingly, opinions in Australia have been divided over the conduct of their players. Seventy-nine per cent of respondents to an online poll for the Australian Daily Telegraph said the team did not play in the true spirit of the game while the Sydney Morning Herald has called for the Australian captain Ricky Ponting to be dismissed for his ‘arrogant and abrasive conduct’.

Simon Barnes in The Times (London) thinks that ‘we are facing the disintegration of cricket’ as a result of the so-called Bollyline affair – a reference to the infamous ‘bodyline’ controversy during England’s 1932-3 tour of Australia. The row about sledging - aggressive on-field banter designed to put your opponent off - has also been described as ‘cricket’s darkest hour’. We’ve been here before haven’t we? I recall the very same phrase being used to describe the ball-tampering row in which Pakistan forfeited a test match at the Oval in August 2006.

The truth is that cricket is no stranger to dark hours. Take your pick. Shane Warne suspended in 2003 for taking a banned drug; South Africa skipper Hansie Cronjie banned for life for match fixing in 2000; Arjuna Ranatunga leading his Sri Lankan team off the field in 1999 after Muttiah Muralitharan had been no-balled for ‘chucking’ (throwing rather than bowling the ball). I could go on. Cricket purists still like to kid themselves that the game is morally superior, a cut above sports in which grubby practices such as gamesmanship or verbal abuse are rife. But cricket is really no different to any other professional sport in that passions will sometimes boil over and players will sometimes bend the rules in order to win.

As it happens the soul of cricket is not really at issue here. The current dispute might on the surface appear to be about the correct conduct of players but the real dynamic is the ongoing power struggle between the ICC and the increasingly powerful BCCI. Nor is the row much to do with racism – or racism as we used to understand it, namely unequal treatment of black people. Sure, there may have been a racial slur, but who exactly is being oppressed in this childish playground spat? If anything the Bollyline affair illustrates the extent to which playing the victim has become an international currency. Even the Aussies are at it these days.

And what about sledging? Is it time that the cricket authorities stamped out trash talk altogether, as some commentators have suggested? ‘Cricket should not have set racism as the final frontier of unacceptable behaviour; a line should have been drawn years ago at the point when banter becomes bitter invective’, wrote Simon Barnes in The Times. ‘Cricket has been soft on a serious matter for decades and now cricket is in crisis.’ (1)

As is customary in this column I find myself having to champion the dark art of verbal abuse in sport. Sledging has been widespread in cricket since the early 1960s when the Aussies first coined the term. In my view sledging is an entirely legitimate part of the game. When Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga called for a runner during a one-day international against Australia, wicketkeeper Ian Healey quipped: ‘You don’t get a runner for being an overweight, unfit, fat cunt.’ Sexual slurs about a player’s wife are favoured weapons in the sledger’s armoury. ‘How’s your wife and my kids?’ Rod Marsh famously asked Ian Botham.

If sport is ‘war minus the shooting’, as George Orwell once described it, then sledging is the sporting equivalent of ‘psy-ops’. The objective is to force your opponent to crack under pressure - ‘mental disintegration’ as former Aussie captain Steve Waugh’s memorably described it. The struggle between batsman and bowler is, in large part, a psychological war of attrition. Short-pitched deliveries, aggressive body language and excessive appealing are all ways of psyching out opponents, so why not verbals too? Last summer England even pioneered the novel tactic of leaving jellybeans on the wicket in an attempt to wind up India’s Zaheer Khan (typically for English cricket, it failed).

The problem isn’t that sledging has got out of hand. Rather it’s that Australia’s old ‘larrikin’ culture of irreverence and mockery, in which cricketers were considered robust enough to trade insults, is giving way to a new thin-skinned, easily-offended culture. It’s an old cliché that what’s said on the field of play stays on the field of play. Sure, the taunts and slurs might not be pleasant but they are forgotten in the pavilion afterwards. But, increasingly, what’s said on the field of play gets picked up by the stump microphones or else reported to the umpires. The most pathetic thing about the Bollyline dispute is seeing the Aussies, who practically invented sledging, running crying to the authorities when they get a taste of their own medicine.

If the Aussies didn’t like what Harbhajan Signh said to Andrew Symonds, the answer wasn’t to tell tales to the umpire but return the compliment, so to speak. They should have followed the example of former Zimbabwean chicken farmer Eddo Brandes when he was being taunted by Aussie fast bowler Glenn McGrath. ‘Hey, Brandes, why are you so fucking fat?’ shouted McGrath. ‘Cos every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit’, replied Brandes. Now that’s the way to deal with a bit of name-calling.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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spiked issue: Sport

(1) Sledging was always going to put the game on slippery slope, The Times (London), 8 January 2008

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