Aussies reduced to whinging like poms

Why is the Australian cricket team turning its back on sledging, sexual slurs and competitiveness?

Duleep Allirajah

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Are the Aussies losing their winning mentality? First they stop the sledging. Then they start losing cricket matches. Then they start whinging. When we think of sporting winners, we invariably think of our friends Down Under. But now, God forbid, are the Aussies becoming more like the English?

The cracks have started to show after England won the second Ashes test at Lords – England’s first Test victory over the auld enemy since 1934. Seventy-five years of hurt avenged. More importantly, the aura of invincibility which once surrounded the men in the baggy green caps seems to be vanishing. Australian all-rounder Shane Watson thinks it was Cricket Australia’s ‘no sledging’ decree that blunted his team’s competitive edge. ‘It is a fine line between being perfect role models and being competitive’, said Watson. ‘As a group we don’t want to lose the edge. We have been so good in the past, because of our competitive nature and the fact that we don’t take a backward step.’

‘Whinging Poms’ is what they called the Brits. But look who’s doing the whinging now. Ever since England got out of jail in Cardiff, the Aussies have been moaning about England’s lack of sportsmanship. Ricky Ponting was furious about the time-wasting tactic of sending out the phsyio as the English batsmen battled to save the Test. ‘I am not sure what the physio was doing out there – I didn’t see him call for any physio to come out. As far as I am concerned it was pretty ordinary, actually’, said Ponting. ‘They can play whatever way they want to play. We have come to play by the rules and the spirit of the game, and it is up to them to do what they want to do.’

Australian journalist Greg Baum was also unimpressed by English gamesmanship. ‘It showed in England’s elaborate time-wasting tactics at the end of the first Test in Cardiff, which lay in that bleak no-man’s-land between gamesmanship and cheating’, wrote Baum. ‘England’s bowlers have sledged more than Australia’s.’ (1) As Baum saw it, ‘Strauss’s England had revealed themselves to be competitive, but manipulative and petty’. Aussies moaning about gamesmanship and sledging? Are they England in disguise?

The Aussies, of course, are the masters of the dark art of ‘sledging’ or verbally intimidating one’s opponent; they patented the tactic. Cricket is a psychological war of attrition and psyching out the opposition is one of the stock weapons in a cricketer’s armoury. Sledging can take many forms. The wicketkeeper might yap away trying to needle the bastman. It might be a bit of verbal banter, a quip about the batsman’s technique or sexual slur about his wife. One of the most classic ‘sledge-offs’ of all time pitted Zimbabwe’s Eddo Brandes against Aussie fast bowler Glenn McGrath. ‘Hey, Brandes, why are you so fucking fat?’ inquired McGrath. ‘Cos every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit’, replied Brandes.

Whatever form it takes, the object of the exercise is to unsettle your opponent. Make him blink first and lose his discipline. ‘Mental disintegration’ is the memorable term coined by former Aussie skipper Steve Waugh to describe on-field intimidation. However, last year’s monkey-taunt incident showed that Aussie attitudes to sledging are changing. India’s tour of Australia was nearly cancelled after allegations that Harbhajan Singh had called mixed-race Aussie Andrew Symonds ‘a monkey’. In the wake of the row, the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced that it would be taking tougher action to enforce its code of conduct which prohibits ‘language that is obscene, offensive or of a seriously insulting nature to another player, umpire, referee, team official or spectator’.

Cricket Australia have also clamped down on ‘verbals’. On the eve of this year’s Ashes series, Cricket Australia reportedly wrote to each member of the touring squad to explain the standards of behaviour expected of them. Players were told to ‘be strongly competitive without displaying visible aggression such as sledging’ and to ‘avoid spitting and swearing’. An Ashes series without sledging. Whatever next? A pub without beer? War minus the shooting?

Has the sledging ban deprived the Aussies of the aggressive, competitive streak that we’d always imagine was part of their DNA? Has England’s adoption of the quintessentially Aussie methods of sledging and gamesmanship given them the competitive edge in the series?

Actually, I think there’s a danger of overplaying the impact of the ‘be nice to the Poms’ edict. Yes, the Aussies aren’t as scary and intimidating as previous squads have been. But that’s down to the quality of the players, rather than the curbing of Aussie aggression. Without McGrath and Warne the Australian bowling attack is nowhere near as fearsome as it once was. Without Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer the batting order seems uncharacteristically fragile. That’s not to say that England will walk the series. Both teams are evenly matched. Both are infuriatingly inconsistent. Neither side are world-beaters.

I just think an Ashes series without the backchat and banter isn’t half as much fun. But even if they started snarling and sledging, the current crop of Aussies are simply not good enough to put the fear of God into the opposition.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Strauss’ style is unappealing, WA Today, 21 July 2009

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