Martin White wonders whether we've reached an all-time low when it comes to in-play verbals.
There are very few situations that cannot be improved by wit. Cricket is no exception, and humorous comment has been a part of cricket since before any of us can remember. In a workplace environment, or amongst friends, it might these days be referred to as "banter". In cricket, it has taken on the term "sledging". The origins of that are a little vague, including a reference to a sledgehammer or a well known American singer, but however it came about, it has been used in cricket – especially at Test level – since the late Sixties.
But while banter is mostly harmless, sledging has a specific purpose: to upset the concentration of one's opponent. Steve Waugh famously called it "mental disintegration". Much discussion has been centred on whether this is within the Spirit of Cricket. I shall leave that discussion to others, and for another time.
Almost all sports include an element of verbal gamesmanship before play starts. I don't doubt that there are similar expletive-laden conversations on football and rugby fields. Perhaps cricket is unique in the extent to which in-play verbals are reported on and the relatively recent introduction of stump microphones has undoubtedly added fuel to the debate.
Sledging, as reported over the years, has taken various forms. There is the simple, direct assault upon the perceived talent of your opponent, as evidenced by exchanges between Andrew Flintoff and Tino Best, or Mark Waugh and Jimmy Ormond. Then there is the direct physical threat exemplified in explicit terms by Michael Clarke to Jimmy Anderson. Comments attributed to Fred Trueman could comfortably fit into either category.
Then there are the sledges which target the personal imperfections of an opponent. Daryll Cullinan was sledged by Shane Warne over his weight after they rejoined battle after two years without facing each other. Arjuna Ranatunga was the recipient of similar barbs.
The best sledges include an element of humour and there are voluminous examples of these.
However, rumours have emerged in this Ashes series that England players are extremely upset by some of Australia's sledges, which are alleged to have been regarding a very sensitive and personal matter for one of the tourists.
At the risk of being branded a sore loser or a typical whinging Pom, this gives me great concern.
Let me be clear; it's not the bad language I object to. We Guerrillas are hardly ones to criticise anyone for that. What I'm questioning is the lack of basic human empathy and decency that allows highly personal sledging to occur in the first place.
During a Test in the West Indies, Glenn McGrath erupted at Ramnaresh Sarwan over a perceived sledging about his wife. Understandably so, considering that she was receiving treatment for cancer at the time, yet Sarwan hadn't known this and had only been responding to crass barbs from the Australian fast bowler about a part of Brian Lara's anatomy.
Whoever was ultimately at fault, both comments clearly went beyond the pale – and McGrath accepted later that Sarwan's response was spontaneous, had not been about her illness and had no deeper malice.
Context is crucial but even then there are shades of grey. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of an exchange between Rod Marsh and Ian Botham:
Marsh: "How's your wife and my kids?"
Botham: "Wife's fine. Kids are retarded."
What makes this OK, in my view, is that one assumes that Botham's wife was at the time in good health and any suggestion of a relationship between her and Marsh was purely hypothetical. Had this been said while the tabloids were running up column inches on the Botham's supposed marriage difficulties, one could argue that it would have been in poor taste.
Interestingly, Ian Chappell, often referred to as the godfather of sledging, is on record as saying that this exchange is extremely unlikely to have happened as such personal matters were considered off-limits by the Australians at that time.
The current story is said to involve Jonny Bairstow. Now, it could be that the subject of the sledges are the Cameron Bancroft incident. However, given that Matt Prior has said that it is "very personal", one might be forgiven for thinking that comments have been made about Bairstow's father, David, who took his own life when Jonny was only eight years old. Or it could be something else entirely.
If it has fallen to this level, then I hope that Joe Root and Trevor Bayliss have marched round to the Australian dressing room, expressed their displeasure and made a formal complaint to the match referee.
And if such conduct is permitted, where does it end? Bringing up a player's dead or gravely ill child? Miscarriages? I have no objection to Test match players swearing at each other but players and administrators must remember that this is sport – important in the context of sport, but only sport.
Perhaps stump microphones should be used to allow a degree of "policing" of sledging, but not fed to the media except for when the ball is about to be bowled.
David Lloyd said before the series started that both teams would do well to remember that they are the present custodians of a very grand and noble tradition – the Ashes – and whilst we would all expect nothing less from the players than maximum effort and the use of any legitimate skill available to them, I would hope that even at the highest level sport can still be contested with a bit of basic human decency.
Is that too much to ask?