People, in my long experience, want to talk. (J. Robert Lennon)
Imagine the piano maestro Evgeny Kissin adjusting his stool before another magnificent rendition of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and the lead violinist leans over: Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your fu*k-up in Salzburg two weeks ago.
Welcome to the world of sledging, an art form that has filtered down from Test cricket through to First-class and Minor Counties before landing on the squares of recreational cricket grounds. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease with a rousing rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new Bodyline as club cricketers seek to gain an advantage.
Law 42 covers the issue of sledging making it a Level 1 offence (using language that, in the circumstances, is obscene, offensive or insulting or making an obscene gesture). But of course one cricketer’s obscene, offensive or insulting is another’s decent, complimentary or polite. One of the most interesting comments I have heard on a square came from an Australian player who told me that no club player down under would make certain comments he has heard on England’s green and pleasant club grounds. (I certainly did not point out that the gentlemen sporting those baggy green caps had been known to use some hi-tech industrial language).
I am reluctant to hand out a Level 1 – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I’ll be honest, I have stood with colleagues who revel in their authority, intervening at the slightest hint of a Law 42 misdemeanour. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than one of Mrs Umps’ coatings and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays (and yes, she owns it the other six days).
For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level 1 (the three categories above Level 1 are so far up the Richter Scale they would be ideal for a Quentin Tarantino sequel to The Hateful Eight (or in this case The Hateful Eight-for). So when a close-in fielder greets an incoming batter taking guard with the next ball is going to put you in A&E, we are all over it like a cheap suit. The fielding captain describes it as banter but I tell him I have done jury service on cases that are one step up from such verbal and physical threats.
Unfortunately, some players do not understand that sledging should not mutate into harassment, it’s just not cricket. So
It is the informed sledgers who I most admire. These agile cat burglars of sledging often involve keeper, slips and bowler working in unison and while they may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, they would certainly make a half decent repertory theatre. So a ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the keeper with a quiet Ooh, he doesn’t fancy it Mustard (the bowler Mustard is presumably a gentleman named Coleman). In the next over (from the other end) the batter is getting bat on ball but not piercing the field as first slip enters (stage right) with Outside off Dave, he fancies it (again, not a hanging offence). Dave of course understands the message and bowls a leg yorker which the batter just manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As Dave walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker that his partner should buy a lottery ticket, it’s going to be his day cleverly sowing another seed of doubt into the equation. This tabloid style of considered sledging is more likely to unsettle a batter.
This, of course, should be the point of sledging. The banter can add to the tension of league cricket where points and local bragging rights are at stake. I particularly like it when the captain of the fielding side understands why myself or my colleague intervenes and instructs his team to stop with the nonsense. A bowler who has bowls a rank long-hop and is dispatched to the boundary, and who then admonishes himself with a loud profanity does not deserve a yellow card dangled in front of him. Even if this expletive falls within earshot of the pavilion, it’s not a big enough deal to report.