On the offensive

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 and says: 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 the dizzy heights of Test matches, 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 to a rousing rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new courtesy as club cricket seeks to gain an advantage at every opportunity.

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 in the last nine years came from an Aussie who at the end of a fractious game told me that no Aussie club player would make the kind of comments he had heard on England’s green and pleasant cricket land. (I certainly did not point out that the gentlemen sporting those rugged baggy green caps had been known to use some hi-tec 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 misdemeanor. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than what I get from Mrs Umps and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays (and yes, she owns it the other six days).

I was at the bowler’s end when the second slip chance of the over was spilled by the same fielder. The bowler shouted fu*k off and my colleague was ready to have the flat-pack gallows erected on the square. I stopped his march to glory in his tracks, explaining that the said bowler’s outburst was directed at himself as well as the fielder and we should do nothing. But it was in earshot of the pavilion so we have to give him a Level 1,  my colleague responded. I prevailed and gave the bowler a fatherly piece of advice on how to manage his anger.

For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level 1 (the three levels above 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 greeted an incoming batter taking guard with the next ball is going to put you in A&E, we were all over it like a cheap suit. The fielding captain described it as a bit of banter but I told him I had done jury service on cases that were one step up from such verbal threats and which had resulted in physical violence.

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 that specialises in promoting urban talent. So a ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the keeper with a quiet-ish 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. More Independent than Daily Star, this more considered sledging is more likely to bring success.

And that 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 bowled a rank long-hop and is dispatched to the boundary, and who then admonishes himself with a loud sh*t does not deserve a yellow card dangled in front of him. Even if the expletive is in earshot of the pavilion, it is bad umpiring.

But F*S, you don’t need me to tell you that.