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 the First-class and Minor Counties game 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 in their crusade to win .
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 representing their country with 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.
While sledging can bring some light relief to a tense match situation, it can also turn into cricket’s version of a Twitter pile-on. A batter who benefits from a not-out catch to the wicket-keeper may think he has won a temporary battle, but the ensuing remarks from fielders remind him that the war is still up for grabs. It starts with a gentle aperitif from the fielder at the perfect decibel level that reaches the batter but is hard for the umps to decode:
Fair play bat. You must be good to actually get an edge to that one.
The next over the batter smacks the ball over the bowler’s head for a one-bounce four. First slip joins the party:
Did you hit that one. I certainly heard a noise.
And when he is out around half-an-hour later the bowler sends him off with:
Well done bat. You managed two innings in a one innings game.
This kind of sledging vengeance is unproductive and injudicious because umpires can simply jump in and feel the offender’s collar as they are leaving the crime scene (and I have done so where required). The batter does not have to walk simply because the wicket-keeper and slips twist and shout about a caught behind. If the fielding side is disappointed with a decision, they can vent their feelings by marking the umpire down after the game.
So here’s some advice for wannabe sledgers – if you must engage in this activity, at least use your heads and plough a more informed furrow. Such agile cat burglars of the art often involve wicket-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 troupe. A ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the wicket-keeper with a quiet Ooh, he doesn’t fancy it Mustard (the bowler Mustard is presumably a gentleman named Coleman). In the next over, the batter is 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 broadsheet style of considered sledging is more likely to get a result and leaves fewer fingerprints.
My favourite sledging incident involved a couple of Hooray Henrys who were enjoying a pint on the pavilion veranda while directing some unsavoury comments my way at square leg.
Umps, your shirt’s hanging out; what are you up to after the game?; have you got any spare balls?
At the end of the over I rounded up my colleague who could hear what was going on and we called over the fielding and home team captain. He didn’t need to engage in conversation with us, he simply made his way over to the clowns. And before the next over started, Buddies Hollering and the Cricket had already left town.