Tarquin and Icarus

People, in my long experience, want to talk. (J. Robert Lennon)

As Evgeny Kissin adjusts his  stool before another performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Two, the lead violinist leans over: Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your mess-up in Salzburg.

Welcome to the world of sledging, yet another gaining-an-advantage arrow in a cricketer’s quiver that has filtered down from Test through to First Class and Minor Counties cricket before landing on England’s village squares. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease with a rousing chorus of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new Bodyline in which words speak louder than actions.

Law 42 covers sledging, making it a Level One 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 banter, a word often used by captains apologising on behalf of one his troops.

One of the most interesting comments I have heard about sledging came from an Australian who told me that no club player down under would make the kind of comments he had heard on some of England’s green and pleasant grounds. (I assume he has not heard some of the industrial language used by players sporting iconic baggy green caps, especially since stump mics have caught them with fingers in the till).

I am reluctant to hand out a Level One – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that appropriate banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than a Mrs Umps’ coating (the bar’s set high) and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays while accepting her ownership the other six days.

For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level One – the three categories above that Level 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).

A slip fielder greets a nervous young batter with: The next ball is going to put you in A&E. We step in immediately, with the fielding captain apologising and describing it as banter. I tell him I have done jury service on cases that are one step up from such verbal threats.

While acceptable 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 result of the war is yet to be decided.

It often starts with an aperitif sledge, the kind that the residents of Trieste enjoy as the sun sets on the town’s magnificent promenade. The batter nicks off between the wicket-keeper and first slip for a streaky four runs and the sledge masters are immediately on the case. Pitched at the perfect decibel level in a friendly tone of voice a cold-call scammer might use, the wicket-keeper gives his opinion:

You must be good to get an edge to that one.

A few overs later, the bowler gets an LBW decision in his favour and sends the batter off with this noble gesture:

Well done bat. You had three innings in one.

If players really must sledge, at least they should use their heads and plough a more informed furrow. I quite like the agile cat burglar approach to the art that involves wicket-keeper, slips and bowler working in unison. They may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, but 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 entices a false shot with: Outside off Dave, he fancies it.

Dave understands the message and bowls a leg-yorker which the batter manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As he walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker: Your 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 not only more likely to get a result, it also leaves fewer fingerprints.

Then there is the bearing-a-grudge sledge where disgruntled slip fielder takes a declined caught-behind decision to heart. With alarm clock precision, at the end of each over he proffers some home-spun philosophy to the batter.

The noise off your bat needed industrial ear plugs; nick, nick, nick; you know you hit it. Why didn’t you walk?

My favourite anecdote involves a couple of spectating Hooray Henrys who appear as a match is drawing to its conclusion. They watch from the pavilion veranda and decide that myself and colleague should benefit from their insight and expertise on cricketing matters:

Mr Umpires (sic), your shirt’s hanging out; I’ll buy you a pint after the game; I bet you’ve got a big bag of balls; Raise your bat for us!

At the end of the over I round up my colleague and the home team captain and we make our way over to Tarquin and Icarus. The captain opens the meeting:

Guys, shut it, or go home.

A final hurrah is inevitable:

Don’t be such a killjoy. Mr Umpires (sic), has not given us out! 

And before the next over begins, they leave in car that at the peak of my glittering career would have cost at least a year’s salary.