By Michael Roberts –
Is cricket akin to war? It surely cannot be. Whether in the American Civil War, the trenches of the Somme, the battle fields in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and other African civil conflicts or the Eelam Wars between Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state, the blood and gore of injury and death in large numbers destroy any effort at arguing similarity. The ramifying grief among kin folk immediately associated with such events surely makes this crystal clear.
War, moreover, sees one of the adversaries seeking imbalance and advantage. At times this occurs even before war commences because an instigating belligerent sees an advantage in the balance of weapons and proceeds to manufacture acasus belli.
Cricket, in contrast, is built on the foundations of a “level playing field.” Umpires are an integral facet of the game precisely for this reason. The level playing field can be skewed by chance in the form of changing weather conditions or on-field injuries to key players. But the course of the game is, ideally, determined by the differential skills of the teams and the tactics they employ.
Since the 1970s, however, verbal intimidation and verbal assaults have been introduced as another facet of on-field tactics – usually by the fielding side – to swing the balance in their favour. This deliberate programme is euphemised by the term “sledging” – a legitimization device of the most blatant kind. The term encompasses verbal repartee and wisecracks as well as belligerent epithets of disparagement. The funny wisecracks are then retailed as one justification for the whole gamut of verbal action designed to imprint imbalance in the playing conditions. Renowned cricket-writers talk of the “Thin Edge of the Sledge” in a manner that gives room for readers to slide over this deliberate destruction of the principle “LEVEL PLAYING FIELD.”
To be sure, Gideon Haigh qualifies this thrust by raising questions on this score by referring to a sharp query from a school principal who wished to know how they could instil principles of sportsmanship among their players when the youngsters witnessed aggressive behaviour from leading cricketers at Test Matches. But Haigh does not call this unsportsmanlike behaviour “verbal assault” or “verbal intimidation.” His query becomes a gloss, a feint.
It is then diverted by another query raised as his concluding line. He draws attention to cultural difference in the “scope for aggression.” But this is a mere preliminary to another move: pondering the impending battles between Australia and India in an ODI series at home in Australia. He concludes by suggesting that India’s financial clout in the cricketing world makes it advisable for Aussies to rethink the issue of “good manners.” So, it the ruling utilitarian epistemology of the modern capitalist world that should dictate policy on the cricket field, not the principle of the level playing field: when one plays against these kingpin Indians one should consider moderating one’s aggression, one’s disparagement and the generation of imbalance. The English, Bangladeshis and, however, can be bashed verbally.
The ruling ideology of dog-eat-dog that directs marketing and power politics in this our world therefore enters into the justifications that sustain the practice of verbal assault within cricket field – assaults designed to engender “mental disintegration” in the words of a warrior called Waugh. As Michael Jeh has indicated, one of the simple means of eliminating such skewing of principle would be for the stump-mikes and sound systems to relay every single word uttered by our so-called “sporting heroes.” Both wisecrack and belligerent epithet will then be heard in every lounge room. The “shit” that is uttered will enter every lounge room, the foul-mouthed sportsman, will be displayed.
But, no, the esteemed TV commentary teams (ex-cricketers all) and the media moghuls who lord it over the cricket enterprise join the piss-weak ICC in maintaining the façade. Minting money demands the exclusion of any shitty smells from the pristine heart of the hearth, namely, the TV lounge-room. Our sporting heroes are left free to urinate on the game every now and then.