AFTER the fractious opening to the Ashes series in Brisbane, former Australia captain Ian Chappell issued a dire warning.
“If the International Cricket Council don’t stop all the chatter that’s going on (between the players on the field), the more chance something personal will be said at the wrong time and you’ll have fisticuffs.
“You imagine something really personal being said when a guy is going through marital problems, or something like that.
“The wrong thing will be said and who knows what might happen, particularly if a guy has a bat in his hand.
“I don’t say it’s right at that point yet, but it will happen.
“I think we’re getting close to the fisticuffs.”
Chappell was no shrinking violet in the verbal stakes; he could hold his own with the best of them.
But a man who speaks more commonsense than most was right to highlight the most unsavoury aspect of the ongoing series, one which has undermined an otherwise entertaining advert for Ashes cricket.
Although on-field dialogue is nothing new, with players having engaged in banter of varying sorts since time immemorial, the term “sledging” is relatively recent.
According to Chappell, the word “sledging” actually originated in the 1960s, when a cricketer who swore in the presence of a woman during a Sheffield Shield match in Australia was said to have reacted to an incident “like a sledgehammer”.
After that, the term developed a life of its own.
“A later generation of players, unaware of its origin, began to describe on-field antics as sledging and, with the help of the media, the meaning of the word has broadened,” wrote Chappell in his autobiography.
If recent events in Australia are any indication, the meaning of the word has now broadened into something else entirely – namely, “anything goes”.
In that first Test in Brisbane, we witnessed the quite disgraceful sight of Australia captain Michael Clarke walking up to James Anderson, the England No 11, and pointedly telling him to “get ready for a broken f****** arm”.
Clarke was fined 20 per cent of his match fee for the outburst.
Earlier, Anderson, who openly admits that he believes sledging is “a skill” that has “helped me take the wickets I have”, taunted Australia batsman George Bailey.
The ill-feeling between the teams – simmering since last summer’s series – spilled over into the second Test at Adelaide.
England all-rounder Ben Stokes and Australia fast bowler Mitchell Johnson had a verbal and physical altercation, the pair barging into each other in mid-pitch like a pair of fairground dodgems.
Inexplicably, Jeff Crowe, the ICC match referee, found them not guilty of inappropriate and deliberate physical contact and pathetically concluded that “both players, however, could have done more to avoid each other”.
In the same match, Johnson and England pace bowler Stuart Broad had a silly set-to, which ended with Broad pointing towards his own head to indicate that Johnson was a bit of a loony – an ironic contention. And in last week’s third Test at Perth, Australia batsman David Warner had a heated verbal exchange with England wicketkeeper Matt Prior. Later, Warner celebrated his century by jumping around in Prior’s face.
In addition, we have seen countless displays of excessive triumphalism on both sides, bowlers mouthing abuse at batsmen after getting them out, and shouting and swearing that does not need a degree in lip-reading to decipher.
Yes, that chap who cursed in the presence of a woman at a Sheffield Shield match in the 1960s has a lot to answer for...
Seriously, though, the situation has got out of control.
As sledging has increased, so the advent of stump microphones and close-up television coverage has heightened the concerns raised by Chappell.
Clarke was disappointed that his remark to Anderson was broadcast to the masses because the stump microphones had inadvertently been left turned up, but as unsavoury as his words was the threatening nature of his body language.
The penalty for carrying on like that should not be a fine but a ban – say one or two Tests, which would soon put a stop to it.
Instead, the ICC bury their heads in the sand while players and officials continue to allow verbal abuse to be considered acceptable.
The umpires – caught in the crossfire – seem powerless to act.
Of course, cricketers have always goaded each other, poured scorn on each other’s capabilities and sought to gain a competitive edge.
This is particularly true in recent times, when professional sport has become more of a business.
Indeed, another former Australia captain, Steve Waugh, famously rebranded sledging “mental disintegration”, a term that might have been coined in Nazi Germany.
But what really grates is the damage being done to those youngsters who watch and mimic their heroes.
We are breeding a generation of youngsters who equate tough cricket with verbal abuse, with over-triumphalism and the non-applauding of centuries by opposition players.
Years ago, the sledging was mostly amusing – the former Yorkshire and England fast bowler Fred Trueman, for example, would tell a batsman that he had “more edges than a broken p*** pot”.
Back then, players interacted more, they socialised more and developed rapports that would seem unthinkable now.
Tough cricket should not be without edge but nor should it descend into the depths of abuse.
Instead, as this Ashes series has proved, an increasingly classless game is being played by increasingly classless individuals who, if Chappell is right, are one step away from fisticuffs.
and another thing...
ON the subject of funny sledges, there have been many over the years.
In addition to Fiery Fred Trueman’s inexhaustible repartee, the Australia fast bowler Merv Hughes was no slouch in the banter stakes.
“Mate, if you just turn the bat over you’ll find the instructions on the other side,” he said to more than one opponent.
Another time, Hughes enquired of former England batsman Graham Gooch: “Would you like me to bowl you a piano to see if you can play that?”
Best of all, during a Test against Pakistan, he took umbrage at a comment from Javed Miandad.
“Merv, you are a big, fat bus conductor,” said Miandad.
A few balls later, Hughes dismissed him with a beautiful ball.
As he ran down the pitch past the disconsolate batsman, he shouted: “Tickets, please.”
Another classic came from Daryll Cullinan, the South African batsman who was famously Shane Warne’s bunny.
After a long period in which their paths did not cross, Warne said: “I’ve been waiting two years for another chance at you.”
Cullinan replied: “Yes, and it looks like you’ve spent it eating.”