YOU MAY have seen the pictures this week of the Sri Lankan cricket team wearing face masks in their Test match against India in Delhi.
The masks covered the players’ mouths and were designed to protect against levels of air pollution that were 15 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended toxicity maximum.
Perhaps similar masks should be worn by the participants in the Ashes series.
Not because Australia is blighted by comparable levels of smog, but because it might just put a stop to the sledging that is undermining the cricketing contest Down Under.
Of course, there is fat chance of that happening, but as events have shown in the second Test in Adelaide, the cricket rather speaks for itself if the players would only focus their efforts solely on that.
A fine fightback from England saw them go into today’s final day on 176-4 needing another 178 for their highest successful run-chase in Tests.
In Adelaide alone, we have witnessed the sad sight of umpire Aleem Dar having to stand between Anderson and Smith as they went at each other, the umpire as powerless as a goldfish in a tank of piranhas,Chris Waters
It was a tall order indeed after Australia captain Steve Smith chose not to enforce the follow-on (had he done so, his side might have won the match on day four).
But that England even had a shot at salvation was remarkable given that they conceded a first-innings deficit of 215, the tourists dismissing the hosts for 138 in their second innings as James Anderson took his first five-wicket haul Down Under before Joe Root’s unbeaten 67 led the pursuit of 354 to win.
Whatever the end result (and there is sadly little correlation between Australian time zones and English newspaper deadlines), the cricket has been sufficiently compelling without all of the peripheral shenanigans we have seen in the series.
Some might think that it adds to the contest, spices up the battle and makes it even more exciting, and these people may or may not have amused themselves by throwing plastic beer glasses around at the Headingley Test match over the years.
But although hostility and aggression are essential ingredients of most team sports, particularly when the stakes are high and the scrutiny even higher, it is a cop-out to say that this is just part of the game and we must therefore accept it with a merry shrug.
Hostility and aggression within the fierce confines of competitive team sport are perfectly possible without resorting to verbal abuse and childish retaliations.
Sadly, apologists for such actions are everywhere – not least in my own industry. One article in a national newspaper at the weekend urged people not to “mourn for the spirit of cricket, whatever that may be”, adding “Australia took the gloves off with their antics at the Gabba” and “England are just fighting fire with fire”.
When Stuart Broad, one of the chief firefighters, tweeted that it was “a very good article”, the writer replied: “Cheers, Stuart. Good luck today.”
Although the so-called “spirit of cricket” may indeed be an increasingly nebulous concept, harking back to those quaint days when an umpire’s decision was final and a batsman actually walked if he edged the ball to slip, there is a big difference between the odd verbal flying around in the heat of the moment and the almost stage-managed drivel that we get now.
Fred Trueman, for instance, occasionally mouthed words on the field that rhymed with “duck” and variants thereof, but, as the likes of Geoffrey Boycott would testify, the comments were invariably humorous or expressions of frustration; they were not personally directed abuse at batsmen.
By all accounts, Australia have been the chief sledgers in this series (Trashes rather than Ashes), and for a side containing the preposterous figure of David Warner and the goadingly smug Smith, this is perhaps not surprising.
Indeed, according to former England wicket-keeper Matt Prior, who evidently has his ear to the ground, England have “rightfully” been upset by abuse over an issue that has not come out into the public domain.
If you can actually bring yourself to see past the irony of Prior wading into the sledging debate, you may detect some cause for concern when he states: “There’s been a lot of chat on the pitch that hasn’t got anything to do with cricket and frankly shouldn’t be on a cricket pitch – stuff that hasn’t come out for various reasons.”
Declining to go into the specific details of this “stuff”, Prior added that some players deal better with sledging than others and “therefore you have to go deeper if you want to try and get a reaction and say something that’s going to be pretty fiery and potentially personal”.
This, in fact, may well explain why Australia have spoken of the need to be “smarter” with their sledging, as though it was an aspect of the game every bit as legitimate as the need to be smarter when playing off the back foot.
Of course, all teams are culpable in the decline of on-field standards; men such as Broad and Anderson, for example, are hardly whiter-than-white, the brilliant glow of their cricket dimmed, in my view, by antics that the sport could well do without.
In Adelaide alone, we have witnessed the sad sight of umpire Aleem Dar having to stand between Anderson and Smith as they went at each other, the umpire as powerless as a goldfish in a tank of piranhas, and that of Broad giving Peter Handscomb a send-off after he trapped him lbw in the first innings, yelling triumphantly in the batsman’s face.
So, what is the answer?
In a nutshell, the game must take a stand.
Umpires need greater powers and captains and coaches must set the example – and not just talk, as England coach Trevor Bayliss did, of turning down stump microphones, thereby effectively conceding the problem on the one hand and turning a blind eye – or a deaf ear – on the other.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. But whether the will is really there in an age where winning is everything – and anything goes –is open to debate.