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Sledging, an Australian hallmark

Although verbal intimidation has been a part of Australia's DNA, their success in India through it is perhaps negligible.

Merv Hughes, with his menacing looks, was a master at sledging

By this time tomorrow, the Border–Gavaskar Trophy would well and truly be underway at Pune.

The very mention of the series conjures up nostalgic memories of these two legendary players and the famous battles they were involved in - the best being the hum-dinger of a contest that was the 1986 tied test. Neither gave an inch on the field, didn’t flinch in the face of hostility but instead, flourished more often than not in adversity.

They weren’t shy on words either. Sunil Gavaskar had his share of verbal jousts with authorities and opposition players like Dennis Lillee. Allan Border became synonymous with the rekindling of sledging to noticeable levels- even blatantly using it as a form of mental disintegration. His local was simple. Unsuspecting players, caught unawares and miffed even by the simplest of confrontations, ended up doing something silly with the bat or ball.

Sledging existed before Border too, but “Captain Grumpy” made effective use of it as he tried to rebuild a shattered side and made world champions out of them. Merv Hughes, with his menacing looks, was a master at it and took to the method unabashedly. Meanwhile, Steve Waugh and Shane Warne attribute their sledging skills to on the field tutelage from Allan Border. From their skipper, they learnt to spot the ones to break via sledging (namely Darryl Cullinan and Naseer Hussain) and to steer clear of the others who might strike back with the willow (mostly Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara).

An Australian DNA

The Australians pride themselves as a sporting nation. In Cricket, they have been world beaters and have left the best of teams a distant second during their glory days. Competitiveness is hard wired into their sporting culture and winning at all acceptable cost is something they seem to have indoctrinated into their approach through the ages and at all playing levels.

It’s a cultural mind-set that has permeated through generations of players. Snarling, verbal intimidation and references to self-worth of the opponents have been viewed as necessary tools of the trade and are invested in. It’s a part of their sporting DNA and they can rightly claim to be the sledging savants of cricket, with its origins tracing back to the Bodyline series.

Why, even on flights across the Australian sub-continent, we have been treated to videos of Brett Lee racing in and breaking an arm or two – all done to merely sow seeds of fear and doubt much before the game is underway. Proud of their well-honed skill and nonchalant of what others view of their sledging, every one of Australia’s captains, the current one included, have always gone on record stating they would not hold back a team member who finds it necessary to be involved in a verbal volley or needling to precipitate things in their favor when the going gets tough.

The sledging can classically serve two purposes – to motivate the perpetrator when he needs to switch a higher gear and needs a wind in his sail; and secondly, to break down a frail victim and send him packing, or in the case of a hot headed player, to entice him into doing something stupid and rueful.

Over the ages, this Australian gene has at times mutated into something ugly that has led to vivid scenes for millions of viewers around the globe. As a consequence, it has even made them an unpopular team to take sides with. The advent of match referees and code of conduct has mitigated many a fire that might have gotten out of control. What is also visible is the fact that other teams have picked up the gift of the gab and are now paying back in their own way.

A double-edged sword

The Aussies have also learnt that their psychological tool can be a double-edged sword if not deployed effectively. Many greats of the game have proved this time and again. Indian Cricket is replete with several instances of Australia’s sledging only serving to inspire greats like G R Vishwanath, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, MS Dhoni, VVS Laxman, Harbhajan and in recent times, Virat Kohli. Each of these stalwarts has produced mind-boggling performances that have enthralled a whole nation and left us craving for more. Throw the kitchen sink at them and they have thrown back the bathtub.

Virat has openly said that these are the type of situations he trains for and revels in while craving for more. James Faulkner for one has been thrashed so badly that Kohli couldn’t care for more or have anything to do with him. Perhaps the best instance of sledging having back-fired would be the clash between Australia and a World XI in Jan 1972 at the MCG.

Gary Sobers before the start of the 5th Test between the West Indies and England at the Oval.    (Photo by Titmuss/Getty Images)
Sobers’ brutal 254 came on the back of Dennis Lillee’s provocation

World XI led by Sir Garry Sobers were up against an Australian team that had beaten them in the previous Test at Perth with a rampant Dennis Lillee knocking them over. At the MCG, an aggressive Lillee continued his short stuff and had Sobers for nothing in the first innings. The story goes that Sir Garry promised that he could be quick too and when Lillee came in to bat, bounced him with a snorter that shook the latter so bad that he succumbed to the very next ball.

A furious Lillee went back, swore and let it be known to Sobers that he would show what real pace is. The rest, as they say, is history. Sobers strode in, game for a contest in the World XI second innings and produced a knock of astonishing brilliance. To this day, that innings is rated as the best played on Australian soil and rated as the best ever by Sir Don Bradman.

Sobers made a brutal 254 and sent them on a leather hunt while annihilating Lillee completely. This, with no helmet and other protective stuff on and towards the fag end of a brilliant career. Lillee had no option but to admit to Sobers that he was outgunned and given a dose of his own medicine. Folklore such as these where sportsmen challenge the opponents in multiple ways and come up trumps have enriched the game and paved the way for several discussions.

Also read: Virat Kohli credits captaincy for his sparkling success in Tests

Vital to the game’s ecosystem

Before setting off for the current series in India, Steven Smith went on record stating that he wants Virat Kohli angry and sees a need to ruffle his feathers a bit. A word to the wise though – it’s called Boomerang. The best of the Australian chirpers like Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne have had Indian tours that turned into nightmares and dented their morale. Their averages have been abysmal and their returns diminishing.

Steve Waugh never realised the final frontier. Pitted against crafty spinners, alien pitches, wristy batsmen, to say nothing of the weather and a din beyond normal ranges, the Aussies have more often than not succumbed and been shown their place. Sledging got them nothing more than newsprint mention.

It would be interesting to see what they can dish out this time. There aren't too many tricks that the current Indian crop can’t handle with aplomb. Truth be said, sledging has a place in the game and has made the game more colourful and interesting. If you are married to the game, better be prepared for the nagging spouse called sledging.

Think about it, where else would you see a scope for sledging other than cricket? Between deliveries, between overs and fielders crossing over, opportunities present itself for this to happen. And the players duly oblige by fanning the flames while hoping the opponent falls for it. Which sport would present anyone with such an occasion to sledge or use mental warfare as a means to liven up the lull between proceedings? The chances are next to zero that we would see a Federer or a Nadal sledge each other during a game. 

Lastly, these banters invariably rub off on the crowd as well. A cricket stadium without a buzz or a boo would be like a deserted arena for gladiators to perform - devoid of all soul. It’s the nature of the crowd to thrive and feed off banter and bring in their own witty add-ins to what transpires on the field. Cricket very much needs these acts to go on, albeit in a healthy manner, they play an important role in the game’s ecosystem.

Remember the time when Murali was called for chucking Down Under and the crowd duly came with the famous banner “Hair or no Hair, Murali’s B**** are clean". Or the famous 2005 Ashes in England when the English crowd displayed “You say F*** Off, We Say Flint-Off”.

Through the course of this series, all eyes would be on Virat Kohli and Steve Smith's men. And their mouths for good measure.

What’s in the offing is anyone’s guess.

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