When young men loiter on street corners or in shopping malls throwing out insults or physically intimidating passers-by, we condemn their behavior as antisocial. When Australia’s top athletes do the same, we celebrate their “wit” and “spirit.”
Sporting prowess is the highest form of status for young men and boys in Australia, as it is in many other places. And in Australian sport there is no pinnacle higher than the national cricket team, which has won four of the last five world cups.
For a cricketing superpower, Australians have a poor on-field reputation. Mutually respectful competition has been replaced by ugly belligerence. Derogatory, threatening or racist remarks are not only a routine part of the Australian game, they have become a form of psychological warfare used to establish dominance over opponents.
The practice is called “sledging,” apparently drawn from the phrase, “as subtle as a sledgehammer.”
Many Australians are perversely proud of their reputation as the sledging kings of the cricket world. Books celebrate the practice, including “The Art of Sledging” and “Why Are You So Fat? The Book of Cricket’s Best Ever Sledges.” There is a website, Cricket Sledges, whose slogan is “The Best Sledging Cricket Has to Offer.”
Umpires ignore all but the most egregious cases even though “obscene, offensive or insulting” language is banned under the International Cricket Council code of conduct. Players rationalize their behavior as tradition. Cricket administrators tut-tut but take only token steps to stop it.
In 2013, the national team captain at the time, Michael Clarke, received a modest fine for telling an English player, James Anderson, “to get ready” for a broken arm. The Australian, whose threat was caught by a live microphone, appeared frustrated that Anderson, a pitcher, or bowler, was defeating attempts to get him out when he was batting at a match in Brisbane.
Last year the Australian team toured South Africa, one of its strongest rivals. The Australians’ abuse on the field was so bad that a South African batsman, Faf du Plessis, said they were like a “pack of wild dogs.” The Australians’ response: to mock du Plessis by barking.
“There had been sledging in every game of senior cricket I have played in,” said Matthew Day, a former player for Tasmania State.
Except one. That was the first match a shocked Day played in after a 25-year-old Australian cricketer, Phillip Hughes, died from an injury in a state-level game in late 2014. Hughes, a batter for the Australian team, was hit by a pitch deliberately aimed to bounce off the field close to his head.
Hughes could have ducked. But he was on a hot streak and decided to take a swing. He missed. The heavy leather-clad ball, which can be bowled at almost 100 miles an hour, hit his unprotected neck, resulting in a tear in his vertebral artery. He died two days later from internal bleeding, never having regained consciousness.
Before Hughes was fatally struck, an opposition bowler may have said to him, “I’m going to kill you,” according to evidence given in court.
His death, and the pain felt by Hughes’s family, led some Australians to question why a parallel world existed on the playing field where it is acceptable to insult and abuse other people.
Michael Barnes, a coroner who oversaw an inquiry into the incident, didn’t believe other players’ claims that there was no verbal abuse during the game. Last month he suggested that cricket’s strongest supporters reflect on such behavior. “An outsider is left to wonder why such a beautiful game would need such an ugly underside,” he wrote in an assessment of Hughes’s death.
Sledging isn’t a problem only in Australia. It represents an ugly strain of male-to-male interaction that may be as common in American fraternities and English pubs as on Australian cricket fields.
There is a crucial difference, though, between dorm louts and playing-field bullies. Organized sports operate according to a set of commonly agreed rules and values. At their highest level, they represent an ideal version of society: a pure and fair contest between the best athletes a nation can produce.
That’s why international athletes exert such a powerful social influence on young people. In Australia, there are few more potent role models for young men than first-class cricketers.
For the sake of our boys and girls, it is time to stop celebrating abuse in cricket, or any other sport, and call it out for what it is: boorish behavior that tars the game, demeans its participants and diminishes our societies.
The male administrators, scouts and board members who control the game have a responsibility to establish a more respectful playing culture. Their young charges, at the peak of their fame and sporting prowess, are unlikely to change without pressure from above.
There are positive signs. In a thrilling match against Pakistan two weeks ago, there were no reports of abuse by the Australian players. And something else strange happened: In a year when its performance has been awful, the Australia team won.
A. Odysseus Patrick is a writer for The Australian Financial Review.