This week The New York Times ventured into some unlikely territory. Courtesy of Mr A. Odysseus Patrick, the cricketing world was provided with a criticism of the role of sledging in the Australian game. Frankly, we think this is at best a superficial argument that ignores the role of economic and social privilege in using norms to exclude and control those less fortunate. Sledging – in general – is only a problem for those more concerned with an ideal of the sporting world that has never existed, nor ever will. Removing it will have no impact on the quality or the safety of the game.
Patrick argues that:
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.
Mr Patrick argues that cricket administrators should do more to punish sledging in a manner that Helen Lovejoy might find a bit over the top:
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.
This argument is often trotted out in the cricketing world as “the spirit of cricket” – an idea that we should all walk when we hit it, have beers together after each game and generally engage in a five-day long tea-party instead of playing a competitive sport.
It’s an approach that those of privilege – both in the economic and social sense – have often sought to promote. They tell the less privileged that this is a space for proper gentlemen who can speak properly and insult the right way. It is used to exclude and control behaviour to meet the norms of those with the power to enforce it. It rarely is used to materially improve anything.
We have seen it in sport around the world. It takes on a more racial tinge in America where the NFL seeks to outlaw any form of ‘celebration’ because it’s consumers (white people) don’t like the idea of its players (not white people) celebrating. The National Basketball Association instituted a dress code to make players dress in business suits rather than ‘street’ attire. In mostly-white sports like Ice Hockey, out-and-out brawling is not considered an issue. But in the NBA, a mostly-black sport, a single fight is the action of ‘thugs’.
This has for a long time been part of cricket. W.G Grace was an acclaimed ‘sledger’ and he is the father of cricket – his privileged position in both cricket and society has meant this is often forgiven. When Patrick refers to Michael Clarke telling James Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken arm’ it was in response to Anderson sledging an Australian fielder. No one was worried that Anderson, another renowned sledger, had done anything wrong. But the Australian captain with a working-class accent is the epitome of the downfall of society because he had the temerity to remind Anderson that on the playing field talking trash is something you can only do if you can back it up. Yes it can be boorish, but it is common to almost all countries that participate in the sport – Andre Nel, Arjuna Ranatunga, James Anderson, Ian Botham, Malcolm Marshall, Fred Trueman, Merv Hughes are all renowned for their turn-of-phrase.
Patrick fails to make an argument for why this is a problem. He claims racist remarks are not only condoned but routine. Perhaps this was true of the past but today is an unfair characterisation. On the few occasions that such remarks have been made by players they have been punished as they should be (in the most part: see monkeygate). In all likelihood racism from the crowds is much bigger concern than on the field, but has been dealt with equally seriously (in Australia at least).
Patrick uses the death of Phil Hughes to make his point about sledging. Yes Hughes died playing cricket. Yes players sledged him. But so what? His death had nothing to do with the barbs flung at him. Is Hughes’ death a problem of sledging? Or is it actually an issue with safety equipment or bowling regulations such as the number of bouncers in an over? Patrick’s approach to argument does disservice to both Patrick’s argument and also the memory of Hughes.
Patrick’s claims that this will have some impact on the children’s embrace of the game just doesn’t match facts. Cricket became the number one participation sport in Australia in 2016. Clearly sledging isn’t the problem impacting inclusivity that he thinks
Moving beyond cricket, Patrick further undermines his own argument – he claims this isn’t actually about cricket, or sledging, or Australia even.
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.
Right, so this is isn’t about Australia. Or cricket. So why is this about the dark side of Australian cricket then? Is it possible this is just a reflection of a world in which molecules bump into each other and friction can result? Is it a problem with masculinity? Possibly. Then why is the solution lying in cricketing administrators? If they could actually ‘fix’ this problem then the ICC should be sent into the ‘dark side’ of Reddit and Twitter to fix much bigger problems.
Ultimately Patrick’s position is understandable but ultimately flimsy and lacking the necessary nuance to understand the cricketing world. Would the creation of an anodyne environment where no one ever got upset create a more interesting contest? Would it create a more entertaining spectacle? Would more people join? Would it create a safer game? It seems unlikely. But it would make Patrick and Helen Lovejoy a little happier, which I guess is nice.
 Not as Patrick claims, due to any particular ability on Anderson’s part