Why Cricket is the Greatest Sport, No. 13: Sledging

Jos Buttler Vernon Philander sledging row

Perhaps my favourite thing about ‘sledging’ is that it’s acquired such a bad reputation that Steve Waugh was convinced that ‘mental disintegration’ was a viable euphemism for it.

Think about that for a second. “Oh no, what we’re doing isn’t something as awful as sledging. Goodness me, no. What we’re doing is merely pulverising our opponents’ minds in such a fashion that all that remains of them is the scattered remnants of their constituent atomic particles.” Amazing.

There are all kinds of alternative names for sledging, of course, running the spectrum from ‘banter’ to ‘abuse’. Most of these naming variants are defined based on a number of metrics. For example, the level of comedy in the chat. Or the presence (or otherwise) of unwelcome epithets. Or, transcending all other factors, whether either the sledger or sledgee is a member of a team that you support.

But you didn’t come here to read my musings on nuanced variations on a commonly understood term. This isn’t Thesaurus365.com. So for the purposes of this piece, let’s just take ‘sledging’ as the widest possible definition – any kind of non-supportive verbal interaction between opponents on a cricket field.

By this broad definition, sledging is more or less an inevitable consequence of playing cricket. In its international formats, cricket can run from anywhere between roughly three and thirty hours of on-field play. That’s a long time to give your opponents the full-on silent treatment, especially given that at least half of that time is spent between deliveries, waiting for the next phase of action to begin.

In fact, a more accurate interpretation of cricket might be to see it as a spirited debate between opposing viewpoints that’s occasionally interrupted by one of the debaters flinging a hard, leather ball at their adversary. (Question for readers: Should debating societies introduce such an element into their little arguing competitions? Discuss among yourselves. And yes, the affirmative may wield cricket balls to bolster their case.)

Of course, there is a third option, distinct from any form of sledging or complete silence. That middle path is to maintain positive, affable interactions with the opposition at all times. If cricket nostalgists are to be believed, this is precisely what used to take place all the time before one of those horrid Australian captains – perhaps Ian Chappell, maybe Allan Border, possibly even (and I’ll grant this is a long shot) Graham Yallop – invented the concept of swearing at the other team.

Before that turning point, bowlers who were struck to the boundary responded with reverent applause for the shot. When a wicket fell, the batter would beam with appreciation at the ball that had so skilfully bested them. And all chat on the field was a never-ending exchange of mutual admiration. “Oh, good shot!” “It was the best I could muster against such an outstanding delivery.” “That ball? It barely deserved to be on the same pitch as a cricketer of your astonishing skills.” “My skills are but a microscopic germ about to succumb to the all-powerful penicillin of your magnificent fielders.” “Wait, what’s this ‘penicillin’ you speak of?”

And so on and so forth. How wonderful to watch cricket in such a golden era of endless cordiality. (Also, ‘Endless Cordiality’? A great name for a licensed provider of drinks break beverages.)

But even if such an era once existed, it feels unlikely that we can ever return to it. In the modern, post-Chandler Bing, world, would it be possible to maintain such sincerity without it coming across as sarcastic snark? Duh, what do you think?


So if cricketers can’t be silent and they can’t be nice, we’re left with sledging. And this is where the fun begins. Because it’s a fundamentally impossible problem to solve. While just about everybody agrees that the banter end of sledging is fine and the abuse end of sledging is perhaps rather less fine, almost nobody can agree on where the infamous line between these two extremes should be placed. And any mismatched opinions on the location of that line leads to inevitable friction.

Mostly such mismatches are due to cultural differences. Because what I said earlier about the merits of an individual piece of sledging depending heavily on whether the sledger or sledgee was a member of a team that you support? That wasn’t merely a shot at blind parochialism. (Although, obviously, it was that too.) It also reflected the fact that most people support their own national team and, hence, are more likely to share the cultural norms of that team than those of their opponents.

Different cultures have different standards of behaviour that they deem acceptable as part of the process of winning a cricket game. Certain countries – not mentioning any names – are willing to be thoroughly unpleasant to their opponents while on the field as a way of softening them up and making them easier to dismiss. From their perspective, the other team being offended by such behaviour, particularly after the match, is the equivalent of them taking umbrage at a barrage of bouncers.

From the opposite perspective, for teams and cultures who’d rather not have a torrent of abuse be an integral part of their sport, that explanation cuts no mustard. Especially if the entire concept of mustard-cutting is inexplicably alien to them.

Even in a more idealised world where we just asked everybody to dial it back and keep it to light-hearted joking, that can also mean different things in different countries. This is true even for the most famous sledges of them all. Minding windows, asking for tickets, knowing what fetchable cricket balls look like, being the best cricketer in your family. Each might tickle fans in one nation immeasurably while leaving those in another cold. Why, to some people, the idea of joking about the intellectual disabilities of children only recently revealed to be not biologically your own as a result of your wife’s unfaithfulness might be considered distasteful. Comedy is a harsh mistress.

I could go on with further examples, but there doesn’t seem to be much point. For as long as there is cultural diversity in the cricketing nations of the world, the problem of sledging will remain an intractable one. And that’s not even getting into the differences in standards that may exist within different nations and different teams. Or mentioning the fact that all my opinions on this and, indeed, everything I write, are inevitably filtered through my own societal biases.

Ultimately, all we can do is try to understand one another.

Ha ha ha! No. That’s never going to happen. But perhaps the difficulties in dealing with sledging can remind us of the greater picture – that we all have our own unique perspectives shaped by our own unique experiences and upbringing and that we should treasure those differences.

Hmmm? What’s that? You don’t think that’s much of a case for why sledging helps make cricket the greatest sport? Well, maybe you should just go fuck yourself. What do you think this is, a fucking reading group?

By Dan Liebke