No time for hugs as England face Proteas

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It can only be hoped that all civility is put aside in the next few weeks and that South Africa and England are too hell bent on sledging each other to have any time for cuddles, writes Tim Ellis. If this really is like the Ashes, as Andrew Strauss claims, then it is time to play it hard.

Once upon a time cricket was a real tough man's sport. If you scored a century you might get a nod from your batting partner. You might doff your cap to the crowd. A wicket could get you a pat on the shoulder.

Misty-eyed celebrations and exuberance were not in the lexicon. It simply wasn't cricket to get all emotional. Blokes were blokes and a brief and hard shake of the hand was all that was needed. Even Darren Gough has recently admitted he finds it difficult to kiss his sister or hug his brother. Goodness knows what he thought of Andy Caddick.

The very nature of cricket can be morose in terms of the amount of time spent on (or off) the field, often going nowhere fast. According to former Wisden editor David Frith's book Silence of the Heart, Cricket Suicides, professional cricketers statistically are more likely to take their own life than any other group of men in the west. The very nature of the game is elongated and deeply frustrating. It can be a desperately lonely team sport.

While cricket and sport in general has become ever more automated and disciplined, so the need for an emotional outlet to prick the professional bubble has begun to show itself. The huddle has become a common theme of solidarity before the start of play. But something else was necessary, something more touch feely to offset the intensity.

So now we have the man hug. It was only a few months ago that Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia embraced each other at the Masters after their rounds started to disintegrate.

McIlroy said: "We needed to show a little love. It was a nice moment in a round filled with not so nice moments." Ahh. There are some people out there who are not solely defined by the amount of majors they win. Can't see Tiger Woods hugging a tree any time soon.

Increasingly, we are seeing personal space invaded as buying into the team ethic becomes central. Masculinity has been transformed. One recent case in point was Kevin Pietersen's monster hug of Andrew Strauss when the England captain finally broke his century drought against the West Indies at Lord's this May.

Pietersen emoted: "Strauss is a fantastic guy and I was happier for him scoring that hundred than I have been for any team-mate before." Forget his one-man demands on international scheduling, KP is a team man through and through. Ahem.

Sporting embraces are now so commonplace that perhaps the players should start their own soap opera. Could you really imagine the stone wall that was Steve Waugh involving himself in this now socially acceptable age of open affection?

He would rather bat on one leg as he did at the Oval in 2001 than receive some fluffy embrace from a weak Australian. When Dean Jones vomited in 37 degree heat at Chennai in1986, Allan Border told him: "If you can't hack it, let's get a tough Queenslander out here."

Well, it does seem the Australians have gone a bit soft as a nation. A recent study in the country shows such displays of public affection are becoming more pronounced. Brett Manning and his cricket pals, who play for the Longley Bunyips in the Huon Channel Cricket Association, say they are not surprised by findings that suggest hugging is good for happiness and wellbeing.

Manning said: "I think there's no better way to show someone they're needed and special than offering a big hug and a pat on the backside to celebrate a bit of classy cricket."

It can only be hoped that all civility is put aside in the next few weeks and that South Africa and England are too hell bent on sledging each other to have any time for cuddles. Maybe we could even have a Harbhajan-style punch thrown in. If this really is like the Ashes, as Andrew Strauss claims, then it is time to play it hard.

<b>By Tim Ellis</b>

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