During the Centenary Test match between Australia and England at Melbourne in March 1977, the fearsome fast bowler Dennis Lillie peppered the irrepressible, idiosyncratic, English batsman Derek Randall with a series of short-pitched deliveries. After one of them, Randall famously doffed his cap towards Lillie. Another one hit him on the head, but he was undeterred and, in a superb innings of 174, Randall almost won the match for his country.
When Randall was interviewed on his return home, he was asked about the incident and what he said to Lillie. His diplomatic and characteristic reply was that he told him he was a very fine bowler to which Lillie replied that he was a very fine batsman.
Several years later, at a World Cup match at Lord’s, I found myself standing alongside Lillie and was fortunate that he was prepared to engage in conversation. I told him of Randall’s comments to which he laughed and indicated that there had been more to it than that and would have been less polite and less deferential. Minutes later, he turned and said that he had remembered the conversation. Randall had been getting a “bit cheeky” with both his mouth and bat, so he had let fly a vicious bouncer accompanied by words to the effect of “hit that one.”
This was a relatively mild form of banter between a batsman and bowler. Much worse has been said and done in the history of the game. The proximity of batsman, bowler and fielders near to the wicket and the time available between deliveries provides the opportunity for chatter to flow. Even the first codified Laws of Cricket in 1744 stipulated that “the wicket-keeper is required to be still and quiet until the ball is bowled.” This suggests that attempts to unsettle a batsman and undermine concentration have been part of the game for centuries.
By all accounts the Australians have been arch exponents of attempts to get under the skin of opponents in what one highly successful captain, Steve Waugh, described as a process of “mental disintegration.” He practiced what he preached. In a critical match of the 1999 World Cup, Waugh was credited with a comment to an opponent, who dropped a straightforward catch offered by him, to the effect that “you have just dropped the World Cup.” Both players have denied that these were the exact words used.
The process is often referred to as “sledging,” for which various explanations exist. One is that the person making the comments is being as subtle as a sledgehammer. A second is that it is akin to breaking down a person as a sledgehammer would in breaking a rock. A third, more entertaining one, refers to an occasion in a State match in Australia in the 1960s when a batsman, whose wife it is rumoured had been too close to a teammate, was greeted on his arrival at the wicket with a rendition of Percy Sledge’s 1966 hit song of “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
Whatever the origins of the term, it is an activity that continues to exercise the attention of the lawmakers and enforcers. Under Law 41.4, “it is unfair for any fielder deliberately to attempt to distract the striker while he/she is preparing to receive or receiving a delivery.” If either umpire considers that any action by a fielder is such an attempt, sanctions are available to penalise the fielding side.
The captain of the England team in the 1977 Centenary Test tells of a previous incident in Australia when his comments had served to rile his opponents. When he appeared at the wicket for his innings, a certain Dennis Lillie was bowling. As Lillie approached his delivery stride, with the crowd baying in support and the slip cordon passing comment, the fielder who was closest, several feet away at forward short leg, spat on the pitch. It is not recorded if the umpire took any action.
Sledging falls into different categories. There are sledges which are amusing. One that has been attributed along the years to various participants involves a world-class batsman who was batting at the opening of the day’s play. He was having trouble laying his bat on the balls being delivered by a young tearaway fast bowler, who offered some advice to the batsmen, along the lines of “it’s red and round, try hitting it.” Several overs later, the batsman drives the ball out of the ground and suggests that, as the bowler knows what it looks like, he might care to go fetch it.
There are sledges that are very personal to the point of being hurtful and there are sledges which have been downright brutal. One such was made by the then-Australian captain to England’s fast bowler, James Anderson, in the opening Test Match in 2013: “Get ready for a broken arm.”
This was picked up by a stump microphone and the Australian received a fine. Many other comments are not picked up and heard only by those within earshot. There is no agreed view about where the line between banter and abuse is or should be drawn.
The International Cricket Council’s code of conduct supplements the game’s Laws in stipulating four levels of offence. A Level 1 offence relates to “language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting.” If such language is based on race, religion, gender, color, descent, national or ethnic origin, it is prohibited and dealt with by the ICC’s Anti-Racism Code.
Great responsibility is placed upon the umpires and match officials who may not hear comments or may choose not to report them. Their actions will shape the way in which the inevitable practice of sledging will evolve since, in hard-fought contests, there are always likely to be flash points when emotions spill over and aggressive words exchanged.