[I was requested recently to post this article on this blog. I had originally blogged this at my other blog. Warning: This is a lengthy article!]
Australia won the 2006 Champions Trophy in a rather convincing manner. The campaign was a typically intense Australian performance. The Champions Trophy was one cup that did not adorn the Australian cricket trophy cabinet and they set about acquiring it with clinical perfection — as the Australian team normally does. I am an admirer of the Australian approach; their intensity; their practice; their inputs; their efforts; their self-belief; and more. All of these necessary attributes combined in a compelling manner to see Australia claim the Cup after a terrific team performance. Their key players fired at the right times. They had a good balance to their team.
However, their journey was once again marred by the Michael Clarke incident with Chris Gayle. Admittedly Gayle was the one who was fined in that incident, but one could not help noticing that, yet again, the Aussies are not great at receiving the slegdges as they are, giving it. We have seen time and time again, the preciousness of McGrath (with Sarawan, which even the Aussie PM weighed into), Hayden (with Simon Jones and Collingwood) and Ponting (with almost everyone).
The Aussie team’s Champions Cup journey was spectacularly marred by the team behaving in a disrespectully unruly manner as they appeared to bundle the Chief Guest off the stage so that they could have their photos taken. As in other such episodes that have plagued the Australian team, rapproachment was again needed — and quite rapidly at that. Given the amount of money Aussie cricketers make in India, cynics would easily understand the urgency of the apology! But this is an embarassing cycle of rudeness-apology-rudeness-apology that begs a deeper and more sincere look at what drives and motivates such behaviour.
I remember Justin Langer — ex-Australian Test cricketer who recently retired during the 2006-07 Australian summer — once pontificated that he was immensely upset when a young rookie leg-spinner (W. D. Balaji Rao) sledged Steve Waugh in a tour game in India in 2001 (India ‘A’ Vs Australia). I remember Langer saying he could not stomach the fact that the rookie Rao was sledging Steve Waugh, by then a legend of the game. The same pontificator, Langer, would have absolutely no problems standing close in and applauding when (say) Brad Williams, Nathan Bracken or Mitchell Johnson would have some choice words to say to Sachin Tendulkar — and in World cricket, they don’t come bigger in the legend-stages than the great Sachin Tendulkar. Three words come to mind — pot, kettle, black!
Langer once professed, after he had signed the Australian players’ self-motivated “Spirit of Cricket” treaty. A good move indeed. But was it all gloss and spin with no substance? Langer indicated that he would strive to play the game in the spirit in which it should be played. At the time of the historic signing, I did wonder if it was genuine or whether it was all nothing but gloss, sheen and spin to cope with the dreadful image Australian cricket had in the International arena. At the time, Langer said he would accept umpiring decisions in a sporting manner. Yet, he still continued to shake his head annoyingly almost after each LBW decision that was given against him! Such was the vigorousness of his head-shakes that I was afraid his neck would detach itself from his body one day — in protest, if not out of repetitive stress weakness!
Indeed, barely a week after Langer had made his pledge, we saw a curious set of incidents in the Brisbane Test. Langer, had received a huge repreive when on almost nothing. Subsequently, after having scored more than a hundred, he was given out LBW. He shook his head all the way in a slow walk to the pavillion that would have made both an Indian Manipuri slow-dance dancer as well as Phil Simmons (that master of the slow-walk-back) think about re-training their trades! The ball that got Langer would have hit middle and leg! Even if we ignore the huge repreive Langer had received when he had scored not much, the head-shake-slow-walk made a total nonsense of Langer’s “spirit of cricket” proclamations!
Meanwhile, when the Indians were batting, Sachin Tendulkar received yet another shocker from Steve Bucknor. Jason Gillespie had bowled a decent ball on off-stump. It was climbing on a dry and bouncy Gabba wicket when Tendulkar left the ball alone. The ball climbed and thudded into the top of his thigh pad! Gillespie suppressed an appeal. Bucknor thought about it and nodded slowly. Tendulkar looked up, saw Bucknor’s finger go up, opened his mouth for just a moment in an expression of surprise, swivelled quickly in the direction of the pavillion and just walked off. He walked fast and straight to the pavillion, head bowed.. and straight. That was the walk of a champion.
The difference was palpable. The difference was that Sachin Tendulkar had not indulged in any pre-match talking (read: spin) about sportsmanship. He didn’t need to. He was (and remains) a true sportsman. His actions mean that words are (were) not required. He did the walking. Langer had done the talking. Langer had done the pre-match chest-beat and was looking like a pillock… again!
But I digress!
I do admire the Australian cricket team for their ability to play good, strong, hard, committed cricket. They are the best cricket team in the world today. Of that there is no doubt in my mind. I have played club cricket in Australia to know that they receive solid grounding at the grass-roots level. They are polished and grounded in every aspect of the game right from a young age — the committment to training, the seriousness with which they take their sport, the winning habit, as well as the sledging!
Lest you think otherwise, let me state that I am not a puritan. I believe that if players want to sledge, they should. However, they should also learn that if they give it, they should be prepared to take it too. It has been reported that Parthiv Patel whispered to Steve Waugh, “Go on mate. Give us one last slog-sweep.” in that famous last Test in Sydney that Australia hung on to dear life to save. Steve Waugh is reported to have said, “Give us some respect young lad. You were in your nappies when I started playing cricket”!
Duh! So, there are rules for “appropriate and proper sledging”?
Mind you, I do have a lot of respect for Steve Waugh. He did not suffer fools. He played hard and overcame all sorts of obstacles to become a true legend of the game. But could he really take it as well as he dished out his “mental disintegration”? He was tested by Saurav Ganguly and in my view, he “disintegrated” himself. Saurav Ganguly’s toss-tactics and return-sledges during the famous Laxman-281 series made Steve Waugh boil. Perhaps the great Waugh had been beaten at his own game?
The recurring theme of this piece is whether the Australians can take it as good as they dish it out? I am yet to be convinced of that.
Another strong thread is around “ground rules” for sledging. The Australians seem to think that there is a “line in the sand”.
My view is that those who throw stones in the gutter should expect a splash or two to soil their own clothes. There are no anti-splash rules once you throw that stone in.
McGrath just can not claim “but there’s a line in the sand and comments about my wife are not on”. He himself is reported to have sledged Sarawan with the choice words — “So what does Lara’s **** taste like?” When the answer was, “I don’t know mate, you should ask your wife that.”, he exploded as only McGrath can. There was talk about lines in the sand. Where? Why?
I don’t get it. Where does McGrath get his halo from?
The Australians are a good cricket team. Of that I have no doubt. They are hard-nosed and bloody-nosed. I umpired for 4-5 seasons principally to learn more about the Aussies and the way they tick. They play hard and work hard. But they are also willing to (and they do) play the “mental disintegration” card at all levels. They are taught to play hard and train hard. And they are good at it. They are taught to sledge and they are terrific at it.
So it is not surprising that Warne, Martyn, Watson, Hayden, McGrath, Healy, Chappell, Border, Ponting, et al turn out the way they do!
I do admire them as people of immense calibre. I just do not admire them as sportsmen.
To be “a sport” is to be fair, even-handed, respectful and level-headed in things that you do in the sporting field — and these days, out of it too. Impact comes not merely from the number of cups that one has in ones trophy cabinet. History differentiates great sporting teams from good ones on the basis of how the team played and not merely on how many cups the team won. Long lasting success comes only if the ‘means’ and the ‘ends’ are balanced. The end rarely justifies the means.
A true champion (and almost everyones’ sporting hero), will be a Roger Federer or a Tiger Woods or a Sachin Tendulkar. They enjoy their sport. They play fair. They play hard. They play strong. They dig deep when their backs are to the wall. They query bad calls. But they get on with it. They have fun. They leave an impression. They are modest. They are level-headed. They are geniuses. They are also as good on the field as they are out of it. They are icons. They are role-models.
We like them not just because they win. That is a fact. They just do! We like them because of the way they win.
I will applaud when Federer or Tiger Woods or Tendulkar win (for they are true champions). I will also empathise with them when they lose.
However, I will continue to rejoice (along with the whole world, perhaps?) when Australia loses. The difference is that they are champions of the game (temporary). They are not champions of the sport (permanent).
So it does depend on ones outlook. Do we want temporary success or permanent glory?
May be it is time for the Aussies to ponder why almost the whole cricketing world dislikes them. If they believe the world hates them because they keep winning, they need to look at Federer and Tiger Woods (habitual winners who are loved) of the world and learn a bit.