For a working stiff like me watching televised World Cup matches on weekdays is a no-no. Weekdays means office, and tracking the matches via live commentary from Cricinfo on the computer screen. So there I was on the 14th during the Bangladesh v Netherlands match, keeping an eye on the cricket when suddenly things got interesting.
Mushfiqur Rahim, had stumped the Dutch batsman Kervezee. And then did something that caught the commentator’s eye: “Rahim does the stumping, takes a couple of steps forward, gets close to the departing batsman and then screams/jeers right in his face. Kervezee was stunned at that reaction from the keeper, had a stern look at Rahim as he walked away. No need for that extreme reaction. Too much.”
And a couple of other people tracking the match on the net chimed in a few deliveries later. Rachit wrote: “That was a real cheap shot from Rahim, Netherlands usually play quite cricket and hardly do any sledging, that was really unnecessary and uncalled for…very bad..” And then smudgeon came online: “Disappointing stuff from Rahim. Bangladesh usually plays in the right spirit, that is uncharacteristic, but perhaps a one-off…”
But was it really that bad on Rahim’s part? That match was a must-win for Bangladesh, and Rahim had obviously come pumped up (one is sure Jamie Siddons must have let loose with a fiery pre-match oration in the dressing room), and of course the crowd in the stadium was in full cry. Shouldn’t the keeper be allowed to let all that energy out? He’s just had a stumping. What is he supposed to do, bottle it up?
But more than that, there is the question of playing in order to bludgeon an opponent to the ground and then finish it off by stepping on his throat, of playing hard and ruthless, of playing a game of take no prisoners. This is modern day cricket, challenging and played for keeps, and it’s time Bangladesh adapted, stopped being pussy cats on the field. Nice guys finish last. And if the first step in the adaptation is to show a bit of aggression, to yell and scream at the opposition, then so be it. If it means stepping on necks and sledging, so be it. Right now as I’m writing this Bangladesh has just lost to South Africa — their fleet at the bottom of the sea, burning hulls all around in the sea. Maybe it’s time to look to the Aussies and learn about getting hard and ruthless.
Those Aussies! Ian Chappell describes the process in his autobiography, Chappelli: “… although we didn’t deliberately set out to be a ‘bunch of bastards’ when we walked on to the field, I’d much prefer any team I captained to be described like that than as ‘a nice bunch of blokes on the field.’ As captain of Australia my philosophy was simple: between 11.00am and 6.00pm there was no time to be a nice guy. I believed that on the field players should concentrate on giving their best to the team, to themselves and to winning; in other words, playing hard and fairly within the rules. To my mind, doing all that left no time for being a nice guy.”
The change in the Aussies came after they lost the Ashes to England’s Mike Gatting’s side during the 1986-87 tour by the Brits. The Australian press bayed for blood: “The Australian selectors couldn’t even pick Bill Lawry’s nose”! That year was a huge turning point in Anglo-Australian encounters. From then on Australia adopted an entirely different attitude. They appointed a full time coach, Bobby Simpson, to knock their team into shape. They vowed never to be pleasant on the field to anyone ever again (the previously well-behaved Aussie captain Allan Border turned into Captain Scowl, ably aided by the ever taciturn Steve Waugh at his side.) The Aussie batting mantra became ‘It’s not how, it’s how many.’ Ugly runs were just as good as stylish ones. Runs were runs. And once the new Australian team was forged, it was simply a matter of time till they toppled the West Indies from their perch.
It came in the spring of 1995, when they toured the West Indies and the final battle took place in Jamaica with the series poised at 1-1. The West Indian fast bowlers threw everything they had at the Aussies. Steve Waugh especially came in for a hostile interrogation, facing an unprecedented barrage of bouncers and just plain outright abuse on the field. There was even a thief in his hotel bedroom. But unbowed, defining the new Aussie toughness, he recorded his first double century, and put on 231 with his twin brother, Mark, who also made a hundred. The Aussies won and took the Frank Worrell trophy home.
As they say, Hello!
Compared to that, what’s a little scream to an opposing batsman? Besides, the Dutch, as we saw in the Football World Cup, know a little about playing very hard. They should be able to take it.
Then there’s sledging, which in popular terms has come to mean on-field abuse. The term comes from the Aussie ‘Making a comment as subtle as a sledgehammer.’ Everybody with any street cred in cricket has his or her favourite sledge. Mine is Ian Botham’s to Rodney Marsh. When Ian came out to bat in an Ashes match Australian keeper greeted him with “So how’s your wife and my kids?”
Ian’s reply was “Wife’s fine. Kids are retarded.”
Trawl the Web and you’ll come up with more of the same. Take your pick.
Sledging is part of the game. And some people – Ratchit and smudgeon excluded – actually welcome it as a sign of the cricket they expect, as contests between teams perfectly willing to slug it out. Nicky Campbell, writing about the on-field behaviour of the Aussie ex-fast bowler Merv Hughes, put it very poetically in The Guardian: “Sledging is one of the redeeming features of cricket. It reassures this agnostic that the game has a pulse and swipes Robin Williams’ description of it as ‘baseball on Valium’ into a cocked white panama hat.
It also whacks that preposterously naff public school sense of fair play balderdash right out the ground. Ah yes, the two most reassuring sounds for an English gentleman – leather on willow and leather on buttocks. I love the blistering psychological ferocity of a Test match and in that cauldron, bar racist taunting, there is every place for psychological subterfuge. As Shane Warne says: ‘Anybody who plays us will be tested both physically and mentally. If they aren’t up to it, we’ll win easily.’ Game on then.”
But actual sledging is an altogether different beast. It can be a highly effective weapon in the modern cricketing arsenal, fashioned and refined as it was by the Aussies – ‘mental destruction’, in the unforgettable words of Steve Waugh. Needle the guy at the crease to make him lose his cool and get out. Test him mentally! And here lessons can be learnt by Bangladesh. And who better to learn it from than Mike Atherton. Atherton, ex-England captain, a very readable cricketing blogger on The Times, good school, plummy regimental tie, i.e., as respectable a figure of the cricketing establishment as you can get.
Yet, in the India v Ireland match, when Yuvraj had run out Virat Kohli, who was looking in very good nick at 34, Mike sitting in the commentary box began a riff on sledging. Maybe, he suggested in cool tones, reducing his fellow commentators to stitches, Ireland could make Yuvraj lose his cool and get his wicket. By very gently reminding him of the way he had run out his team mate. Why not, suggested Atherton, remind Yuvraj that he had been very dumb to run out Virat? Why not tell him, hey, Yuvran, nice going, why not now do it to your new partner. Why not say, hey, Yubi, you this stupid all the time? You run out good people so that you can bat and make your runs and be the glory boy while other better batsmen are back in the pavilion? Is that why you do it, Yuvraj?
But beneath the laughter there was a serious message. Sledged properly by the Irish right then when Yuvraj was vulnerable and feeling guilty, with Virat’s hot glance at him still burning, it might have made Yuvraj lose his cool, lash out, make a mistake, and the Irish could have had his scalp. And then who knows how the match would have turned out. Atherton knows his stuff.
Could Bangladesh learn something here? Could Amla have had a few choice words from the Bangladeshis buzzing in his ear when he was closing in 25 runs? As in ‘Hey, Amla, you sure you can see the ball with that beard?’ ‘You want a shave, buddy?’ Who knows what would have happened if Amla had lost his cool and his poise. Worth a try, especially when in the end you have gone down for 78 runs! What is there to lose except a losing reputation? And for Pakistan and India, there should be especially choice phrases, especially loaded stuff. And if they give it back, take it, and give it back double. Spare no one, give no respect, spare not even Sachin! And as Bangladesh tears off the veils maybe a new, more winning cricketing persona will emerge.
The Bangladesh cricket team needs to have all the weapons at its disposal. They have been far too well behaved on the field. It is a behaviour that is understandable, that is tied to being a ‘minnow’ among the Test sides, which produces the anxiety of performance and the consequent fear of behaving badly, which cuts down swagger and ruthlessness, and enforces on-field niceness and extra politesse.
It could also be natural to a culture that habitually overdoses on Rabindranath. How can anybody consistently wallop the ball over the boundary line, can be forcing wins by sheer grit and mental cussedness, draw blood in the field when you’ve been fed a staple diet of:
Jak Puraton Sriti, Jak Bhule Jaoya Giti
Jak Aashru Bashpo Shudure Milak,
Jak, Jak, Ayesho Ayesho…
Ayesho Hey Boishak Ayesho Ayesho
Ayesho Hey Boishak Ayesho Ayesho…
This stuff makes you surrender the match before you have even tossed the coin! This stuff will make you go:
Jak, jak… match jak!
I say we should start sledging with the best of them. And that Mushfiqur is on the right path – show some aggression. That we put a moratorium on Rabindranath for the next ten years. For the sake of our cricket.
We could also hire Mike Atherton as consultant to the team on the very fine art of sledging. I’d be honoured to begin the negotiations.
Khademul Islam is a Bangladeshi writer, editor and critic.