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Sledging down a slippery slope

BY TIM MIDDLETON

WE have always argued that sport is meant to be fun. If we are not enjoying the experience, then something is amiss.

To an extent, we can saee that in the banter displayed between players. From the old clichés of “You can’t beat a carpet” and “You can’t catch a cold” to the slightly more expansive one told by the Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes when bowling to the English batsman Graham Gooch, “Would you like me to bowl a piano and see if you can play that”.

In a bygone era, another great fast bowler, the Englishman Fred Trueman was fielding near the gate from the pavilion and when the new batter came out and turned around to shut the gate. “Don’t bother son,” said Trueman, “you won’t be out there long enough”. In an Australian provincial match, Steve Waugh was taking his time taking his guard, at which point a less well-known opponent said, “It’s not a Test match”. Waugh, undaunted, simply replied, “Of course it isn’t, you’re here”.

There is nothing wrong, after all, with a bit of banter and teasing. But when does it become what is commonly referred to in sporting circles as “sledging”? Sledging is defined as a means to gain an advantage over the opponent by insulting or intimidating that player in order to disrupt his concentration and to make a mistake. It is intended to have a two-sided effect; it is meant to psyche a player up and to put his opponent off. The Australian cricketer Shane Warne admitted that “Sledging is an effective cricketing weapon”, though his use of the terminology of “weapon” would suggest he has gone overboard in his assessment — since when do sportsmen need weapons?

Some sportsmen argue that sledging is part and parcel of the game and that, “If there’s no sledging, there won’t be any enjoyment left in the game,” that “sledging has a certain charm about it” while others recognise that “It’s fine to do whatever you can to upset the opposition as long as you don’t get personal.” Such players, including the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, speak of the line which must not be crossed, of the need to establish limits. At the opposite extreme, the great West Indian fast bowler Curtly Ambrose, states strongly that “Sledging is very childish and beneath contempt.”

Indeed, we can take this further and point out that a player should really have to earn the right to sledge. No-one will get very far with his sledging if he cannot perform well himself; otherwise the comments will come back to bite him even more keenly. After all, as the saying goes, if you live by the sword (of sledging), you will die by it. We would earn the right to sledge by being a better player. However, the obvious fact often neglected is that if we are a better player, then we will have no reason or need to resort to sledge! In such a way we become a better person, once again underlying the crucial role of a coach in developing the person more than the player. If a player has to resort to sledging, he is no longer a great player because he fails as a person. In simple terms, it comes down to this: if we have respect, there is no sledging; if there is sledging, there is no respect.

Seasoned players often will retort, in response to such charges, that sportsmen have to be aggressive and that will be seen in their mental (and verbal) approach. However, the sports field is not a different place where different rules apply. We do not stand for aggression in the car park, in the playground; we do not accept intimidation in the classroom or the work place. Both are clearly forms of bullying, of abuse, of trying to get our own way by exerting forceful language.

Perhaps sportsmen have not realised that if they are expending so much mental energy and physical breath in expressing their opinions of the opponents’ situation, then they are not working or playing hard enough; save the breath for the sport and apply the mental focus on the match! As coaches, we must teach our players not to sledge but to realise that they must become better people in order to become better players. In simple terms, if players do sledge, they should not be selected.

Sledging has all the subtlety and finesse of taking a sledgehammer to break a nut; it is unnecessary and crude, lacking dignity and respect, for opponents, team mates, officials and the sports’ values. It is cheap, underhand, childish and immature. We would show more maturity in applauding the opponent’s good play, in appreciating the greater skills displayed in sport. We are heading down a slippery slope when we resort to sledging. If we do not stop the sledging, then we should be told, “Don’t bother, son” but rather be shown the gate as we will not be out there long enough.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email: ceo@atschisz.co.zw

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