I have been taking a vacation during the holiday period and spent a lot of the time watching cricket. I am not sure when it became the norm in sports to openly exult over victory and to taunt the opponents. Nowadays it seems routine to do fist pumps, finger pointing, and engage in other exaggerated celebrations over every single achievement. I know that Mohammed Ali made taunting an opponent part of his standard behavior and maybe he can claim the dubious credit for starting the practice.
In cricket, such behavior used to be considered bad form and strongly frowned upon but the practice of players on the field trying to unsettle the opponents by abusing them with insulting or derogatory remarks seems to have now become widespread. When a batsmen is out, the fielders often give him a ‘send off’ in this fashion by insulting him as he leaves the field. This verbal warfare in cricket has its own label of ‘sledging’.
Sidharth Monga argues that this has gone too far and that the efforts by officials to try and crack down on the practice are not enough and that even young children now see it as part of the way to play the game.
The damage, though, is done: go to any maidan in Mumbai and you will see school kids use some of the vilest abuse you will ever hear. A Mumbai coach in the mid-2000s told off a new import for not playing cricket the Mumbai way, for not abusing the batsmen.
Monga says that even as late as the 1990s such behavior was rare but that it is possible that it was more common in the past and it is the current intense media focus that has not only highlighted the practice but created more pressure on the players to succeed at any cost and that is being manifested in such ugly ways.
Yet, that it happened in the past too, that the pressures are higher today, should not be the reason to continue with abuse on the field. Personal abuse and ugly send-offs can be stamped out. Remember, some of the most celebrated and effective sledges have been inconspicuous. It is not a battlefield out there, no matter the number of war clichés spouted by lazy commentators and journalists. It might not be any worse than in the past, pressures might be bringing out the worst in the players, but it’s never too late to start making a change for the better.
Just recently I came across a video of the great England fast bowler Freddie Trueman’s career best performances back in the 1960s. What I noticed was that after he took a wicket, he simply rolled up his sleeves and walked back to bowl again. None of the wild exuberance and gloating over the victim that is common today where the fall of every wicket seems to be a signal for the entire fielding team to converge and celebrate the event. Even the occasion of Trueman getting his 300th wicket, something that had never been achieved before, had very little in terms of celebrations and the batsman he got out congratulated him.
I really miss those days of letting the quality of your play be the highlight, not the histrionics around it.