Test cricket has no parallel in modern sports. No other sporting contest is spread out over one and a half months where one team is touring another country and playing the same opposition over and over. A Test series isn’t just a sporting contest, it’s almost a mini siege. No wonder you hear terms like “conquer” and “fortress” thrown around during discussions on Test cricket.
Along with the men engaged in battle, the spectacle of Test cricket galvanises the media and fans of the two nations across battle lines. Over the past two decades, nothing symbolises this more than an India vs Australia Test series featuring two rich cricketing nations both in terms of history and clout, each boasting of vocal media and fans.
Australians are well known for their in-your-face brand of cricket. David Warner justified their style a couple of years ago by saying “the guys before us played it like that”. Indeed the former greats frown at the slightest show of “softness”, as Shane Warne described Mitchell Starc during India’s last tour of Australia. Allan Border, expressing his disappointment with a young guy retiring to answer the nature’s call during Australia’s first inning at Pune said, “I hope he's lying on the table in there half dead”.
In Virat Kohli as the opposition captain, Australians have found someone who is equally in-your-face and many Australians have claimed him as one of their own. Australia’s previous captain, Michael Clarke, recently said, “I always somehow find an Australian in him the way he plays.”
But there is more to Kohli than the trademark Australian toughness. He learnt his game on the streets of West Delhi in a cricketing system that is an administrative mess but provides intense competition where only the toughest survive. There is a line in a Bollywood movie where a character introduces himself by saying, “Dilli se hoon, *****” (I am from Delhi, *expletives*). That’s enough of an introduction to someone who knows what life in Delhi is about. Kohli himself said in an interview on how the Delhi life shaped up his character, “You don’t really go out there and take unnecessary things being said to you from anyone. I follow that in life, I follow that in cricket as well.”
The pre-series build-up for this Australian tour was full of discussions related to sledging and verbal battles. It almost seemed at one point that the Australian strategy to negotiate the turning ball is to hurl abuses at it. Special attention was given to how the players can get under the skin of Virat Kohli. Steve Waugh went on to suggest that the Australians might want to provoke Kohli to get an advantage in their battle.
A lot of the times you hear the players saying that sledging is something that happens in the heat of the battle. But if you are building your plans around getting under the skin of certain players and declaring open war in newspapers before even taking the flight for your tour, then you are using sledging and verbal abuse as a strategy.
Test cricket is a demanding game. Tempers are bound to fly when players are under severe mental stress for several days. The pre-series goading and battle call only make matters worse as we have already seen in this series where the talking point has been DRS-gate or shoulder-gate instead of Cheteshwar Pujara’s double hundred. The final Test may see things getting even more heated up as the teams would do everything in their power to seal the series. As the old saying goes, ‘Everything is fair in love, war and a Test series tied at 1-1’.
Surprisingly, some people in the Australian media aren’t too pleased with how the players are behaving. Kohli has been singled out for breaching the spirit of cricket with his behaviour. It’s a hypocritical argument from people who called for blood in the first place and are now crying foul when the players are scarred.
Kohli has also received some flak for spilling the beans on what goes on between players on the field in his press conferences. This is a breach of that phoney, antiquated and mostly male-dominated notion of sports being a battle of men who compete hard on the field using fair or at times foul means but never talk about it after they leave the field. The world has moved on from such fake ideals but cricket is still stuck with it as part of its historical identity.
As a player, wouldn’t it be much easier if you don’t do anything on the field that would embarrass you if someone talks about it outside? If someone doesn’t want to give an eye for an eye and abuse for an abuse on the field, then it is completely acceptable if he goes about his job quietly and calls out anything inappropriate on the field when his job is done.
After the Bangalore Test, Steve Waugh expressed his displeasure with Kohli when he said, “There is a fine line between revving the crowd up when the bowler is running in.” The thing about fine lines is, no one has the sole right to draw them. Revving up the crowd is indeed unsettling for the batsman and may be bad sportsmanship too but chirping in batsman’s ears between deliveries to cause “mental disintegration” is also unsettling and can be done away with.
If you believe that taking the verbal battles out of the game will make it dull and boring, then you have to look no further than one of the most exciting cricket teams in recent years, Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand. In his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture last year, McCullum revealed that after much soul searching, their team figured out that sledging didn’t fit into New Zealand culture. They wanted to be an embodiment of traits that they identified in New Zealanders — to be humble and hardworking. They wanted to earn opposition’s respect but before that, they wanted to learn to respect the opposition first. The result was a liberation for players and fans and restored a feeling of joy to what was supposed to be a game and not a life and death struggle.
McCullum went on to say in his lecture that he doesn’t think that his team was setting an example on how the game should be played. They just figured out what worked for them. It will not be prudent though to ignore the example his team set. In a game that is striving to get more professional, the menace of sledging somehow continues to get worse. Many former players including Ian Chappell have argued a ban on sledging by empowering umpires to contain and punish any unnecessary chirping on the field directed at an opponent.
A professionally run game watched by millions of kids around the world can’t depend on some internal bro-code of male bravado arbitrarily set by players that draws the line on abuse. Left to them, serious altercations or fist fights on the field may not be too distant. The ICC can take matters into their hands and introduce zero tolerance for personal abuse on the field. Let’s set protocols for good conduct on the field, bad conduct deserves punishment, not protocols.