Talk about the Ashes and the first thing that comes to mind is rivalry. No holds barred rivalry. The oldest tussle in cricket, between two teams with incredible pedigree, and with years and years of history behind them. England and Australia were two of the earliest purveyors of this magnificent game and have over nearly 150 years of sparring conjured up moments that have become etched in the hearts and minds of every cricket romantic.
There have been superhuman performances by players who have pushed every limit to excel, becoming legends themselves in the process, and leaving behind a treasure trove of narratives. One's mind readily jogs back to that stunning double ton by Kevin Pietersen at Adelaide in 2010, Mitchell Johnson breathing fire at the same venue a few years down the line, Ian Botham's gilt-edged all-round shows, the grit of Steve Waugh, the guile of Shane Warne, the infamous Bodyline, the 'Ball of the Century' – it has been a kaleidoscope of memories.
And when the competition is so intense, tempers are bound to get frayed, sparks are bound to fly, and it has been known to spare not even the most stoic of individuals. Moreover, the Australians have always been known to engage in banter with their opposition, some of which a bit more personal than called for, even to the point of being unparliamentary. It has always been part of their strategy, and this invariably elicits a response, even if not always fitting.
Let's mine the history books to find some of the top Ashes sledges, or what the Australians would like to call, 'mental disintegration' of the opposition. Some are hilarious, some downright rude, some below the belt, but all encapsulate the enormity of the rivalry. Here is a collection:
"Now which of you b****rds called this b****rd a b****rd?"
Nothing exemplifies the England-Australia acrimony on the cricket field better than the Bodyline series in 1932-33. Perturbed by the threat posed by Don Bradman, who had scored 974 runs in five Tests against them in 1930, England adopted a strategy, which many consider had sullied the gentleman's game.
England captain Douglas Jardine let loose his pack of pacers – Harold Larwood, Bill Voce, Bill Bowes and Gubby Allen – on the shell-shocked Australians with the mandate to target the bodies of the batsmen. In those days of minimal protection and no field restrictions, this strategy was as savage as it was effective. The fields were packed with close-in catchers on the leg side, lying in wait for the ball to pop up as the batsmen tried to fend, or pull. Bradman was kept relatively quiet in that series, and Australian wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield sustained a cracked skull. Many of the other Australian batsmen were bruised. England went on to win the series 4-1.
This series made the English team really unpopular in Australia and Jardine the enemy No 1. So it was no surprise that when Jardine complained to his Australian counterpart Bill Woodfull about the Australians swearing at him, the latter addressed his teammates, saying, "Now which of you b****rds called this b****rd a b****rd?"
The Bodyline series even worsened the diplomatic relations between the two countries, and there was a fear of riots breaking out. The crowd did get involved though, and when Jardine was seen swatting away a few flies at the boundary, Yabba (Stephen Harold Gascoigne) – infamous for being a heckler who got under the skin of opposition players at the Sydney Cricket Ground – called out, "Leave our flies alone, Jardine. They’re the only friends you’ve got here."
That's not all. No discussion on the sledges and quotes from the Bodyline series would be complete without Woodfull's immortal lines: "There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not."
“Get ready for a broken f***ing arm.”
England were Down Under for a return series in 2013, having beaten Australia 3-0 in the series before. The Aussies were smarting from that loss and in the first Test in Brisbane, Mitchell Johnson and Co had the tourists on the mat. Towards the end of Day 4, England were staring at certain defeat as James Anderson walked in as the last batsman, with the target still light years away. As expected, the Australians, particularly George Bailey, fielding close to the batsman, tried to ruffle Anderson. The Englishman hit back with a verbal volley of his own, threatening to punch Bailey.
At this Australian captain Michael Clarke got involved and warned Anderson, "Get ready for a broken f***ing arm," in an obvious reference to the tailender facing up to Johnson who was bowling thunderbolts. Anderson soon fell, giving a return catch to Johnson, who finished with match figures of 9/103 and Australia won the Test by 381 runs.
“If you turn the bat over there're instructions on the back.”
An absolute gem this! The Zimbabwe-born Graeme Hick was one of the finest batsmen that ever played for England, but he had had his difficulties facing Merv Hughes. Exasperated by Hick repeatedly playing and missing, the burly Australian pacer, known as much for his sharp and caustic tongue, as for imposing figure, complete with a thick moustache, and hostile bowling, once told Hick, "If you turn the bat over there’re instructions on the back.”
Hughes was indeed one of the most vile sledgers in the history of cricket. An avid follower of Ashes history would easily remember his run-in with England batsman Robin Smith.
“You can’t f***ing bat,” Hughes told Smith. The England batsmen hit Hughes for a boundary and retorted, “Hey Merv, we make a fine pair. I can’t f***ing bat and you can’t f***ing bowl.”
The trash-talking was renewed four years later. Hughes started it all again. “It’s four years since I bowled to you and you haven’t improved,” said the intimidating Aussie. Smith hit Hughes for a four again and remarked, “Neither have you.”
Then there was the incident when Hughes told Graham Gooch, “Would you like me to bowl a piano and see if you can play that?”
“I know you think I’m great Hoggy, but no need to get down on your knees.”
If Hughes was the bad boy from the Australian side, Ian Botham would take the cake hands down from the England camp. There was a time when Rodney Hogg lost his balance while bowling and fell down. Botham was standing nearby, and quipped, "“I know you think I’m great Hoggy, but no need to get down on your knees.”
Then there was another occasion when Rodney Marsh asked Botham, "How’s your wife and my kids?” The irrepressible 'Beefy' replied: “The wife’s fine, but the kids are retarded.”
“You’ve got an MBE, right? For scoring 17 at The Oval? That’s embarrassing.”
No list of sledges would be complete without the maverick Shane Warne featuring in it. The spin wizard was not too far away from Hughes and Botham in terms of mastery over the art of sledging.
When Paul Collingwood was awarded the MBE as part of the Ashes-winning England team of 2005, Warne chose to shame Collingwood, pointing out how he did not deserve the award. Collingwood's sole contribution in the series was 17 runs at The Oval. Every member of that England side were, however, conferred the MBE.
There was another occasion when Warne and Clarke, having watched American Pie decided to needle Ian Bell with 'Sherminator' references, given his purported physical resemblance to the geeky character from the film.
“What do you think this is, a f***ing tea party? No, you can’t have a f***ing glass of water, you can f***ing wait like the rest of us.”
When a visibly thirsty Robin Smith asked for a glass of water in the Trent Bridge Test in 1989, Australian captain Allan Border went into a fit of rage. It was the last day of the fifth match of that series, and Australia were leading 3-0 with a match to go.
“What do you think this is, a f***ing tea party? No, you can’t have a f***ing glass of water, you can f***ing wait like the rest of us,” Border burst out and turned down Smith's request for water.
"Wooooooh! Don't worry, Shane, you can sleep in my bed tonight."
The 2005 tour of England was troublesome for the Australians, to say the least. If the Ashes loss wasn't enough, they complained of ghost sightings at the ancient Lumley Castle hotel in Durham. Such was the fear of the occult that all-rounder Shane Watson abandoned his room and slept on the floor of teammate Brett Lee's room. This made the Australians the butt of ridicule in the rival camp.
"Scare dinkum – Aussies caught by the ghoulies at 'haunted' hotel," wrote The Sun, and an amused England pacer Darren Gough advised Watson during the ODIs just after the Test series, "Wooooooh! Don't worry, Shane, you can sleep in my bed tonight."
Jimmy Ormond vs Mark Waugh
Australia were leading 3-1 and in the last match of the series at The Oval in 2001, the junior Waugh told England bowler Ormond, "Mate, what are you doing out here, there's no way you're good enough to play for England."
Ormond had a forgettable outing in that match, going for 115 runs at 3.38 runs per over, claiming just a solitary wicket, while Waugh slammed a century. Ormond went on to play only one more Test ever, and so there could have been some merit in Waugh's observation, but Ormond's retort was deadly. "Maybe not, but at least I'm the best player in my family," Ormond told Waugh. For the record, Mark's elder brother Steve also scored a century in that match – a sublime 157.
“Get back to the slips, Ponting. Who do you think you are, Steve Waugh?”
Ricky Ponting clearly got some of his own medicine back when he tried to sledge Michael Vaughan, who had just come in to bat.
There have been numerous other incidents of banter between the two sets of players over the years, with the crowd often getting into the act. Some of the more hilarious ones include:
Ian Healy: “That could be anywhere inside a three-mile radius.” (after Steve Waugh had instructed Ponting to field under the nose of Nasser Hussain).
Australian fan to Phil Tufnell: "Oi, Tufnell! Can I borrow your brain? I’m building an idiot."
English fan to Matthew Hayden (after one of Hayden's cookbooks were released in 2005): "You’re s**t Hayden, and so is your chicken casserole."
Dennis Lillee to Mike Gatting (in an obvious jibe at Gatting's burly figure): “Hell, Gatt, move out of the way, I can’t see the stumps.”
There was also an incident of friendly fire when Gooch pulled teammate Gatting's leg after the latter was consumed by the 'Ball of the Century' by Warne.
“If it had been a cheese roll, it wouldn’t have got past him,” said Gooch.