India vs Australia, 2nd Test: Ishant Sharma, Steve Smith's sledging sans the sledgehammer is welcome

There were 154 balls in the morning session. That was 29 overs of grinding cricket. Just 47 runs were scored. Strike that. Just 47 runs scraped. Only one wicket lost, only one wicket claimed. But don't be fooled. It was far from boring. For those 120 minutes, not an eyeball wavered. For those 7,200 seconds, even the most wandering of gazes was transfixed. And there was a collective creak heard every ball, as thousands of seats groaned from the strain on their edges.

It was hard Test cricket. But the best part was the smiles on the field.

Ishant making a funny face during Day 2 of the Bengaluru Test against Austraia. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @CricketAus

Ishant making a funny face during Day 2 of the Bengaluru Test against Austraia. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @CricketAus

Again, don't be fooled. There were some insults traded, particularly during the drinks break, when they were plastered over by ads for pink passwords and bereaved wives. But while the cameras were rolling, the players were trolling each other without a word spoken in anger. Ishant Sharma should easily win next year's Oscar in the 'Best Actor in a Horror Film' category for the faces he made. The very next ball, Steve Smith forgot he was an Australian and postured like he was doing the haka, as if his body movements were not exaggerated enough already. He bats with the certainty of a cat landing on its feet, but before and after playing the ball, twitches like a cat being electrocuted. Here he was like a cat being electrocuted on a trampoline.

It had all started in the previous Test, with Ravindra Jadeja enacting a silent pantomime of Smith. There, Smith reacted with a pitch-defying hundred. Here, Jadeja found the early edge. But the show was not done. Matt Renshaw, all youthful exuberance, played along too. Stares were met with smiles; venom from the pitch was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. It seemed you could throw anything at this 20-year-old, and he would still react in a way that endeared him to you, like Marshall Eriksen, the giant and gentle character from 'How I Met Your Mother'. And this was in a situation where the tension was so high, and there was so much on the line, that a spark could set alight even wires that don't catch fire.

And yet, there was hardly a word spoken in anger. Barely did the umpires have to step in. Fingers were shown, but only by the umpire. There was no mention of anyone's wives, sisters or mothers, or any body parts. The teams were clearly having a go at each other, but not in the way you expect Smith's Australia and Virat Kohli's India to do so. There was banter out there, but it was spoken in body language, without being coarse. It was sledging 2.0.

We have seen it before. Remember Wahab Riaz versus Shane Watson in the 2015 World Cup? If you have forgotten, then revisit it now. No swearing, just searing short-pitched bowling. And some well-placed, passive, aggressive claps in the follow through. Remember how much fun that was? And the only words Wahab said, more to his teammates than Watson, were "Come on".

Now think back to the somewhat ugly interaction Kohli and Smith had in 2014 at Adelaide, after an appeal against Rohit Sharma. As a viewer, which of three did you enjoy watching more?

Personally, I feel abuse has no place on a cricket field. Most other sports get on fine without it. Imagine Abhinav Bindra cursing the referee or Dipa Karmakar sledging Simone Biles! Sledging is another of those patriarchal traditions that cricket is weighed down by, like the 'spirit of cricket'. Sledging should have died after the tragedy that followed the alleged 'I'm going to kill you' sledge in November 2014.

Those who insist that sledging has always been a part of cricket need to have a look at Sunday's play in Bengaluru and tell us what we lost because of the explicit lack of abuse. I am not asking for players to be automatons, always wielding poker faces. The field is the one place where they need to express themselves. But as they showed on Sunday, they can try to disintegrate a player's mental control, or in Renshaw's case, his bowel control, while having a laugh.

"We need to get away from this mentality of 'we've all played the game, you've got to be tougher, you've got to be harder, you've got be noisier, you've got to be louder', because it's basically bulls***," Trent Woodhill told Fox sports earlier this year. Woodhill was coach of the Melbourne Stars and also advises Smith and David Warner on batting. The mentality he spoke of is still widely prevalent; it poked its head above the ground when Renshaw ran off the field in Pune, and Allan Border expressed his unhappiness.

But players nowadays are toning it down and it's not surprising. The Indian Premier League (IPL) has played a big role in breaking down identity borders over the last decade. Mitchell Starc's first ball to Kohli was a swinging yorker, which the batsman just about dug out. Pre-IPL, you could imagine a few choice words from an Australian fast bowler to an Indian batsman after the perfect yorker. Now, it was a smile and a chuckle from both parties, as if they were reliving a moment they had shared in the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) nets. Never has the global game been more global, never have there been as many overlapping identities, multiple loyalties, and perhaps even as many friendships.

There is also the shift in the attitudes of the two teams to consider. Cricket Australia is making a deliberate effort to move from the realms of cricket being a 'blokey' sport to a family-friendly one. Test matches and Big Bash League (BBL) games alike are marketed as opportunities for families to come to the cricket. There is real respect and a movement towards parity for women's cricket. Just as a young man might temper his lexicon in the presence of a woman, cricket in Australia seems to be slowly but surely moving away from the time when comments about a player's wife were common and accepted. It's foolhardy to sledge Starc about his wife, considering she is the Australian national wicketkeeper.

The younger generation of players are less concerned about being tough and holding it till lunch. No one is a better poster boy for this turnaround than Warner. Once associated with a punch in a 'walkabout', the teetotaler has now earned the nickname 'Reverend', and the Australian vice-captaincy.

While cricket is far from a game for the entire family in India, there have been moves in the right direction. The recent marketing campaign where the players sported their mothers' names on their shirts might have given pause to the few who were used to 'motherly' abuse. But more than anything, with Kohli now assuming captaincy in all departments, this is his team. Unlike Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who stepped back and let the players express themselves, Kohli is directly or indirectly moulding this team in his image. Three years ago, as the captain in waiting, he was a firecracker waiting to go off. Only with a bat in his hand did he seem to find an instrument to focus his energy into.

Captaincy has been a similar tool for him. Today, Kohli is more aware of the responsibility that comes with his title and station, and is far removed from the 'spoiled brat' image of 2014. He does have his moments, like the evening session on Sunday showed, but he seems to want to be in control more often. And his teammates are taking the cue from him.

The removal of malice and the addition of a smile can only be good for the game. The term sledging is supposed to have come from the phrase, 'as subtle as a sledgehammer'. Sunday showed us why cricket would be richer if we have more of the 'subtle', and throw away the 'sledgehammer'.

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2017 12:32 PM

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