Sledging at the Gabba
There's an awful lot I don't know about cricket. I wouldn't know a beamer from a full toss, or square leg from silly mid-off. And until last weekend I thought sledging was something you did down a snowy slope.
I'd actually rather watch football or rugby than cricket. But sometimes I get quite excited about the Ashes. It's proper cricket, subtle and almost intriguing, not like that garish Twenty-20 or ODI stuff. And there's nothing quite as satisfying as beating the Aussies, especially on their home turf. That's largely because, as someone who shall remain nameless once said: 'The Australians: surly in defeat, overbearing in victory'.
There's already been an Ashes series this year: England won 3-0 (+ 2 draws) in July and August in the UK. Now there's another in Australia, which seems too soon but it's all to do with breaking a biennial sequence that meant there was always an Ashes series in Australia before a Cricket World Cup.
The first Test began in Brisbane last Thursday. At the Gabba, which is not, in fact, the most welcoming of venues, for fans or visiting cricketers. On the first day the Aussies chose to bat but didn't do very well, and were all out for less than 300. The English did worse the next day and ultimately, by the end of the fourth day's play, were well and truly thrashed, beaten by a humiliating 381 runs.
Despite the Aussies' almost-certainty of victory on Sunday, when we were at the Gabba, they indulged in a lot of sledging, defined as a practice whereby players insult or intimidate an opposing player in order to wreck his concentration so that he underperforms. It's all done with good humour, insiders claim. Just light-hearted banter.
It didn't look like that at the weekend. We had taken binoculars with us, and my friend studied the sledging tactics of Aussie fast-bowler Mitchell Johnson, in action against England's batsmen. My friend described hostility and aggression etched on Johnson's face, and what appeared to be verbal abuse hurled at every opportunity when within earshot of the batsman. Then Aussie captain Michael Clarke was caught on a stump microphone threatening James Anderson with a broken arm from Johnson's fierce bouncers. Clarke was subsequently fined by the International Cricket Council for his offensive language and gestures.
During this Test match there had been extensive general abuse of Stuart Broad, who took six Australian wickets in the first innings. The Courier Mail sank to new depths of churlishness by refusing to mention Broad's name in their cricket coverage, instead listing him as T27YMPB (the 27-year-old English medium-pace bowler). The booing was deafening when he took to the field on Sunday, and the chants unrepeatable. The Aussies' antagonism originated during a match earlier in the year when Broad didn't 'walk' following a controversial 'not out' decision. England then won, by fewer runs than Broad made after he stayed.
If Johnson's manner of bowling and Clarke's behaviour were light-hearted, I wouldn't like to see what they do when Australia are losing. Aussie-Brit needling is commonplace, expected, and never takes long to surface. It had been exacerbated by the Broad incident, and this combined with serious pressure on the Aussies to win their first Ashes match since 2010 and their first Test since January. Serious storms were brewing around the Gabba, and breaks in play did nothing to ease the tension.
The Barmy Army retained their sense of humour, however. Even as England faced dire defeat, they continued to sing God Save Your Queen to the Aussies next to them in the stands.
On Monday, we heard that Jonathan Trott was returning to England as a result of a long-standing stress-related illness. He is by no means the first professional cricketer to suffer in this way. During the first innings in Brisbane Trott was singled out by Aussie David Warner as 'pretty poor and weak'. No one is suggesting that sledging was responsible for Trott's departure, but surely it can't have helped a man in a dark place.
I'm sure undermining your opponent is common practice throughout sport. According to Wiki, the term sledging originated at the Adelaide Oval in the Sixties. This week I heard someone claim 'The Don' Bradman did it, but perhaps not quite as we know it. Except, I didn't know it, at all. If it's such common practice, why has there never been the kind of debate we've heard this week? Did Ian Botham sledge?
As Johnson promises more of the same in Adelaide, I appear to be the only person requiring more respectful service to be resumed. It is cricket, after all. I don't like a nasty taste with my Pimm's.