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Saturday, February 29, 2020

India’s young cricketers need to ask: Does sledging fit in with who they want to be?

Till an honest answer arrives, live cricket should come with a disclaimer about offensive content.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | Updated: February 14, 2020 12:45:15 pm
Bad boys on the field A few old-school former players took to social media to express their displeasure but they didn’t quite trend. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

If visuals of the post-match scuffle between players after the bitterly contested Under-19 World Cup final were disturbing, the audio during the game was scandalous. Those following the game on Hotstar — the ad free online streaming platform where the stump microphones clearly pick the pitch-chatter — discovered to their horror that international cricket’s brightest spoke like sailors at a bar. Going by the book, the ICC pulled up five players — three from Bangladesh, two from India.

But many players responsible for the expletive-ridden chatter went unpunished.

A few old-school former players took to social media to express their displeasure but they didn’t quite trend. In the euphoria over Bangladesh cricket’s golden hour and Indian excitement at unearthing the Next Big Mumbai batsman in Yashasvi Jaiswal, cricket’s most-ignored sickness got dismissed with the usual “boys will be boys” shrug.

This despite India having Rahul Dravid — cricket’s quintessential good boy — as the chief mentor. He deservedly got the credit for bringing together a team of gifted teenagers with evolved skill sets. It’s important to put on record that even world cricket’s best-behaved ambassador failed to teach his young wards the pitch manners that he so diligently followed all through his career. But can Dravid really be blamed for this young team’s relentless sledging and cringe-worthy on-field behaviour?

This batch of 2020 has heard about Dravid’s exploits, respects his body of work but hasn’t seen him play. Television, too, doesn’t find it profitable to run his famous 2003 Adelaide knock where he sealed the historic Test win with a hundred, a beaming smile, an elated “yessss” and a kiss to his navy blue India cap.

For these teen stars, even 2011 is a distant past, the mythical era when a captain would win a World Cup with a six and, believe it or not, a poker face. Such is cricket’s hectic pace that for the country’s young, even MS Dhoni’s restrained aggression is retro, endearing but old-fashioned.

When these U-19 World Cuppers got serious about cricket, the Virat Kohli era had well and truly set in. Anguish, angst or joy, be it any emotion, the cricketers couldn’t miss a chance to swear.

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Cricket was reality TV. It needed characters and drama. Being studious was boring; it would at best get you a Bank of Baroda advertisement. It wasn’t just about runs and wickets, it was also about grabbing eye balls.

Virat and his boys are products of the times. Early in their careers, most of them figured out that obnoxiousness has a market. Trash talking on TV shows built your brand, made you a youth icon, got you deals. Game previews, too, centred on ugly abusive confrontations between players. Series and tournaments got marketed by putting angry close-ups of players, the rage within threatening to burst their veins, on billboards.

You, no longer, were asked to tame your tongue. No one judged you by reading your lips. Besides, profanities were mainstream now. Ben Stokes himself was making Ben Stokes jokes. Meme makers were gradually legitimising the erstwhile unutterable abuse.

Beyond the cricket field, be it movies or web-series, everyone was swearing. Whether it suited the plot or the character, a liberal sprinkling of cuss words in the script was Bollywood’s new formula. It was the laziest way to draw attention or to stand out in the crowd of content. And it was working.

Since the early 2000s, Indian cricket has had an Australia obsession. BCCI’s National Cricket Academy was inspired by Brisbane’s Centre of Excellence. Everything about the men from Down Under — starting with their “winning at all cost” motto — was revered. Fitness, fielding, finishing — how the Indians wished their cricketers had all the 3Fs that the Aussie had. Over the years, however, India has imbibed the bad with the good. Mental disintegration, aka sledging, too, has become a time-tested legitimate tactic.

Meanwhile, the Aussies, after the Sandpaper Gate episode, went through a period of self-loathing, followed by soul-searching. They recalibrated their processes and goals. They no longer pride themselves as master sledgers. These days they don’t laugh when recalling Warne’s “Saddam” nickname for Nasser Hussian or Warner’s “Osama” label for Moeen Ali.

India, too, needs to tweak the template before it’s too late. They need to strike at the toxic bug that is steadily trickling down the sytem — from the top, down to the grass roots.

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Watch the final stages of the India-Bangladesh game, if possible with head-phones in place, and on Hotstar. Desperate for a wicket, the Indians gave an intimidating welcome to every late order Bangladesh batsman. The close-in fielder would corner him and shower him with profanities.

It was a throwback to that ugly Monkeygate India-Australia series in 2008. The scene of boys in blue bullying the Bangladesh rivals brought to mind late cricket writer Peter Roebuck’s famous words indicting Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting: “In the past few days Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.” Roebuck saw it coming, much before Sandpaper Gate.

Bangladesh was no better. Their bowlers and fielders, too, gave the lip to Indian batsmen. Both cricket-crazy nations need to learn from history. For starters, the two sets of players need to sit down and listen to the Kiwi great, Brendon McCullum’s, 2008 Spirit of Cricket Colin Cowdrey lecture.

He explains the Kiwi Way of playing cricket. “It is vital that you understand that we were never trying to be ‘nice guys’. We were just trying to be authentic in how we acted, played the game and carried ourselves. For us, sledging in an abusive manner just didn’t fit with who we believed we had to be. It wasn’t authentic to being a New Zealander.”

Twelve years later, in this same U-19 World Cup, two New Zealand players carried a badly cramping West Indies batsman from the pitch to the boundary line. It was a tight quarter-final game that New Zealand won by two runs in the game’s last over. The Black Caps lads showed they could be nice and still win. They were just carrying forward the McCullum legacy. Sledging just didn’t fit.

India needs to look in the mirror and ask the same question. Does sledging suit them? Till an honest answer arrives, live cricket should come with a disclaimer about offensive content.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 14, 2020 under the title ‘Bad boys on the field’. Write to the author at sandeep.dwivedi@expressindia.com.

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