There was exhaustion in Australia skipper Tim Paine’s voice, when queried for the third time in the last five days — and perhaps the one hundredth instance since sandapergate — whether his team would sledge its adversaries on the field. He didn’t make his displeasure evident, but quipped: “There has been so much talk in the last 10 months that everyone is sick of it.” Or in other words, he was plain-speaking, “why not move on and focus on just cricket?” As it should be before a high-stakes Test series.
Just four days before the first Test against India, it’s high time sledging-centric themes are swept away from underneath the carpet and the focus shed squarely on skills and tactics, or pitch and weather for a change. But it simply hasn’t. Even 10 months, several reviews, bans and resignations later, debates are still raging on in Australia and outside, often polarising former players and public alike. So much so that there have been verbal run-ins between Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, never the best of friends in the dressing room, and between Clarke and a radio journalist in the last fortnight. From social commentators and sociologists to politicians and historians, everyone has hurled in their two-pence worth into the ring.
Paine, an accidental skipper like Kim Hughes in the Packer era, has had enough of it, and said as much. “There has been so much talk, it’s time for action. I think our fast bowling attack, if they play purely on skills, they’re going to trouble him (Virat Kohli).”
Given the still lingering backdrop of a cultural revolution sweeping Australian cricket, these words could be misconstrued as veiled instigation, but he was speaking genuinely about the quality of bowlers at his disposal, a feared retinue of pacemen who could frighten, instigate and impose, do their intimidation business with rib-smackers and toe-crushers, supersonic pace and unwavering discipline. It has been the way Australia has always peddled their cricket, only that the overuse of verbals, the pushing of banter into abuse, has painted them as a bunch of gnarled, rugged pros, stretching, and at times, crossing the limits of sportsmanship.
It’s hard to imagine an Australian skipper being perturbed by questions on sledging— contrarily, they generally plunge deep into such questions, as a pre-series intimidation tactic like antics before professional boxing bouts, but more often than not it has been a lingering but not the central cricketing theme. But this time around, in such caustic circumstances, their sledging culture seems a historical burden they would look to shed.
Redefined mongrel spirit
Even old phrases like the (fabled) mongrel spirit are being reconstructed. Explains Travis Head: “It’s how they bowl and their actions and if that mongrel means Starcy bowling 150, Cummo hitting a really hard length, same as Hoff, it’s bowling aggressive, being aggressive, just the way we play, the way we bat, being aggressive in defence, aggressive on the bad ball, aggressive in the field, attacking the ball hard, it’s in our actions not just how it looks on TV sometimes.”
Just to pick on the word mongrel – an archaic, more English than Australian phrase, that Steve Waugh gave currency to — it symbolised everything Australian, from their cut-throatism to verbal excesses. But Head clarified: “The way you buzz around the field, the way you cut down runs, the way you create pressure, you don’t have to say anything to have mongrel. That’s what cricket’s about, enjoying it and playing with a smile.”
Like his captain, Head deflects the focus to Australia’s biggest strength, the pacers. “I think facing the three big quicks, I know how much hard work it is. If they can put him (Kohli) under enough pressure, anybody in the world is a human. We know he’s a good player, I’ve seen it first hand at Bengaluru, he’s an extremely good player, but I think we’ve got the bowlers to do the job. It’s one of the best bowling units in the world.”
It’s not that they will be extra nice to Kohli and his mates — Paine, in fact, said that they will “just play it by ear; if there’s a time when we think we need to have a word with him, I’m sure we will” — but not when they are bowling well. “It’s just about picking your time and picking your moment and doing what the team requires,” he said.
Like Paine himself did during an ODI against England at Old Trafford last year when Jason Roy was tearing into left-arm spinner Ashton Agar. The stump mic picked him up saying: “You think you’ve won the World Cup already, don’t ya?” Two balls later, Roy was bowled trying to smash Agar into the stands.
But Kohli is no Roy, and Paine is aware that intimidation often gets the better out of the India skipper. Paine even had a bit of counsel from South Africa counterpart Faf du Plessis to not sledge him, and hence advises his pacemen to not get emotional while bowling at him. “There’s going to be times when they’re going to get a bit fiery, I’m sure. But we need to be mindful of keeping ourselves calm enough so we can execute our skills as well. He’s certainly someone who, from what I’ve seen, enjoys getting into that sort of stuff,” he observed.
But Paine doesn’t want to dwell more on verbals. Neither does Head, who’s happier talking of childhood memories of watching matches at his home ground, the Adelaide Oval, and the excitement of playing his first Test in front of a packed home crowd. Of how the pitch could take turn and the threat Nathan Lyon possesses. Paine’s voice too picked up the usual verve, when talking of his own batting and team combinations. Back to good old cricket, as it should be.