David Warner sledging episode is no surprise
Oz cricketers love talking about this mythical line that they never cross. Except of course, when they cross it!
Sunil Gavaskar recently confided to me that he feared that the culture of on-field abuse would almost inevitably finish in fisticuffs, given the way things were heading in the last couple of years. Coming from a man who was revered for his courage by the mighty West Indian teams of the 1970's, it was a chilling reminder that the modern game was locked in a race to the bottom, led by a few international captains who show no understanding of the privilege of true leadership. That it is David Warner who is in the thick of the latest incident in Durban should come as no surprise - destiny calls on some people and for others, they hunt her with a Kaboom bat.
Allowing grown men the latitude to choose where one line ends and another line begins is pure folly when it comes to the modern international cricketer. Most of them have little or no life experience outside the artificial bubble that has been their world since their late teens. It is unrealistic to expect such naive men, cocooned in a web decorated with mirrors, to be anything but narcissistic. They know little else. They have an inflated sense of their own emotional intelligence because the 'system' has not allowed them the chance to walk in the shoes of those less talented and less fortunate.
The Australians in particular love talking about this mythical line that they never cross. Except of course when they cross it! And then they apologise. And the next day they claim they know where that line is and would never dream of crossing it. Until they cross it. And then they apologise... here we go again.
Before the start of the SA v Australia series, Nathan Lyon was adamant that his team often headbutted the line but always knew where to stop. I have just spent a day at a high school running workshops on violence prevention and it never occurred to me to tell my students that, according to Lyon, a headbutt is not a violent act. Ask anybody who has been headbutted at the pub and they will tell you that is a potentially deadly use of force but with Lyon's limited life experience, he makes it sounds almost...loving. How sweet.
Despite that, barely a few days after that comment, Lyon has now pleaded guilty to a Contrary Conduct charge and has been fined 15% of his match fee. So despite his assurance that Australian cricketers only headbutt the line, it took him but a few days to choke on his own words. We might have to pass the hat around to pay his fine so he can put food on the table for his family. Oh dear - I mentioned his family. Apparently, there is a line in the sand that says that we can't mention families. Clearly no one told his ex-wife about that, "can't mention family" clause because she was in the news this week, blogging about the pain she endured when her marriage to Lyon broke up.
Warner is a man with 'form' but he is still entrusted with the captaincy of his country, a hero to millions of children, a grown man who had to be physically restrained by the mild-mannered Usman Khawaja in the pavilion during a Test match. Steve Smith, his captain in the Test series, claims he did not hear anything that Warner was alleged to have said to Quinton De Kock, but his hearing improved sufficiently to hear the "personal" sledges that the South African uttered. It comes as no surprise whatsoever that the umpires allegedly heard nothing. The Proteas have a private belief that they are intimidated by the Australians. You only have to watch the way they almost apologetically warn an Australian for running on the pitch compared to the finger-wagging body language when a Pakistani or Indian trespasses to understand how such perceptions are formed. Perception is reality.
The Warner blow-up was an accident waiting to happen, a storm brewing. No one, not the umpires, the match referee or the captain could see what we could see from 11,000 kilometres away in our lounge rooms. When Kumar Dharmasena warned Mitchell Starc for running on the pitch, Warner's body language when he questioned the umpire was so aggressive that I told my children that Warner had, "taken his angry pills today." A few minutes later, my young daughter drew my attention to the vitriol directed at Aiden Markram when he was involved in running out AB de Villiers. In her words, "Dad, that Warner guy is so aggressive. Someone should tell him to calm down." This from a 13-year-old child. And all the adults in the zoo didn't see it coming?
Darren Lehmann has backed his man to remain vice-captain. Of course he would. Boof is an expert in understanding how not to cross that line. Oh, except for that time when he called the Sri Lankans "black c***s" in Brisbane in 2002. Ironically, he had literally crossed the line when he said it, 20 metres past the boundary rope. See, that line isn't always visible is it, even when it's painted white?
This is where it all becomes so childish and silly. Apparently sledging is okay so long as it's not personal and so long as it's not targeting family members. Tell me, what is the point of sledging if it's not personal? Is it sledging at all? By it's very nature, doesn't it have to be personal? What is the point of sledging somebody if you're not referring to that person? Imagine this sledge to Virat Kohli: "I say Virat old chap, were you aware that your neighbour stole a cucumber. Now be a good lad and play a dumb shot will you please." Seriously - unless the cucumber belonged to his poor grandmother, it's ridiculous to think that all the sledging dished out by Australia was not personal. Of course it was. You only have to look at the bile spewing out from Warner's mouth in the aftermath to the De Villiers run out to know that this was an intensely personal attack. And guess what? It didn't work. Markram went on to make a magnificent century under pressure, possibly even spurred on by the non-personal sledges!
The whole point of this deplorable practice is that it is meant to be personal. It wouldn't bloody well work otherwise! But the way, some cricketers tell the story, there is an invisible line that nobody agreed to, nobody can see or touch, but is yet so sacred and sacrosanct that it cannot be crossed. Even though we don't know where that line is. Or if it even exists. You know you've crossed the line when the Australians say you've crossed it. Got that, lads? All clear now? As Kane Williamson observed with customary dry wit, he must have missed the memo that specified which topics the Aussies consider to be off limits.
Have the ICC drawn up a list of topics that cross the line? Race, religion, homophobia are the buzzwords. I recently ran the education sessions for the Australian U-17 and U-19 teams, male and female, covering off this topic. I have done the same for Rugby Australia for nigh on 10 years now. As I warned the cricketers at the time, you risk severe sanctions if you think it's only quarantined to these issues. Quarantining simply doesn't work in this situation – it's like going into a hospital and only wanting protection against two diseases. Either the ward is a sterile environment or it isn't. As we have seen, we can't trust these grown men to stick to a strict list of insults that don't target "personal" issues. Unless the line in the sand has been clearly agreed to by all parties, what topics are allowed to make the list? Mental health, courage, cowardice, selfishness, substance abuse, dishonesty, a death in the family, infidelity, illegitimate children... where do you draw the line? Who decides what is hurtful? Even bushpigs have feelings!
I umpired an U-12 game on Saturday where I warned a young boy for using obscene language. I specifically warned him that if he kept using those filthy words, someone would complain. Two hours later, he racially abused a female cricketer and the matter is now in the hands of the club president. His father was the other umpire and apparently did not hear or see any of the alleged abuse occurring. Perhaps, the temporary hearing loss that Smith experienced is an epidemic! The boy's excuse was that he said "this Indian girl is rubbish" but he didn't use expletives. Never mind that she wasn't even Indian. Even if he didn't drop the F-bomb, what's a 12 year old kid doing sledging an opponent in the first place? Why was her "Indian-ness" of any relevance unless it was meant to hurt? Surely, he would not have said, "this Australian girl is rubbish" so clearly the racial element was added as a personal dimension to add to the hurt. Does this qualify as merely headbutting that mythical Lyon Line or is this a case of personal abuse that crossed the line? Who decides? The girl? The boy? The parents? Nathan Lyon? His ex-wife? Oh sorry, was that too personal? See what I mean?
We are getting closer and closer to that moment in time when there will be a punch-up. If Khawaja had not acted so swiftly to restrain the rabid Warner, this incident might have been the moment when Gavaskar's prophecy came true. It is scarcely believable that this could happen to grown men, highly paid professionals, in a Test match, knowing full well that the eyes of the world would be on them. Faf du Plessis is honest enough to admit that the sledging was a two-way street, but he is adamant that personal insults were meted out to De Kock before he responded in kind. Tit for tat. Sisters, mothers, wives, bushpigs – they are all fair game when the gloves are off.
The Border-Gavaskar Trophy promises to be a head-butting contest of epic proportions. India will have huge crowd support which will inflame tensions where harmony and diversity could co-exist. Kohli and Smith will be duelling for the tag of best batsman in the world. Neither of them have the faintest idea of where that line is, not the faintest intention of looking for this mythical beast. It does not exist. It cannot exist. There is no line that can adequately describe men behaving badly. And we hold our kids to a higher standard when the adults, their heroes, hide behind pathetic excuses that won't pass muster in any normal workplace?
There's always an upside though. At least when it comes to Warner, there's no danger of the famous "brain snap". That would be an oxymoron. Or just a plain moron. Sorry, was that too personal?
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player
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