Manthorp column: Unleash the verbal against an Australian or South African and you should expect to get burnt

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Neil Manthorp

In many ways David Warner and Quinton de Kock have much in common, apart from being prolifically talented left-handed batsmen. Both were youthful prodigies whose career options had narrowed down to one well before they left school.

De Kock’s headmaster at King Edward VII school in Johannesburg told his parents: “I do hope Quinton’s cricket career works out for him because I can’t see what else he might usefully do.” Warner, too, was no shining light in the classroom. Cricket is everything to them, or was until they married and, in Warner’s case, started a family.

To ‘defend’ either man after their exchange of unpleasantries in Durban would be disingenuous, never mind the difficulty. And to mention ‘principles’ is laughable – yet that, surely, is what the Australians are referring to when they speak, yet again, about ‘the line’ which divides what is acceptable and unacceptable.

What Australians refuse to accept (or are incapable of so doing) is that almost every person’s view of ‘acceptable’ is different. Many years ago a frustrated South African bowler asked Mohammad Azharuddin why he wore a tea bag around his neck.

He was utterly mortified when told after the day’s play that the leather pouch contained a sacred script from the Koran. He apologised immediately to the Indian captain in their changing room and claimed never to have ‘sledged’ again. He said the incident, when he had recovered, made him a better person – and a better bowler.

The Australian players appear to assume that everyone is the same, that upbringing, background, and culture – which are more widely diverse in South Africa than most other countries – play no part in understanding what, to them, is perfectly clear. ‘The Line.’

“There’s this thing, and I have seen it recently now, about the line,” said the Proteas’ Barbadian coach, Ottis Gibson, who has added yet another cultural dimension to the team. “They are saying they didn’t cross the line, but where is the line, who sets the line, where did the line come from? When you are saying you didn’t cross the line, but we did cross the line, but you went very close to the line – whose line is it?”

Attempting to deal in theory but unable to avoid the reality of their man’s surname, the South Africans pointed out in their hearing with match referee Jeff Crowe that belittling (never mind the puerility of it) a man’s family name is belittling his entire family – and it doesn’t get more personal than that.

It has to be accepted as an inevitable truth that the physical and mental strains of Test cricket will lead to fraying of tempers and losses of behavioural control – and inappropriate comment. And whilst they may add ‘spice’ to the contest, generally they have a negative effect on the game and the next generation. Just ask the beleaguered parents at school matches.

Yet the Australians not only admit to deliberately trying to provoke such reactions, they do so with pride, triumphantly announcinge that they will “never change the way we play the game.” Steve Smith, Warner and wicket-keeper Tim Paine have all said as much this week. Surely the alarm bells should have been heard when they demanded that the stump mics be turned off after the first day of the Durban Test.

Piles of Saturday morning pavement vomit are not good for the image of a city centre, but only the most immature of youths go out on a Friday night with a clear mission to become as drunk as possible. Grown-ups, on the other hand, meet up for a couple of drinks in the knowledge that, once in a while, they might make a night of it. Test cricket might be approached in a similar way.

Gibson said he was disappointed in the umpires – not so much that they took no action, but that they said they heard either nothing or “nothing untoward.”

“If things are being said, and if it’s within earshot – if the player is standing at point – surely the umpires can hear. Maybe the umpires need to stand up and take control of the game,” Gibson said.

Kumar Dharmasena and Sundaram Ravi are not amongst the ICC’s strongest umpiring personalities and it would be entirely understandable if they chose to ignore on-field sledging they might not have been certain they understood.

“I am happy with aggression being shown on the field if it’s coming from the bowler,” Gibson said. “If a fast bowler is bowling bouncers and trying to intimidate batsmen, to me that’s aggression. When everybody else is chirping or sledging the batter as he is trying to bat, that’s not aggression in my book. That’s how I grew up, playing the game in the Caribbean. But, obviously, things change.”

The Durban Test and the stairwell stouche between Warner and de Kock has attracted a great deal of comment and heated debate. And much of it is debatable, despite the congnitive dissonance which clouds the beliefs of the Australian players. But the Sydney Morning Herald delivered a verdict that might struggle to attract a coherent counter-view:

“Nastiness is nastiness. If you choose to deal in it, you cannot expect to set the rules about what is acceptably nasty and what is not. And you cannot be surprised when it all spins out of control.”

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