30 November 2013

Sledging in cricket - most effective when less personal and aggressive

I appreciate that there are many people that won't agree with the subject line of this post, but after  more than a quarter of a century of playing Club cricket, I'm pretty unmovable on this conclusion - the most effective sledging comes from the less aggressive words.   Michael Clarke lost a few pennies as a result of his sledge to James Anderson at the end of the first Ashes Test, but anyone who's played League cricket will know that what he was picked up on the stump microphone as saying will not have been the worst thing said over the 4 days the match lasted - not even close.

What is the point of sledging?   That depends on who you talk to.   For me it's to try to draw the batsman into a false shot that they might not have played.   Or occasionally to try to influence the umpire's thinking.   Not to make the batsman feel verbally abused (that's bullying), or to increase your own prestige and adulation amongst your team mates (that's an attempt to counter insecurity).   That's why the sort of sledging you'll hear me say on a pitch might be:
  • When a guy is on nought for a long time: "this could be one of the longest ducks ever"  (this once backfired at Windsor where the batsmen hit the next ball from our leg-spinner into the tennis courts and won the game for them!)
  • When a late order partnership is nudging the opposition up to a defend-able total and I want them to play more riskily: "the big shot's got to come here, they need another 70 off these last 5 overs to have any chance" (this one backfired at Arundel when they got a sub-par score and we then batted so badly that we still lost!)
  • When a batsman keeps getting hit on the pad without getting well forward: "This guy's a big LBW candidate, he's only just getting past the popping crease" (designed to create indecision from the batsman, but also meant to increase the chances that the umpire gives him out LBW).
  • When a batsman is struggling at one end while his partner is scoring well at the other: "It's a different game with this guy on strike - he can't keep putting the pressure on his mate to do all the scoring" (designed to get him to take a risk because the batting partnership is clearly going well and we need to take a wicket).
They're not funny are they?   And they're not really aggressive either - they certainly don't involve swear words.   But I say them because I hope it will change the way the batsmen play so that we're more likely to win.   Does it have any impact at all?   A minimal impact I'd argue, otherwise I wouldn't say them.   But I see far more impact from something as simple as putting in a short-leg or silly point against a batsmen that won't want to be tied down so will respond with an unnecessary big shot and potentially get out, than I do from sledging.

And yet the way club cricketers discuss sledging, you'd think it has a big impact.   You'd also think that it's more and more of a necessity the higher standard you play at.   "When we played in the Premier League I took all manner of grief", etc.   But my response is always "Did it make you play a stupid shot, did it contribute to you getting out?"   Invariably the answer is no.   And yet it's the done thing.   All that we're often doing is making the game less enjoyable for the batsman, but we're not improving our chances of winning.

The situation where the worst sledging comes out is often when bowling second and only a win or a draw the possible options for the fielding side.   100 to win, 5 overs to go, 2 wickets in hand, plenty of fielders around the bat.   The conversations are normally pretty spicey, especially if the opposition put us in to bat - doesn't that mean they have an obligation to chase the target we've set them?   Well yes, but the obligation is on the top order, not on the final 3 batsmen.   For their team to take anything from the game they need to avoid getting out for 5 overs - do we really expect them to change allegiance and throw the game so we can go home happy?

The argument then goes that when we're in the same situation, we take a heap of grief, so sledging is important to even things out.   If they're going to draw, let's at least make it really unpleasant for them.   I don't subscribe to that.   Sometimes we get grief when playing out for a draw, but I don't know of any tailender who has ever said to me that it was the words that got them out.   But I do know of many who tell me that the words make them all the more determined not to get out.   So if the objective is winning the game, we've actually reduced our chances of achieving our objective.

Somehow aggressive sledging is seen as part of cricket that's professional...that's serious.   If you're not sledging aggressively you're not taking it seriously enough - "go and play Sunday friendly cricket".   Nonsense of course, but this is the culture in league club cricket - the higher standard you play, the more you're expected to sledge and the more you're expected to neglect the feelings of the batsman to achieve your desired goal of winning.

I can't help but sigh when I consider the culture of aggressive sledging within much of cricket.   But there's an awful long way to remove unpleasant overly personal and overly aggressive sledging from The Thames Valley League and the Sussex League's that I've played in, let alone professional cricket.   A complete culture change.   It's not going to happen in my playing time, but I do hope it happens in my lifetime.   It's a sport we all get into for enjoyment after all, not because we want to verbally abuse people, but somehow abuse creeps in as you go up in playing standard and gradually gets worse as you move closer to pro level.

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