Since ‘sledging’ was introduced into the cricket vocabulary a few years ago,” wrote the Australian spinner-turned-writer, “there has been a noticeable decline in the standards of acceptable behaviour between rival teams that cricket has suffered immeasurably. Sledging is the word minted to describe the modern practice of talking an opponent into error.”
It is a neat term in the way that it allows cricketers to get away with what a lot of it really is: shaming.
In light of events in the series between South Africa and Australia, it is worth exploring the role that shame plays in cricket, and how sport is so often used as a vehicle by the wider shame culture.
Sledging is the obvious place to start, since the on-field relations between players set the tone, and there is an important distinction to make here. Some of my most enjoyable moments on a cricket field have involved humorous quips (and let’s face it, the lower the level of cricket, the more of these one tends to have). But there is a difference between saying something to a batsman with the intention of laughing with him or her, and denigrating an opponent.
Brene Brown, an American researcher who has dedicated much of her career to investigating shame and its effects, describes shame as “the fear of disconnection”. It’s a definition that looks like the easiest way to determine where “the line” should really be. A shared joke with an opposing player creates connection in a manner that most of us like to see as a key domain of sport. Barracking a batsman with an expletive-ridden tirade in “the Australian way”, as both Steven Smith and Faf du Plessis referred to it during the Durban Test, sows the fear of disconnection.
There were other acts of shaming in Durban, such as Nathan Lyon dropping the ball on AB de Villiers after he had been run out, and David Warner doing his utmost to shame Aiden Markram for de Villiers’s dismissal – rather than celebrating his own fine piece of fielding. But Cricket Australia can hardly wash their hands of such behaviour. After all, whose idea was it to have those giant hands at the Ashes presentation ceremony?
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Some might think that this sounds soft. Certainly South Africa’s reaction to Australia’s verbal onslaught in the first Test was to dismiss it as “expected”, with du Plessis adding “we are big men playing sport for our countries”. Smith said something similar after Durban, while Vernon Philander added: “We are men. If we were schoolboys playing then it would be different.”
Such frequent mentions – all within a few days of each other – indicated the importance of masculinity to the players. But they also spoke to the ways in which men experience shame, according to Brown’s research. When she asked men to define shame, there were some clear findings – for men, shame is failure, but it is also showing any kind of weakness or fear.
Perhaps this is why verbal shaming has become such an accepted part of the men’s game. To do so is perceived as exuding strength, but it also reflects a trend from wider society. “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line,” Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly.
That was evident not only in Quinton de Kock’s supposed retort to David Warner on the Durban stairwell, when he clearly tapped into a deep source of Warner’s shame, but also in the way that a section of the South African public responded to the fallout.
In Port Elizabeth a small group of spectators, aided and abetted by two CSA officials, donned Sonny Bill Williams masks in a bid to put Warner off his game. While there were no masks at Newlands, on the third afternoon I sat in the Railway Stand as a handful of ‘fans’ shouted lewd comments and ‘jokes’ about Williams in the direction of Warner, who was fielding in the vicinity.
It was a galling experience, in part because it suggested such an outdated attitude about gender relations. Since the first day in Port Elizabeth I have come across arguments that the masks did not shame Candice Warner, that they were only aimed at her husband, who was regarded as fair game. Such thinking essentially makes a woman invisible except in the sense of being a property of her husband.
It was also completely disproven by Candice Warner’s interview after the couple’s return to Australia, when she said: “I feel like it’s all my fault.”
Her feelings of guilt are not surprising when we analyse the tactic that de Kock and the South African crowds used to shame the Warners, which not only reveals the double-standards that we hold in regard to men and women, but also speaks to the way in which women experience shame.
Brown found that the primary trigger for women is their appearance, something that is amplified by the expectation women feel to be perfect without looking as though they have worked for it. This double bind can be applied to sexuality, which Brown notes women are expected to “dial way up (after the kids are down, the dog is walked and the house is clean), but dial way down at the PTO meeting.”
They are also expected to “keep sexual intimacy contained within one committed relationship”. Hence, while men are feted as heroes for sexual ‘conquests’, Candice Warner was being shamed for an interaction she had more than a decade ago, before she was married.
Somehow we have let these ways of thinking become societal norms, while the act of shaming has also become more frequent in the social media era. Events of the past month have given us an opportunity to examine them, the way that they creep into our own thinking and also whether we want cricket to be used as a vehicle for change or to reinforce the status quo.
Because there is another way of being, and it too was evident on the third day at Newlands. Across the field from where I was sitting that afternoon, a group of 80-odd supporters were in the North Stand singing from pre-arranged songsheets. Unlike the ones drawn up and posted on social media in the lead-up to Port Elizabeth with the intention of shaming the Warners, these were witty songs designed by South Africans to show appreciation for their own team.
But the group – who have had the creativity to reinvent themselves from ‘Hashim’s Army’ in 2016 to ‘Kepler’s Vessels’ in this series (when they all wore sea captain’s caps) – were gracious enough to extend their appreciation to the opposition, adapting a song to include Mitchell Marsh as he fielded in front of them. Marsh laughed and waved back, enjoying the camaraderie of the exchange. A connection had been made. Is this not what we want from the game?
Australian media on Monday came out all guns blazing against the their cricketers and slammed them from bringing disgrace and humiliation to the country.
The Australian press criticised the team culture under the current leadership, terming it “rotten”. Steve Smith found himself in the middle of a massive controversy after confessing to hatching a plot alter the condition of the ball to gain an unfair advantage during the third Test against South Africa in Newlands, Cape Town. Australian cricket’s day of shame ended in a humiliating 322-run defeat by South Africa.
Cricket is considered the national sport in Australia and the stunning developments have not gone down well.
“Smith’s Shame,” screamed The Australian broadsheet on its front page, in remarks echoed by other media.
“The cheating has hurt Australian cricket from helmet to boot,” it said in a commentary calling for Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland to stand down.
“In charge of the game for nearly two decades, Sutherland has done little to change the rotten culture of the sport at its most senior level.”
It added that the scandal had dumped “disgrace and humiliation” on the nation.
In the same theme, the newspaper’s cricket writer Peter Lalor asked: “Where were the adults in the room?
“The answer to the question is, sadly, that these are the adults. Or the nearest thing to them that the game can summon.”
Television footage showed Smith’s teammate Cameron Bancroft taking a yellow object out of his pocket while fielding in the post-lunch session on Saturday and appearing to rub it on the ball.
He was punished by the ICC with three demerit points and fined 75 percent of his match fee, while Smith was fined all his match fee and banned for a match.
Cricket Australia is conducting its own investigation into what happened, as calls mount for heads to roll.
Sydney Daily Telegraph sports writer Robert Craddock said Smith’s decision was not a moment of madness.
“It was the culmination of a grubby win-at-all-costs culture finally crossing from self-righteous rule-bending into a world of shameless, bald-faced cheating,” he wrote.
“Steve Smith’s reputation — and that of his team — will never recover from this episode.”
The Sydney Morning Herald was equally scathing, saying Australia’s cricket leadership had “lost the plot” and there will be a heavy price to pay.
“As this disreputable tour descended from the gutter into the sewer, the mythical line the Australians use as the yardstick for their behaviour has not only become blurred but disappeared altogether,” it said.
“This has been a truly awful few weeks for Australian cricket whose reputation has hit a new low. Rehabilitation will be long and slow.”