Simon O'Hagan

Simon O’Hagan is a former sports editor and cricket correspondent.

February 15, 2019

The art of sledging seems to be an intrinsic part of cricket culture — a proxy war in which verbal intimidation is deployed in order to so mess with an opponent’s head that mistakes must follow. For most of the sport’s history, sledging has been something the watching public only learnt about second-hand. It happened on the field of play and that’s where it stayed.

The best exchanges seeped out because they were too good not to be shared with a wider audience. We’re not talking Wildean levels of wit here — not least because of the obscene nature of most sledging — but cricket-lovers will know of incidents such as the one when Australia (the kings of sledging) were playing South Africa in a crucial match during the 1999 World Cup.

Steve Waugh was batting for Australia when the South African fielder Herschelle Gibbs missed a chance to catch him. “You’ve just dropped the World Cup,” Waugh is said to have told him.

That was 20 years ago. If Waugh were uttering those words today, there’s a decent chance the world would hear them. Just as the world heard what Joe Root, the England captain, said to the West Indian fast bowler, Shannon Gabriel. During the Test match in St Lucia, it seems Gabriel cast what he clearly intended as a slur. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” Root responded as the two players locked horns.

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We know this is what Root said because a microphone positioned nearby picked it up. For Sky TV, which is showing the Test series, the incident will have been a tremendous bonus. After all, how many more subscriptions might they sell if viewers think that the action is going to include heated verbal exchanges between players?

Like millions of other cricket fans, I was riveted by what went on between Gabriel and Root. It was confrontation of a quite different kind from what was happening when Gabriel was bowling and Root was batting — a glimpse into a side of Test cricket we never normally see and all the more fascinating for it.

It’s the same — but better — with the Six Nations rugby tournament, currently in full flow. For some years the referees have been mic’d up and TV viewers have been able to hear what they are saying — to players and also to their fellow officials.

The best moments are when a player needs a telling-off. “I’ve spoken to you before about rugby values,” I heard the referee Nigel Owens say to a player who’d transgressed during the recent England-France match at Twickenham. I thought, great, we’re going to hear an entire speech from Owens about the sport’s higher ideals. I’d have been quite happy to sit back while the match took on the form of an improvised docu-drama.

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Rarely does a rugby player demur when he is hauled up before the ref. But that’s rugby for you. They don’t give the ref an earful like a footballer might. They’ll stand there often quite meekly. When those not involved in the incident arrive on the scene, the referee might give them short shrift. “Go away!” I heard the referee Wayne Barnes tell someone during another recent Six-Nations encounter.

It feels like eavesdropping. And that perhaps is where the problem with on-field microphones lies.

Sure, they’re great news for viewers, but what does it mean for the players to know that something said during the heat of battle might be broadcast to millions? The pitch is, after all, their workplace. Aren’t they entitled to some privacy?

During the press conference at the end of the day’s play, in which Root had uttered his now famous riposte to Gabriel, the England captain tried to play the incident down. “It’s Test cricket,” Root said. “He’s an emotional guy trying to do everything he can to win a Test match. Sometimes people say things on the field that they might regret, but they should stay on the field.”

Of course Root wants things to stay on the field. It’s bad enough having to take responsibility for scoring runs off a fearsome bowler like Gabriel. Plus Root has to captain the team. Must he also be responsible for anything he says that a microphone picks up?

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The publicity around this incident has, naturally, been entirely beneficial for Root. His enlightened attitude has been seized upon. Just as Andy Murray has become everyone’s favourite male feminist, Root is now rightly lauded for challenging homophobia and showing that the sporting arena isn’t quite as unreconstructed as many people would have you believe. But I’m not sure that’s the point.

Because while I can’t believe Root is unhappy about his new-found reputation, is this how he would have chosen to be elevated to spokesman on such matters? If indeed he would have chosen to go down that path at all? Sport amplifies everything. It’s the ultimate metaphor for life, and what gets said on the field of play takes on a lasting power. It resonates.

If microphones oblige players to clam up, I wonder what that might mean for the nature of the sport itself. The sports environment is about nothing, if it is not about intensity of engagement. Should sportspeople now be expected to stay passionate enough to win, but calm enough not to say anything untoward? I’m not sure that the vast sums many sportspeople are paid, or the fact that they might be representing the nation, puts them under that much of an obligation.

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It has made me feel quite nostalgic, and I’ve been considering those more innocent, pre-microphone days. Back in 1902, during a Test match between England and Australia, the England batsman George Hirst is reputed to have told his partner Wilfred Rhodes that they would win a tight match by “getting them in singles”. The quote has entered cricket folklore.

Similarly, an incident that took place 82 years later, during the Italia 90 World Cup, has entered football folklore. It’s the semi-final between England and West Germany, and England’s Paul Gascoigne has received the booking that will rule him out of the final. Enter Gary Lineker as Gascoigne stands there distraught. Lineker looks to the manager Bobby Robson at the side of the pitch. “Have a word,” we can clearly lip-read Lineker saying.

As with George Hirst, it was a wonderfully human, natural moment – not performed for the benefit of the microphone. And that is something you can be sure will start happening once those of a more exhibitionist disposition on the sports field realise they have the ear of the world.

The most human, natural moments are often also the most private. Maybe in sport they should stay that way.