Andrew Gourdie: Art of sledging ruined by The Ashes

Have England and Australia crossed the line during this Ashes series?
Have England and Australia crossed the line during this Ashes series? Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: During the 1982-83 Ashes series, England all-rounder Ian Botham strode to the middle, where he was greeted with a line from Australian wicketkeeper Rod Marsh that is the stuff of legend.

"How's your wife and my kids?" Marsh enquired.

"Wife's fine. Kids are retarded." Botham replied.

The exchange between the pair has been regularly voted the greatest sledge of all time. It's quick, and cutting.

One can imagine the line was delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and the reply suggests as much. This is Ashes banter at its best.

Thirty-five years on, sledging appears to have taken a turn for the worse. It's at a point where some will shortly be questioning its place in the game.

Earlier this week, former England wicketkeeper Matt Prior let the genie out of the bottle when he claimed the exchanges during the 2017-18 Ashes series had become personal, and had no place on a cricket pitch.

"Simple sledging doesn't really work on these top international players" he said.

"You have to go deeper if you want to try and get a reaction and say something that's going to be pretty fiery and potentially personal."

The series has been a fiery one so far, with umpires regularly stepping in to diffuse verbal exchanges between players.

The first Test saw the Australians target Jonny Bairstow over the headbutting incident that punctuated the hosts' victory at the Gabba. There are subsequent claims that Bairstow was subjected to comments of a deeply personal nature. He admitted as much in his column for the Daily Mail, saying: "We move on. I hope it's gone now. I'm not making an issue of it."

Tensions have flared consistently through the two Tests to date.
Tensions have flared consistently through the two Tests to date. Photo credit: Getty

It raises some serious questions about sledging. If these comments were delivered in a regular workplace, the person on the receiving end would lay a formal complaint. The issue would become an employment matter, and the antagonist would likely receive a formal warning, or be sacked for verbal harassment in the workplace.

A cricket pitch is no ordinary place of work, yet it is still a player's place of work. Should they be expected to put up with this kind of treatment?

Maybe Bairstow should be doing something about it. If not for himself, then for others who may not be as mentally strong.

In 2013, England batsman Jonathan Trott left the Ashes tour of Australia citing stress and anxiety. His fear of failure badly affected his performance, and the Aussie bowlers knew it. In his autobiography, Trott said they "circled like hyenas round a dying zebra".

He would also reveal that he briefly contemplated suicide during these torturous times. If he had taken that step, the microphones would be turned up and the microscope firmly focused on some of those exchanges in the middle.

You can only wonder whether Trott or any other player has ever consider the comments they're subjected to were worthy of elevating to a higher level and a formal process. I suspect the answer is that players accept - and even enjoy - sledging as part of the game. You give as good as you get.

It could take just one formal complaint to eradicate exchanges of this particular tone forever, but would a player ever be brave enough to do such a thing? The "what goes on tour, stays on tour" mentality may prevent that from ever happening. Bairstow himself said "some other things - apart from the 'headbutt' business - were said by Australia in the middle, but what they were is staying there"

"Only if they are said again would the matter go further," he said.

Andrew Gourdie: Art of sledging ruined by The Ashes

Instead, the pressure may come on governing bodies and players associations to take a more active role in this. With awareness around mental health and wellbeing greater than ever, they arguably have a duty of care to ensure sledging doesn't cross the line.

I would hate to see these verbal exchanges disappear from cricket. They add so much to a contest from a spectator's point of view, and the theatre that test cricket in particular can produce. The Ashes is the ultimate, but comments in the last week suggest it brings out the best and the worst in the players.

The history and traditions formed by the likes of Marsh and Botham in this series make the Ashes what they are, but with the stakes higher than ever, players may have overstepped the line of what's acceptable. They should fix it, before they ruin it.

Andrew Gourdie is a Newshub sport reporter/presenter and host of Radio LIVE's Sunday Sport from 2pm