Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crikey! That's not cricket

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BRISBANE -- "It's just not cricket'' is such a deliciously quaint British phrase that it has survived the rough and tumble world of the colonies and become part of the Australian vernacular.

But that high-minded call for fair play, traditionally spoken in a clipped accent by polished gentlemen in white linen suits, is often delivered Down Under with an ironic sneer.

For the once-courteous world of cricket has given way to the more brutal realities of professional sport as the summer sound of leather on willow once again echoes across Australia.

Instead of encouraging cries of "pip pip" and "jolly good show," a batsman strolling out to the crease this season might hear: "Get ready for a broken arm."

That was one of the more regrettable comments delivered by Australia captain Michael Clarke to a member of the English side recently as the two countries engaged in their annual Test Cricket series, known as the Ashes.

The International Cricket Council fined Clarke $3,000, but the extent of the issue became apparent when English batsman Jonathan Trott flew home last week with a stress-related condition following the first test, which featured nasty on-field exchanges.

It's known colloquially as "sledging," a euphemism for on-field abuse or verbal intimidation, and it has sparked a national discussion on whether it's an acceptable aspect of the celebrated psychology of the sport.

Cricket is an extraordinarily odd game when viewed by someone who hasn't grown up with phrases such as grubber, gully and silly-mid-on.

The British gentry gave birth to it and it has kept its air of courteous restraint for centuries, moving at such a sedate pace a Test cricket match can be played over five days with regular breaks for cool drinks.

There are such massive time lags between the action (one man lobbing a very hard ball at another man armed only with a slim wooden bat) that cricket commentary has spawned a genre of Australian comedy.

Long pauses and soft murmurings about seagulls invading the pitch, or whether a batsman could do with a haircut, have long been the soft soundtrack accompanying an Australian summer.

Compared to the outright territorial warfare that is football, cricket is more the officer class planning strategy without actually getting into the trenches.

Players defending on the field can wander over to one another mid-game to discuss a tactical move with a colleague, while even the enemy (the chap with the bat) can still be the recipient of an encouraging word and welcoming smile.

It's that lofty distance from physical violence and the more brutal impulses of the competitive spirit that make sledging strike an oddly discrepant note in cricket.

Millions of Australians disagree. Some commentators are loudly demanding the right to "sledge'' as part of a cultural tradition and a counterweight to a climate of political correctness.

As the second test got underway in the South Australian capital Adelaide Thursday, Australians were glued to television screens in homes, pubs and city offices, cheerfully anticipating a barbed insult.

That old "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game'' adage does seem a little naive in the big-money world of professional sport.

As does "It's just not cricket.''

Australia might have to settle for a more realistic aphorism when discussing its favourite game:

"All's fair in love and war.''

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2013 A13

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