There is no reason to question the coroner’s finding that entirely accidental was the death of batsman Phillip Hughes after being struck on the head by a short-pitched delivery in an inter-state cricket match in Australia. Yet it would be doing much dishonour to the memory of that Test opener if due note was not taken of the quasi-judicial observation on the “ugly underside” of the game — sledging, or the taunting of batsmen by the fielding side. That during the inquest, and thereafter, several leading Australian players made light of such taunts only confirms that the mantra of “play hard, but fair” has been carried much too far. And not by Australians alone, complaints of less-than-sporting conduct have been made against players of several countries — India included.
An increasing reality that had prompted suggestions that umpires, like football or hockey referees, be authorised to immediately impose varying penalties for questionable behaviour. At present fines may be levied by the match referee after a hearing, but suspension/bans have yet to be ordered. Admittedly such stern action would not gel with the “gentleman’s game” accolade that cricket had earned for itself until “bodyline” came to be explored as a tactic now deemed legitimate, even though the term remains taboo.
In the inquest report, coroner Michael Barnes invited “those who claim to love the game to reflect upon whether the practice of sledging is worthy of its participants. An outsider is left to wonder why such a beautiful game would need such an ugly underside”.
There is no easy answer to that query, the game has turned so competitive, and commercial interests so dominant, that “winning” has become all-important. There would be little need to peruse recent observations of the Indian judiciary to find evidence of the corrupting rot that has set in. Happily there are no allegations of players using/abusing performance-enhancing drugs, maybe the game not being very “physical” has prevented that “cancer” from spreading.
When contrasted with what has been reported from other sport, sledging would appear benign — all the more reason for the captains of every national/state team to ensure that players know their limits, and strive to eliminate the “ugly underside”.