A good sledge needs to be heard and understood to be effective. After all, the point of uttering something witty or derogatory in the midst of competition is to distract your opponent from the job at hand.
The Australians used to be especially good at this. Back when they were winning, that is. Even their rugby team was sharp on the trigger. George Gregan was a menace at scrum half, which is a position that surely requires an honours degree in communications.
As the Wallabies were about to knock the heavily favoured All Blacks out of the 2003 World Cup in the semifinals, Gregan stood at a ruck looking at the men in black and mouthed “four more years, boys”, just as the camera honed in on him. It was a dagger to the hearts of the best team in the world, but one that hadn’t won the William Webb Ellis trophy since 1987.
Gregan rubbed salt in to the gaping Kiwi wounds, but cricketer Shane Warne was the true master of the immaculately timed mental morsel. He would use just enough “spice” to prick the ears of a batsman trying his best to ignore Warne’s advances. You can’t even mention the Aussie spin bowler around certain of his victims without drawing a cold sweat and a mutter about money wasted on psychologists.
‘Just put a Mars bar on a good length’
Warne was a sorcerer with the ball, but did some of his finest work with his gob. By the time he and the Aussies were done tormenting the cricket world around the turn of the century with their skill and smack talk, they had coined the term mental disintegration. Some batsmen had to find a couch and a shrink to deal with the trauma.
Former wicketkeeper Ian Healy (much like scrum halves, keepers are notorious for their sledging abilities) once engaged in a conversation about Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, with the subject right there on the pitch. The conversation revolved around how the Australian spinners could entice the rotund left-hander out of his crease.
“Just put a Mars bar on a good length,” Healy opined. “That ought to do it.”
A textbook sledge from a master wordsmith. You can be sure Ranatunga was tempted to snipe something back, but engaging means you’ve already lost half the battle.
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Of course, choice words sometimes go down the wrong way. There are iconic images of bowlers squaring up to batsmen, bats held up like machetes, with umpires-turned-boxing referees trying to maintain the peace.That’s when you know you’ve stung someone good and proper, right where it hurts.
Which brings us neatly to the matter of one Sarfraz Ahmed muttering away in Urdu on the way to a Pakistani loss against South Africa in Durban on 22 January.
Well, in Sarfaz's case, it was a loss to one Andile Phehlukwayo. The young all-rounder had rattled the Pakistani's timber with the ball, and then stood firm and swung his side to victory with the bat.
So it wasn’t altogether surprising that Sarfraz mentioned prayers and mothers in his rant at “the black guy”.
Let it be said that the Pakistani captain is generally an entertaining character. He is also consistent with his mini tantrums. Just the other day, he called out his bowlers on live television, because they had let the team down. His words don’t discriminate.
He has a go at everyone. He speaks from the heart and sometimes with his foot in his mouth. Clumsy, then, but probably not malicious. Sarfraz would already have been on a fine line with family and religion, but his first utterance brought race into it. That was the “uh, oh” titbit.
The art of sledging
That is not to belittle the sensitivity towards members of family being insulted. But, even in school and club matches, personal slurs are almost taken as part of the game — as readily available as reverse swing and unpredictable bounce.
These things happen, sadly. Every weekend. The kind folk on Twitter provided us with a swift Sarfraz translation, quicker even than a giggling Ramiz Raja in the Supersport commentary box. Immediately, the incident became a talking point.
Many a Penny Sparrow will tell you that race is probably not the wisest cul-de-sac to drive down in this country. It was fitting that Sarfraz went to that same Twitter space to explain himself. Social media rules the world, after all.
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As the dust settles, with the South African team having already accepted his apology, there are some lessons for Sarfraz to take from this. He may want to take a leaf out of the Aussie manual of old — before their “elite honesty” stance, from a slogan on the wall of the team’s newly refurbished locker room — and try to be more subtle.
This starts with dropping a timely bomb away from prying ears. A staircase, for example, might have cameras, but there are no microphones.
Like most things in life, timing is everything. More to the point, a sledge is not a sledge unless the victim can understand it. Phehlukwayo is a well-travelled chap, having seen much of the world on international duty. He speaks or understands a few of the 11 official languages in South Africa, but Urdu is not on his (or our) list.
It’s easy to see how Sarfraz might have figured Phehlukwayo has a basic understanding of the lingo. After all, Durban has a healthy population of Pakistani businesses and there was plenty of support for the visitors in Durban.
There are also quite a few who play club cricket around the city. Heck, Phehlukwayo even shares a changing room with Imran Tahir. Despite all of this, he just hasn’t had the time to pick up another language. Which explains why he didn’t even look at Sarfraz as he ranted.
That is another issue with keepers. They never shut up during a match, so unless they literally call you out, it’s easy to dismiss their relentless yacking as background music. It’s important for aspiring sledgers to do their homework if they really want to hammer the message home.
Music for the ears
As a rule, players who pose a threat are generally the ones on the receiving end of derogatory running commentary. But you have to make sure they can hear you, understand what you’re saying and appreciate the ingenuity of your wit.
South Africa’s Temba Bavuma received a mouthful from England’s Ben Stokes on the way to his maiden Test century. But his words fell on deaf ears because Bavuma couldn’t make out what Stokes, with his northern England accent, was saying to him.
Mars bars, hobbies, the dangers of the reverse sweep ... even an observation on a player’s choice of music in getting to the crease. That would have pricked Phehlukwayo’s ears, because like most young players he likes to think he is a man of good taste. That he is hip.
Music ... Sarfraz should have gone with music. Then we wouldn’t have had to go down this corridor of uncertainty. He should have gone with music.