Cricket is one of those rare games which has needs a healthy combination of brains and brawn, and player tiffs, gamesmanship, attempts to put a player off his game by knocking on his mental make-up add fantastic flavour to the game. But (to alter a line with its origins in presumably mafioso literature) sledging is a dish best served cold.
Which is why it is most efficient when Michael Holding (chief co-contributor to the name of this website, amongst other things) comes in, delivers a 'perfume ball', a ball that whizzes past the nose of the batsman, and follows it up with a cold stare, saying nothing yet suggesting the scariest possible results for the batsmen. Violence is then perfectly understated, most impactful, yet tasteful and, in a curious way, elegant. It is then a bit like Don Corleone saying nothing, remaining impassive, trying to 'reason' his way through, and then, with no overt threat uttered, wiping out all his enemies in one polished, smooth move, rather than wage an Arnoldesque war on all and sundry and try and blow everything out, including the minds of the audience.
Which is also why it becomes completely distasteful when everything boils over, becoming loud and crude as it now has at the end of a story that started building steam roughly a month back, when India and Australia played the Twenty20 semi-final. The juvenilishly loud attempts by players from both sides to play up the 'mental & verbal duel', followed up first by indulging in fighting and then complaining seems to now have reduced what could have been a smooth, sophisticated combat into a cheap, petty roadside brawl.
It is clearly not something that has helped either side. The Indians have looked stupid, talking the walk but collapsing rather foolishly on the walk. The Australians have shown symptoms of suffering from the typical bully syndrome, looking hassled and 'telling on' the Indians when they bully them back. The end result is a squabble that is shorn of any of the class that a good scrap ought to have.
A fall-out of that is the general over-reaction to anything that may even be mildly provocative and ought to be ignored. The three fans at the Wankhede on Wednesday would, understandably, still be wondering how did they go from plans of spending a post-match evening in the bar to spending the night behind bars. Simians form a crucial part of Indian mythology and religion, and while the infamous monkey chants were not exactly an expression of the fans worshipping Symonds, it certainly looks quite unlikely that they came with a racial connotation.
Race is not something Indians, by their nature, history and conditioning, feel too strongly about. Controversial insults would generally come with religious or caste-centred insinuations. The usage of and reference to the term 'Bandar' or 'Monkey' is common by way of a general, often friendly taunt, and is never (or seldom) really malicious. Sections of the crowd at the notorious North stand at the Wankhede raising chants of 'rapist' directed at Ntini when South Africa played here in November 2005 would be considered worthy of severe reprimand and punishment. The reaction to the now-inflammable 'Monkey Chants' is merely a birth of the circumstances that preceded it.
It is common knowledge that sledging is best when it is witty; when Marsh welcomes Botham to the crease with a " So hows your wife and my kids?", when Warne tells Cullinan that he has been waiting for two years to humiliate him, and Cullinan responds with, " Looks like you have spent all that time eating ", or when it breaks the batsmen in the head; when Malcolm Marshall responds to David Boon playing and missing a couple of times with a cold, " Now David, Are you going to get out now or am I going to have to bowl around the wicket and kill you?". It is what forges the essence of individual player rivalries and adds interesting sub-plots to the contest. But when it boils down to tasteless personal assault, it stops holding any interest or worth.
When India took on Australia in the T20 semi-final, Hayden peppered Robin Uthappa with a barrage on unflattering comments and opinions on his batting and worth. Uthappa shrugged this off with an indifferent, " Whatever you say, man." which completely took the punch and purpose out of Hayden's verbal shots which immediately stopped. This is pretty much the way the general audience will react to all that is happening, if the squabbles don't come back within the boundaries of 'gamesmanship' anytime soon.