Australia crosses "the line"

Andrew Donaldson writes on David Warner & Co's fantastic comeuppance


NO good turn, it’s said, goes unpunished. And so it was with journalist Michael Davie, when he took Groucho Marx to Lord’s. Davie, then at The Observer, had learned the comedy legend was bored with London. What better way then of lifting the spirits than a cricket match?

After a few hours, Davie asked Marx if he was enjoying the game. “It’s great,” he said. “When does it start?”

That of course was in an earlier, gentler age. Cricket has moved on. As the present test series with Australia has shown, it is now so much more interesting, by which we mean cutthroat and vicious. Much like politics.

Even before the ball tampering at Newlands this was a series steeped in acrimony. The on-field insults and sledging had plumbed such depths we were now getting bizarre lectures on morality from David Warner, a player with a history of unruly behaviour and one of the three Australians who’d later be sent home in disgrace.

Warner, who had reportedly called Quinton de Kock a “bush pig”, had objected to the sledging he’d then received from the Proteas wicketkeeper. After the highly charged, and much publicised confrontation between the two, Warner complained that De Kock’s comments were “vile and disgusting and about my wife. It was out of line.”

Ah, yes. The much-vaunted line. Here at the Mahogany Ridge, it does appear the Australians do go on about that elusive, ever-shifting boundary between right and wrong, the one that separates them from everyone else. But what exactly is that line?

Cricketers have probably used insults to put one another off their game from the get-go, but the Australians perfected the form. They even came up with the name: an Adelaide cricketer who swore in front of a woman in the 1963-64 season was reportedly told, “You’re as subtle as a sledgehammer, mate.” 

And there it stuck. Sledging hotted up in the 1970s, readily used to cow Australian opponents. “When you come back from Australia,” one New Zealand batsman remarked, “you feel like you’ve been to Vietnam.”

The practice was practically formalised under the captaincy of Steve Waugh. “Mental disintegration,” he called it. Meaning, if you couldn’t take it, you were either not man enough to play cricket or worse, a Pom. 

And, to get back to that line, it was the Australians who first resorted to insulting opponents’ family members. According to Simon Hughes, the English bowler who played for Northern Transvaal in 1982-83, the traditional Australian fielders’ greeting to new batsmen was, “How’s the wife and my kids?”

Of course, batsmen were soon giving as good as they were getting. Ian Botham, responding to the above during an Ashes game, told Australian wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh, “The wife’s fine, the kids are retarded.”

Perhaps the most memorable rejoinder came from the Zimababwe’s Eddo Brandes. Frustrated at his inability to dismiss the stoutish Brandes, the Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath taunted him, “Why are you so f***ing fat?”

“Every time I f*** your wife,” Brandes replied, “she gives me a biscuit.” 

According to Simon Barnes, writing in The Spectator, Brandes no longer tells that story: McGrath’s wife, Jane, died of breast cancer in 2008. It’s not funny anymore. “Real life,” Barnes noted, “has always had a way of making sport look a bit silly.”

Sport, of course, has a way of making us all look a bit silly, something we should bear in mind as we settle down for the final test in this sullied series. It’s all but warfare, what with the berkish nationalism and jingoist spluttering that comes with the territory.

With that in mind, one wonders what the late Clive van Ryneveld would have made of the former Australian captain Steve Smith’s tearful mea culpa at Sydney airport on Thursday.

Van Ryneveld, who passed away in Cape Town in January aged 89, captained the Springboks, as they were then known, in the test series against the visiting Australians in 1957-58.

Such was his sportsmanship that he infuriated supporters and team mates alike by refusing to run out a batman who had been tricked into believing the ball was “dead” and, on another occasion, pulled his fast bowlers from the attack because they were clearly intimidating the batsmen. Even back then it was widely believed such fair play would not have been reciprocated by the Australians.

Van Ryneveld further annoyed South Africans by going on to co-found what is today the Democratic Alliance. But that is another story altogether.

At least we now have a clearer idea of that line. It’s not that Australians cheat, it’s when they get caught doing so.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.