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Sledging, Sandpapergate and Australian sport at its worst

Written by Dr Stuart Murray, Associate Professor of International Relations. 

“Sport is a great leveller,” as her majesty the Queen of England once said, “it emphasises the importance of self-control and how to take victory or defeat with good grace.”

Such a dictum was proven yesterday at the end of a thrilling Test match between Australia and an injury-depleted Indian side.

Australia was doing everything to win, sledging included -- one of the most pathetic aspects of Australian sport and something many gentler sports fans hoped had passed after the national shame of Sandpapergate. Not so.

Not only was Tim Paine’s commentary extraordinarily poor, unimaginative and senseless (“See you at the Gabba.” Yes, you will. Followed by the odd, “I’ve got more friends than you in India”), it came after spectators were removed on the fourth day of the Test for ‘sledging’ Mohammed Siraj, that is, racially abusing a talented sporting visitor playing on our shores for our entertainment in the middle of a global pandemic.

Egged on by his young goons Wade and Labuschagne – fine young men and talented players turned and trained to be nasty – this was Australian sport at its worst.

The contrast between good and bad sport could not have been clearer. India’s silent, almost monastic, defence against a monstrous pace attack, an eerie, empty stadium, and an incessant barrage of vuvazelaesque ‘banter’ from Paine, Wade and Labuschagne was a thing of sporting grace.

Some may counter that gamesmanship is part of sport and sledging within the rules of the game. Most cite Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach, who said, “winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

But this is not the point of sport. As our P.E. teachers admonished, it is not the winning that is important, it is the taking part.

The discerning fan has only think of true champions to illustrate how pathetic Paine’s sledging was.

Could you imagine Roger Federer slagging Rafael Nadal off in the final set of the 2008 Wimbledon final? Or Billie Jean King, Kelly Slater or the legendary John Charles? Sure, Mohammed Ali had a mouth on him but he was clever, funny and there was no subtext or malice to his banter.

Tim Paine is the captain of a national sporting team, and not just any team. He occupies the “second most important position after the PM,” as Darren Lehmann once noted.

He is supposed to be a role model, an inspiration, and a leader of men.

Most of all, he is supposed to be a sportsman and he would do well to remember that.

The comments Kerry O’Keeffe made about the behaviour of the SCG crowd at the end of day four are also applicable to the captain and his team.

After urging the crowd to “grow up,” the legend noted, “sledging is the most overrated aspect of Australian sport. Young fathers bring their children to the game; it is a cyclical thing.

“If they see anti-social behaviour in the stands, they feel that is the way to conduct themselves. It’s wrong.”

Because sport is a social institution, but a parody of a community, this “anti-social behaviour” suddenly becomes OK in the work, home, and sports club.

Surely we can expect more of our sporting leaders?

When it came, the moment of sporting justice eventually meted out to the captain could not have been sweeter: the lunge, the dropped catch (the third of the day), the crumpled figure, the game lost, and, best of all, the utter, blissful silence of the remaining overs.

The captain never said another word, nor did his goons. The Gods had spoken. Shhh. Play the game. Let your sport do the talking, just as Ashwin and Vihari did.

See you at the Gabba, indeed.

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