Glenn McGrath once grew so frustrated with his inability to bowl out Zimbabwe’s Eddo Brandes that he paced over to the cumbersome batsman and asked: “Why are you so fat?” Without missing a beat, Brandes retorted: “Because every time I make love to your wife, she gives me a biscuit.” Poor Jane McGrath has been on the end of some well-quoted sledges over the years, and the practice is often controversial, but it shows no signs of going away.
Certainly not if David Warner has anything to do with it. The Australian vice-captain always seems happiest when hurling abuse at the opposition and can currently be seen enjoying his favourite pastime in the Ashes, where he has even found the time to sledge the suspended Ben Stokes via the media.
But where did sledging begin? And what does it mean? Well, you can summarise it as a form of unsportsmanlike verbal taunting designed to distract the opposition. Satirist Alan Tyers wrote that the practice started in 1765 when Richard Nyren would roar, “Bowle hymme a harpsichord, see if he can playeth that,” when things turned nasty on Broadhalfpenny Down.
Expert etymologists maintain the practice was coined in the 1960s. In his book on the matter, titled The Lingo, Graham Seal estimates the term began in Adelaide between 1963 and 1965 and is taken from the phrase “as subtle as a sledgehammer”.
If there is one thing sledges typically lack, it is subtlety. Most seem to either poke fun at an opponent’s waistline or his lack of cricketing ability or suggest that his wife is of an amorous disposition, in a variety of different formats. You get the odd moment of wit, such as the day Steve Waugh told Ricky Ponting to field “right under Nasser Hussain’s nose” and Ian Healey piped up: “That’s anywhere within a three-mile radius.” But for the most part, it really is as subtle as a sledgehammer and Waugh, Ponting and especially Shane Warne have been champions of it over the years.
However, it is absurd to believe that our forebears were the epitome of politeness and the practice of yelling rude words and taunts at the opposition surely dates back well beyond the 1960s. The practice is actually as old as cricket itself. Controversial brothers WG and EM Grace always engaged in gamesmanship in Victorian times and admitted a fondness for “chaffing” the opposition in a bid to put them off their game.
However, it sometimes backfires, notably when McGrath lost his cool after a well-timed response from Ramnaresh Sarwan to one of his jibes. That shone a spotlight on an ugly side of cricket, but sometimes it actually fires up the opposition and inspires them to victory.
That was certainly the case at The Gabba in 2014 when India’s attempts to get under the Australians’ skin inspired Mitchell Johnson to put them to the sword with an impressive haul of 88 from 93 balls. It is always a gamble, but sledging is part and parcel of the sport, and it will always play a big role at the Ashes. Over at Oddschecker, you will see that Australia are the favourites to beat England in the current series and gaining a psychological edge will be crucial to their chances of success.
Sledging is as much a part of the Ashes as Don Bradman and Ian Botham, and there is a rich history of banter between the two teams. Back in the 1932-33 Bodyline series, Douglas Jardine became public enemy number one and went to the Australian dressing room to complain about being sworn at. Counterpart Bill Woodfull turned to his men and asked: “Now, which of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?”
Botham has been involved in some classic sledges over the years. He was asked by Rodney Marsh: “How’s your wife and my kids?” To which Beefy replied: “The wife’s good, the kids are retarded.” Ouch. On another occasion, when Rodney Hogg stumbled while bowling and landed at Botham’s feet, he said: “I know you think I’m great, Hoggy, but no need to get down on your knees.”
An exchange between Jimmy Ormond and Mark Waugh also went down in history after Waugh said: “There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.” Ormond’s reply was: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my own family.” But let us wrap it up with McGrath in the ascendancy. He once told England captain Michael Atherton, “Athers, it would help if you got rid of the s**t at the end of your bat.” When Atherton inspected the bottom of his bat, McGrath gleefully declared: “No mate, at the other end.”
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and has been covering cricket for many years. As an amateur cricketer, he has been on the edge of some sledges that make McGrath’s outbursts seem positively respectful.