Why the outrage over Butler’s comments must be put into perspective

We’re only a few weeks into 2020, but already the controversial topic of sledging in cricket has hit the news headlines. Sledging, for those unaware of its meaning, is the act of verbally intimidating or insulting an opposition player so as to try and gain an advantage over them. It has been a part of the game for many years, and whilst you’re unlikely to encounter it during a village game on a Sunday, it is no exaggeration to say that it’s a fairly predominant aspect of high level cricket. 

As England battled for victory against South Africa on day five of the second test match in Cape Town, the stump microphones picked up England’s wicketkeeper, Jos Butler, making a number of rather unsavoury comments to Vernon Philander, who Butler believed had unnecessarily got in the way of him returning the ball back to the bowler.

 Within a matter of minutes the clip had been shared on social media. The television commentators apologised on behalf of their employers in case anyone  “took any offence” from the exchange. Moreover, some people seemed to be shocked that such aggression and hostility exists and can be tolerated in a game that has its roots amongst the English aristocracy. But, everyone who follows cricket knows that it is anything but a “gentleman’s game” (the same can be said of the English aristocracy, but that’s a story for another day), and were hardly surprised that Butler had let a few coarse words slip.

Former players such as Kevin Pietersen rushed to Butler’s defence, highlighting the combative and gruelling nature of test cricket, and unsurprisingly mentioning that far worse exchanges go on all the time. Indeed, Butler can count himself a bit unlucky, because most players don’t have to fear the wrath of the stump mic when they choose to cast a a distasteful remark at an opposition player. 

In the aftermath of England’s wonderful victory, Butler was somewhat embarrassingly dragged in front of the cameras by the ECB and forced to apologise for what he’d said. All the expected cliches came out, alluding to the heat of the moment and flared tempers, with Butler struggling to look down the camera lens, surely aware of the ludicrousness of it all. In all honesty, it looked like a fairly meagre attempt to try and stop any discouragement that any young players or their parents may have felt towards the game on the back of Butler’s actions.

It is at this point that it is crucial to put this situation into context. There is a very important difference between sledging and outright abuse, and whilst sledging can be unpleasant, often involves swear words and is far from the kind of conversation you may have had around the dinner table this Christmas, it is an integral part of high level cricket, above all in the five day game. Test cricket is a peculiar game: it is both very slow and very fast, and the psychological battle that takes place between teams is a fundamental part of this. Players can bring about silly mistakes from their opponents though sledging, either by playing on their egos or by creating a hostile environment that provokes uncharacteristic reactions. This is especially true when combined with  aggressive fast bowling, as the ball flying around ones head at 95 mph combined with verbal discouragement and belligerence unsurprisingly makes life hard for the batsmen.

Abuse is different, and whilst the lines between outright abuse and sledging have been very thin in the past, there are now very few genuine cases of this. Real abuse centres on the behaviour that society has over time thankfully judged to be unacceptable, which is why it was so refreshing and important when England captain Joe Root stood up to alleged claims of homophobia against the West Indies last year. That is what a true role model looks like, but the attempt to paint Butler as a bad guy and criticise sledging in cricket is a completely different affair. 

Whilst we rightly demand that professional sport conforms to the the expectations of modern day society, something this newspaper has long advocated, we cannot demand that it eradicates all traces of aggression and hostility, aspects which help it to make the entertaining spectacle that it is.

Image rights: via Wikimedia Commons

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