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If one accepted the tenor of some coverage of the opening salvoes of the current Ashes series, in Brisbane and Adelaide, one could conclude that Australia may finally be about to become a republic and sever ties with England.

The hysteria of some tabloid coverage implies that relations between the Australian and English teams are at their lowest since the Bodyline controversy of 1932-33, which did lead to a terse exchange of messages between the cricket authorities of both nations.

Given that Australia had yet to even ratify the Statute of Westminster and we accepted British foreign policy decisions as axiomatically definitive of our own interests, our assertiveness over a cricket dispute was remarkable.

Ask any Australian or English player what his most cherished milestone is and he will almost certainly nominate an achievement against the Old Enemy in an Ashes series, even when our rivalry has not been a struggle for the pinnacle of global cricket.

The rivalry is intense and it brings out the best and worst in our player and crowds. Ashes series anoint heroes and provide convenient English villains. And sure, sometimes on-field emotions spill over into genuine antagonism.

From outright hatred to grudging respect

I know a number of Australian players who have nourished a deep and abiding detestation of Geoffrey Boycott for more than 50 years. Another former Australian skipper once nearly engaged in fisticuffs with England's Ian Botham.

The architect of leg theory, Douglas Jardine, maintained a haughty condescension for Australians while W.G. Grace positively despised us, considering us inferior and uncouth.

So, frankly, the rivalry between this year's protagonists is unremarkable by historic standards. Indeed, despite a few clashes, that have looked vastly more dramatic on television than they have been in reality on the square — the teams maintain guarded respect for one another.

Based on my observations, the feeling between the teams is cautious.

They are feeling out one another's vulnerabilities at this early stage of the contest. Though, they are hardly strangers to one another. Many are veterans of Ashes clashes back to 2010-11.

Harold Larwood demonstrating Bodyline bowling

Some are teammates or rivals in the English county system or the Indian Premier League. But ultimately, they are professional athletes whose lives revolve around rigorous training and brutal playing schedules.

While fans still romance about the game, it is a business. For the players it is rarely personal.

Obviously, the circuit is not one big happy family; but, in my experience, I hear more often of hatred between teammates than between opponents.

Teammates live together on the road. They actually compete for paying jobs in finite precarious careers. Sometimes, no personal success is as sweet as the failure of another team member.

Yes, Johnny Bairstow head-butted Cameron Bancroft. Yes, Jimmy Anderson invaded Steve Smith's personal space and marked his turf in classic alpha male style.

There has been plenty of snarling and remonstrating. But is it a crisis? No. Is it even bad sportsmanship? No.

Lower grades are meaner than the pros

I still play grade cricket and over five decades two indelible lessons have been imprinted on my cricket consciousness.

Firstly, the lower the grade the more vile the abuse that one can expect from the opposition.

In lower grade men's cricket expect scatological abuse from the moment you take guard. Liberal use of the c-bomb generally provides the soundtrack to one's initial deliveries.

Most players find it easiest to ignore the chatter and simply try to score runs. Questioning one's mother's sexual proclivities loses its venom as one remorselessly dismantles an attack or punishes a bowler.

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Interestingly, I have found the banter among women players is good-natured, though I play first-grade rather than then very elite level. No doubt machismo contributes to the territoriality of players getting right into one another faces.

But, let's face it, this is hardly rugby league where physical contacts are brutal.

Racist insults are an anachronism

According to the adage "sticks and stones", what are a few words, unless, of course, there is an element of deliberate racial vilification?

Sadly, that has happened, notably during the so-called Monkey Gate controversies between Australia, which nearly led to India cancelling its tour of Australia in 2007-08. But cricket polices racial vilification ruthlessly.

And, again, the collegiality bred by multinational competitions such as the IPL, have enhanced racial harmony and bred friendships across cultures and nationalities. The mutual incomprehension of Monkey Gate has largely become an anachronism.

Portraits of cricketers line the wall at Adelaide Oval.

Even in tense situations sledging can lighten the atmosphere out in the middle. Even victims of sledging can occasionally concede the mirth of a situation.

James Ormond enjoyed only a brief career as Test batsman, but he bequeathed one of the all time great insults in Test cricket history.

On his arrival at the crease, Mark Waugh, the twin of legendary Australian skipper Steve Waugh, whose team were perhaps the most ruthless sledgers the game has seen, launched into the young Englishman "Who the f— are you? What are you doing out here mate? You're not a Test cricketer. You shouldn't even be here."

Ormond accepted the abuse with equanimity before replying: "You may be right. But at least I am the best cricketer in my family." Waugh was silenced. The Australian slip cordon could not contain their mirth.

Despite often being considered the father of a robust Australian approach to competition, Ian Chappell emphatically rejects the idea that he presided over a team of sledgers.

He once told me: "Mate, the two most aggressive fast bowlers I ever faced were Andy Roberts and John Snow. They barely uttered a word to a batsman. In fact. their silence was almost eerie. The occasional chat was generally quite funny and not malicious."

Ian Chappell

His brother Greg agreed: "The West Indians were imposing and hard men. They were fiercely competitive. But they did not mouth off, they didn't need to. And you would have been a mug to give them an earful when they were hurling 85-mile-an-hour balls at you."

Warne-Samuels face-off

Warne excels at elaborate mind-game

To Shane Warne, banter was an integral part of his bowling arsenal. He chatted incessantly at opponents. It was rarely nasty. His prodigious talent allowed him to gently goad and patronise his prey.

Much of his chirp was part of an elaborate mind-game to build pressure on their play. It was professional, not personal. He excelled at it.

Among innumerable instances of Warne talking his way to a vital wicket in Test Match, none is as indicative of his skill as his goading of English batsman Mark Ramprakash at Trent Bridge in 2001.

Ramprakash actually handled Warne's spin quite well and was well-settled at the crease.

Warne engaged Ramptakash in amicable banter: "Come on, Ramp. You know you want to have go. Come on, mate, have dip."

Warne smiled and bowled a long hop which Ramprakash advanced down the pitch to loft to the boundary. He swiped impotently and was stumped by Adam Gilchrist, sparking a precipitate English collapse.

Australia won an unlikely victory when England seemed to be cruising to an honourable draw.

Despite Steve Smith's giggling at his news conference in Brisbane this week, none of the chatter between the teams has been as amusing as Warne's banter, nor Ormond's riposte to Waugh. But the Bodyline crisis it is not.

A placard featuring a quotation from Bill Woodfull.

Original Article


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