There are cricketers and cricketers, and most of them want to win with all their heart and soul. That has always been the case.
As we have continually harped in these pages, the idea that there were joyful, fun-filled, angelic exchanges in the days of old is completely baseless. Even as Frederick Reynolds had made his First-Class debut in 1795, John Hammond and Silver Billy Beldam had sledged him from close in.
WG Grace was notorious for his close to the wicket chat. Young players, such as Monty Noble in the late 1890s, used to be warned not to get out because of the prattle.
Sledging has been as old as the game. It is the nature of cricket, 11 men against one striking batsman, that makes it tailor-made for this sort of needling.
However, even sledgers, the best of them, can be excellent sportsmen. The key is to stay on the right side of nasty and keep adhering to the spirit of sportsmanship. Not the ‘spirit of cricket’, mind you, because such a thing does not exist and never did.
One such extraordinary cricketer who mixed sportsmanship with sledging was the Australian wicketkeeper, Wally Grout.
He was not averse to the needling batsmen, if necessary by bringing their heritage into question.
In Willow Patterns, Richie Benaud recalls: “Grout was keeping wicket when Ted Dexter made his debut in Sydney in 1958 and asked for what to Wal sounded like ‘Two laigs, please’. Gloved hand to mouth Wally murmured to the slips, ‘Blue-blooded ones, of course.’”
And when Dexter was beaten by a ball from Ken Mackay, he turned to the keeper and said, ‘That was a good ball, Wal.’ And Grout responded, ‘Naw, you just made it look good.’
Grout’s appeals, even when he knew the batsman had not touched it, could be air-splitting.
And he was not above sledging umpires as well. In his own memoirs, My Country’s Keeper, Grout writes about his exchange with Col Egar: “We were riding back into town from the cricket ground in the same car. We stopped at some traffic lights and I said to Col, ‘You get out here, don’t you?’ Col looked out the window and said, ‘No, this isn’t my hotel.’ I then read him a traffic sign attached to a post, ‘Blind pedestrians cross here.’ Col took it as I knew he would – a good bloke Egar!”
However, he would not cross some lines.
In 1964 at Trent Bridge, when Geoff Boycott called for a quick run, bowler Neil Hawke collided with Fred Titmus on his follow through, sending the England all-rounder sprawling on the ground. The ball was returned to Grout by Grahame Corling. In Hawke’s words from his autobiography Bowled Over: “Wally made a sweep with the ball over the stumps without removing the bails and then lobbed the ball back to me. From the covers came the startled cry, ‘I thought this was a bloody Test match!’ which suggested not everyone was in accord with Wally’s gesture.”
There was another instance when Titmus benefitted from the honesty of Grout. As Ken Mackay recalled “[At Melbourne in 1966], he(Titmus) square drove a ball from Graham McKenzie towards third man where Doug Walters fielded and fired his return as the batsmen began a-third-run. Parks sent Titmus back as Walters’ return screamed into Lawry who, seeing Parks was safe, hurled the ball to Grout’s end and struck the wicket with Titmus out of his ground. But Grout in his excitement had already broken the wicket with his pad. No-one knew this but Grout, and as the crowd hailed the defeat of the fighting Londoner, Wal indicated to umpire Egar, who was in the act of raising his finger, just what had happened. Titmus won a reprieve and to this day I believe the crowd does not know it was because of Grout’s sportsmanship.”
Cricket does need such characters. Who can play hard, do all the necessary sledging, but still remain ethical and sporting. Such characters are rare. They are not common today, neither were they abundantly available in the past.