Sledging the bullies

This may not come as very welcome news to South African cricket fans but – in case you didn’t know already – our teams have developed a bit of a reputation for being bullies over the last 10 years or so.

Perhaps their verbal ‘roughing up’ of the opposition over that time has been more subtle than Australia’s, or perhaps there has been marginally less of it, but it does seem odd that South Africa’s on-field behaviour has attracted so much less attention than Australia’s.

The reason I mention this now? To explain the outrageous barrage of personal abuse launched by Stephen Fleming at Graeme Smith just moments before the South African captain began his team’s run chase in the fifth one-dayer at Eden Park on Sunday.

The Black Caps skipper tore into Smith using a string of obscenities that were punctuated only by the ‘f’ and the ‘c’ words (which were mild compared to the other stuff.)

Never one to back down, Smith replied with some startled finger-pointing and swearing of his own. Which was exactly what Fleming had hoped for when he came up with the premeditated plan days ago.

Maybe it was merely coincidental that Smith scored a wobbly, unconvincing 15 off 33 balls when his team needed to score at six runs an over from the outset, but probably not.

Fleming first toured South Africa in 1994/5 and has experienced, many times, what it means when a South African “comes hard at you.” Now he realised that nobody has really returned the compliment, except the Aussies of course, and look at their results against SA. Hence the plan to see what happened if the medicine was forcibly stuffed back the other way.

It started when the diminutive Brendan McCullum picked a fight with Jacques Kallis – and riled him badly. Never has Kallis looked so rattled on an international cricket field before. Then Fleming had his moment with Smith and the premeditated nature of the exchanges became obvious. Fleming admitted as much to his cronies afterwards.

The ‘art’ of verbal abuse, then, is to know when to walk away. When McCullum screamed at Kallis after the shirt sleeves touched during a run (there was no ‘collision’ at all), Kallis should have known it was a wind-up and ignored it. Smith, too, should have laughed at Fleming’s tirade. Or better still, completely ignored it.

Defeat hurt Smith, Kallis and the rest of the team very badly indeed but just as sickening was the realisation that they’d been beaten at their own game. It’s one thing when you’re doing the winding up, but quite another when you’re the one being wound up.

Fortunately the lesson has been learnt now, before the Test series.


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