The Australian team probably had a rousing rendition of ‘Under the Southern Cross I Stand’ after beating South Africa in the first Test in Durban, but the refrain they have repeated the most after the match is, “We didn’t cross the line”.
The implied chorus is, “Quinton de Kock did cross it.”
The whole fracas involving David Warner and de Kock presents, if nothing else, interesting questions and viewpoints to ponder over. The International Cricket Council has ruled that Warner’s menacingly aggressive body language and surely less than parliamentary language caught on CCTV cameras in Durban was worth three demerit points and 75% of his match fee. De Kock’s punishment is not yet determined at the time of writing, but it will of course be lesser, since the South African wicketkeeper-batsman had only a Level 1 charge against him, while the Australian vice-captain had a Level 2 charge.
But the question of crossing lines is a peculiar one.
First, who decides what is acceptable and what is not? Those in the know in South Africa say that Warner, and other members of the team, went pretty hard at not just de Kock, but also the likes of Aiden Markram and Theunis de Bruyn on the field, and they weren’t gently ribbing them about their games either. The Australians themselves have accepted that they were very vocal on the field, while insisting that they “didn’t cross the line”. So where is the rule-book on arbitrariness that has swear words XXXX as acceptable, but insult YYYY as not?
There has been some amount of outrage in the Australian camp at what de Kock allegedly told Warner, a slur that involved a family member. But if you heap abuse, do you even have a leg to stand on when you outrage about the abuse directed at you by the receiver? You can call it mental disintegration or gamesmanship, but there is a line – that word again – between abuse and banter. In an ideal world, players would know where that is and refrain from utterances that cross that line. Indeed, one of the powerful arguments for stump microphones being turned up is that it will likely rein in some of the abuse, while not affecting the witty banter. And while talking loudly of your sponsors in a form of guerrilla ambush marketing might seem like a funny ploy, that a team has to resort to it to try and get the stump microphone volume turned down – like Australia tried to do – does give rise to questions of, ‘What exactly are you saying that is so objectionable that you have to resort to this to get stump microphones turned down?’
This whole pushing the line business brings to gate one of cricket’s more infamous scandals, the Monkeygate saga of the 2008 New Year Test in Sydney. While calling someone – allegedly – a monkey when you know the word has racist connotations is terrible, being called a variety of four-letter words might be more offensive to several people. If you walk down a street and someone yells out ‘Monkey’ to you versus yelling out some four-letter word, there is a good chance more people might be offended by the latter than the former. So then who draws the line about which one is considered the greater offence?
The Monkeygate saga was a blot on the game, reflecting no credit to either of the teams involved, and perhaps the best description of the whole incident was provided by Gideon Haigh in his book, Spheres of Influence, where he summed it up pithily. “Symonds and Harbhajan both sound like idiots. The Australian players escalate the crisis out of sheer bloody-mindedness. The Indian players, irritated by the provocation, fib to evade the offence.”
In the present case, at least, tempers haven’t frayed to the extend they did a decade ago. But the troubling question of who decides what abuse is acceptable or not still remains.
The other thing cricket is big on, which this incident should bust to some extent, is ‘leaving it on the field’. Several of those who enjoy chatter on the field, or gee themselves up with verbal confrontations in the middle, swear by this motto. Except, that didn’t quite happen with Warner and de Kock did it? Warner clearly took it off the field. And it’s not even surprising that he did, nor is he the first one to have done so. He was just unfortunate perhaps that this particular bit was caught on camera for the world to see.
Common sense dictates that if you have spent the better part of the day calling each other all kinds of names, it is natural that not all parties will be inclined to magically forget that and share cold ones with each other when they cross the boundary ropes.
Common sense would also dictate that perhaps it’s time for umpires to take a more proactive approach to chatter in the middle even if it tends towards the school-masterly, because it’s better to have a mite less talk on the field than to have action off it.
As for lines to be crossed, the convention in cricket is that for no-balls, run-outs and stumpings, the line belongs to the umpire. Perhaps it’s time to generalise that. Lines, whether drawn on the crease or in the mind, belong to the umpire.