The Witticisms of Crowds: For the Indian cricket team, 4 January was a long and frustrating day. At the SCG Australia scored 366 runs and lost only a single wicket. At stumps Michael Clarke was 251 not out from 342 balls, with 31 fours and a single six. Brilliant as the innings was, none of these statistics was as remarkable as another number of the day, one that was provided by the mouth of a Cricket Australia spokesman rather than the bat of the team captain. For the first time since CA had been keeping such records, not a single spectator had been thrown out of the ground during the day’s play.
This rather damning fact emerged because India’s Virat Kohli had been snapped flicking his middle finger up at the fans while fielding down on the boundary. Kohli, who is a truculent player, was being insulted by a member of the crowd. You can’t dignify the catcall by calling it barracking, because that implies a degree of wit that was obviously lacking. Kohli’s gesture cost him 50% of his match fee, but he will pay a greater toll, you’d guess, in the form of further abuse in future games. Crowds tend to have long memories when it comes to things like this; besides which, the moment was captured in perpetuity by Getty Images’s Mark Kolbe. He will take prettier pictures of cricketers, but not many that will end up making as big an impression as that one. It must be one of the only images taken at a ground that has been pixellated in the majority of places it appears.
“I agree cricketers don’t have to retaliate,” Kohli explained on Twitter the next day. “What when the crowd says the worst things about your mother and sister? The worst I’ve heard.” Kevin Pietersen, who presumably knows a thing or two about the topic from personal experience, sympathetically shot back “Ha ha ha ha ha!!! Welcome to Australia buddy!!” Kohli replied: “Never heard crap like that. EVER”, a response that provoked the Indian team management to impose a ban on their players using social networking sites to voice such frank opinions. That seems a little draconian given how reasonable Kohli’s explanations were, but then the management must be mindful of avoiding the kinds of controversies that dogged their last tour there.
Cricket Australia has a good system in place to tackle the problem of abusive spectators. Fans can call or text a hotline reporting people using foul language within their earshot, and the security staff then descend on the vicinity to act on the tip. The rigour of the response is part of the reason why nary a day’s play goes by in a Test in Australia without someone being given the bum’s rush out the gates by the security stewards. But the frequency with which people are evicted is also evidence of what Pietersen was referring to, something journalists and players euphemistically describe as the “hostile environment” of Australian cricket.
It is unjust that whoever was heckling Kohli went unpunished. Quick-tempered though Kohli is, it seems unlikely that he was over-reacting, though there is no doubt he needs to grow a thicker skin if he is going to flourish as a player. But then as Kohli himself had written before the incident, “we are humans, not machines”. He has scored just 43 runs in four innings in Australia, and is under pressure for his place from his teammate Rohit Sharma, the first reserve for the batting line-up. A handful of cricketers can win the crowds over by playing along, but the best approach has to be to just ignore the abuse and get on with performing well.
The shame of it is that much of cricket’s charm comes from its crowds and the comments they make. There should always be room for a cutting quip, and the crowd at the SCG has, traditionally, heard plenty of those. There is a bronze statue of Yabba in the Victor Trumper stand, his hand raised to his mouth the better to make himself heard by the players he was shouting at. Yabba, who used to sell rabbits for a living, had a repertoire of witticisms so stinging that he earned himself a newspaper column during the Bodyline series. “Leave our flies alone,” he is said to have shouted to Douglas Jardine as he swatted them from his face, “they’re the only friends you’ve got.”
It is one of those lovely lines that has gone down in cricket folklore, along with the likes of “lend us your brain, I’m building an idiot”, which was shouted at Phil Tufnell. Anyone who watches cricket at the Oval will know well the far from dulcet tones of the man who goes by the nickname of the Regimental Sergeant Major, whose hoarse voice carries across the empty stands during county matches. “Oy, Murtagh!” he once shouted after the Middlesex bowler had been clobbered for six, “where’s Riggs when you need him?” VS Naipaul’s brilliant account of five days spent in the stands during the 1963 Test between England and West Indies includes the lovely line: “I think Conrad Hunte taking this Moral Rearmament a little too seriously. He don’t want to hit the ball because the leather come from an animal.”
I’ve chuckled too at the frequent choruses of Edwin Starr’s “War / What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” that hailed any failures by Mark or Steve Waugh and Mark Wagh, and appreciated a not-quite pitch-perfect rendition of Holding Back the Years that once rang around Edgbaston as Glenn McGrath was taken apart by Marcus Trescothick in the 2004 Champions Trophy. A good heckle only adds to the experience of sitting in the stands. But, as in all walks of life, such wit is an exception rather than a rule. If you haven’t got it, you’re better off keeping schtum.