Let’s not be squeamish about this. Things have always happened on cricket fields in the heat of the moment, sometimes quite nasty things.
It is naive to pretend that when the game is played with the intensity required to succeed at the very highest level, emotions will not be aroused — or that these emotions are easily supressed.
Also consider that Test cricket is a physically punishing activity, most obviously in the pace of the bowling and the potential damage that can be inflicted.
In a sense, bowlers are not merely equipped with a ball but armed with a weapon that, as one of cricket’s great poet laureates observed, could cause a “broken f***en arm”. (Given some T20 bowlers are wearing helmets, you might also add bats to the game’s weapons registry).
So in considering events during the first Test in South Africa, it is appropriate to make some allowance for both the intrinsically robust nature of the game and for human nature itself.
And that is where the excuses for what took place on the field and the stairwells of Durban during the first Test end and we contemplate why the game lurched in its final stages from gritty, engrossing contest to embarrassing juvenile slanging match.
David Warner (centre-left) says he will never put up with comments about family. (AP: Themba Hadebe)
One in which Australian opener David Warner was both provocateur and provoked, South Africa’s Quinton de Kock stooped to the lowest form of reprisal, the spin doctors from both camps did more blame-shifting than a Senate inquiry and an outstanding victory was overshadowed, perhaps even tainted.
The search leads to what some might consider an unusual source, given the reputation that precedes him.
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell was a prominent figure in what were, quite literally, the hairy-chested days of Australian cricket.
Back when the thin, cloth cap on the batsman’s skull seemed as much a target as a sun shade and there was an often brutal edge to the game.
Yet Chappell disavows the notion that an Australian team that contained the frightening presence of Lillee’n’Thomson and a gang of moustachioed hard men entered the field with the intention of verbally intimidating their opposition.
“I don’t want to sound like nothing was said on the field when I played, because things were said,” Chappell told Channel Nine.
“But it wasn’t premeditated. It wasn’t discussed in team meetings beforehand. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, things were said.”
The sound is that of hammer hitting nail on head. Because it is the contrived nature of contemporary sledging — whether you call it “mental disintegration” or “hunting in a pack” — that created the backdrop for Warner’s run-in with de Kock.
There is little doubt the Australians began the first Test determined to get under their opponent’s skin.
They sniffed fear in the South Africans who ordered a benign pitch to blunt the Australian quicks and picked a seventh batsman as an insurance policy and were determined to ram this advantage home.
Australia’s premeditation was telegraphed.
The insistence upon turning down the stump mic and their eagerness to “get at” Kagiso Rabada who entered the game with a potential suspension hanging over his head were obvious signs they intended to unleash verbal hell.
This is not sledging as we knew it — a sly aside about a batsman’s technique or run rate, a dig about his kit or, very occasionally, a witty rejoinder that makes the list of great cricket banter.
Mark Waugh: “There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.”
Jimmy Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my own family.”
But, as Chappell observed, relentless premeditated abuse takes the game beyond these limits and creates an environment in which it only takes one particularly nasty jibe to create the kind of fracas in which Warner and de Kock engaged.
This is not to justify de Kock’s reportedly vile comment about Warner’s wife for which he was rightly punished.
But it is disingenuous for the Australians to apply such relentless verbal pressure then wonder why an opponent overreacts.
Quinton de Kock (L) and Morne Morkel walk off the pitch after Australia won the first Test. (AP: Themba Hadebe)
Australian captain Steve Smith talks often about “the line” which his team apparently never crosses.
Could that be because this line is constantly moved to accommodate his team’s behaviour and the objective they hope to meet?
There is a case that umpires should intervene more assertively to stop abusive sledging before it gets out of hand.
However, from personal experience — even at the lowest levels of the game — the intervention of umpires often ignites tensions rather than suppressing them.
The muttered, furtive abuse directed at batsmen and, almost as often, umpires is ingrained so deeply as “just part of the game” that players have come to consider sledging a human right; not a usually foul-mouthed transgression of the so-called “Spirit of the Game”.
As much as eradicating a repeat of the embarrassing scenes captured on CCTV in Durban, it is this trickle-down effect on lower grades and even junior cricket that should be considered when contemplating the tactics used in the Test arena.
Again, there will always be spot fires when cricket is played at sometimes-brutal intensity.
But in their orchestrated, premeditated and sustained sledging, teams are building bonfires.
As Chappell rightly observed, in that environment it only takes a single spark before things go up in flames.