Sledging: where does one draw the line?

"I know my comments were over the top and I apologise to all that I have offended, but as a cricketer, it's how our minds work... It was not meant in a menacing way. It was just a chirp that often happens out on the field of play, and as men, you take the blow on the chin and get on with the game."

This was the response from Zimbabwe batsman Mark Vermeulen to a recent incident that led to him being banned from all cricket in Zimbabwe after he made racist comments in a Facebook post. Sounds so innocent doesn't it: a chirp. How cute and harmless. It almost puts the onus back on the victim to stop being such a sook. After all, if you want to be a man "you take the blow on the chin and get on with the game".

What happens when it's not men but 12-year-old boys instead? Are they too meant to take it on the chin, learn to play cricket like "real men" and get on with the game? I was driving my son to junior cricket on Saturday morning and we were discussing this very incident, including the casual, off-hand downplaying of it by Vermeulen, and he asked me when a boy becomes a man in this crazy, mixed-up, cricket sub-culture. About an hour later, by Vermeulen's definition, my boy crossed that threshold into manhood.

"I am going to kill you." The big, burly fast bowler, captain of the opposition, having already sledged my son before he had even taken guard, took it to another level with this comment, delivered a few inches away from his face. At an Under-13 game of cricket in Brisbane's leafy suburbs.

"Sledging's okay but this is clearly inappropriate. He needs to know where to draw the line," said a coach, as if The Line was a visible mark on the field. Do you need to consult the playing regulations to check if a physical threat involving death, however casually it may have been delivered by a 12-year-old boy, technically breaches The Line?

It is a topic of discussion that I am intimately acquainted with at the moment as I travel around Australia, running Cricket Australia's "Inclusion & Diversity" education programme for elite under-age squads.

Do you need to consult the playing regulations to check if a physical threat involving death, however casually it may have been delivered by a 12-year-old boy, technically breaches The Line?

CA's commitment to creating a culture that is genuinely inclusive to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or ethnic background is utterly admirable. The instructions were clear when I began in this consultancy role - there will be no excuses for serious breaches in our sport. We want every cricketer to feel that they have a place in Australia's cricket family.

How that quite plays out in jurisdictions beyond CA's control, like in a dreamy park in West Brisbane, is another matter altogether. Running these sessions for the cream of Australia's youth talent is relatively straightforward. They're mostly intelligent, articulate and committed cricketers who've mastered self-discipline to make it to representative level.

At some point, it behoves parents, administrators, coaches and the boys to decide for themselves what constitutes appropriate boundaries. They're mostly intelligent, articulate and committed cricketers who have mastered self-discipline to make it to representative level. CA cannot possibly be expected to police grass-roots junior cricket.

The question most commonly asked is: how do you know where to draw the line? I don't have an easy answer to that, so I tend instead to throw it open to debate, to get them to discuss it among themselves. As an educator, I know that the most illuminating moments happen when the light bulb is switched on internally. It's often a beautiful thing to behold, when these young men and women, on the cusp of crossing into professional ranks, agree among themselves that if you're in the habit of playing with loaded guns, accidents will inevitably happen.

There is no such thing as a clearly defined line that all parties agree to. Human nature being what it is, what constitutes abuse to one person is banter or a chirp to another.

And most importantly, on almost every exit card, the feedback is the same. The lesson that stuck with them most is the message that it doesn't really matter what your intent was - it will be judged by how it was received. Humour, banter, chirp - they are all just words that sometimes disguise the poison that tips the barb.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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