The ongoing Test Cricket row between India and Australia over the issue of racist insults claimed to have been delivered by the bowler Harbhajan Singh to all-rounder Andrew Symonds, has led to to massive media coverage. It has resulted in all sorts of responses, including the idea that racism is the preserve of particular people.
One commentator even suggested this could not be about racism because the parties involved were black and Indian. It has also raised again the excesses of the practice of 'sledging', which originated among Australian cricketers, havng been more or less invented by Steve Waugh, the Australian captain, to provoke opponents and unsettle them through what became uncontained, if supposedly humorous, insults.
Waugh was largely able to contain them, but recently the practice has been seen as getting out of hand. Maybe on this occasion 'sledging' has been brought into the debate about racism, because it is a black, Australian cricketer (born in Birmingham, UK to parents, one of whom had African Caribbean links) who is accusing an Indian player of racist language and insulting behaviour, but, nonetheless there is an uneasy tension betwen what might constitute so-called 'banter' and abuse in the media discussion.
At other times 'sledging' has been seen as 'part of the game', as English bowler Monty Panesar suggested in the England Test Tour of Australia in 2006/7. I interviewed Panesar, electronically, as part of my research on the Sport Across Diasporas for the AHRC funded project, Tuning In: Contact Zones at the BBC World Service. I asked him if 'sledging' had ever had racist components.
It is telling that his response was to say that whilst 'on the majority of occasions, the expression is used in the playing of the game, there may be occasions where racism comes into play, but I haven't had experience'. Sledging has taken a perilous path and an interrogation of its meanings and limitation of its excesses are overdue, but, nonetheless, as Panesar says, racism is not so obscure and its meanings are all too identifiable.
What such incidents have shown is both the ubiquity of racialization, which includes racism, and how circuitous its routes and manifestations can be. Racism is a part of sport where there is sadly nothing new about the claim that abuse, of any sort, is not really vicious in intent, but 'just a joke', in order to mask its meanings.
However, whilst sports media coverage has centred on individuals, these incidents highlight the wider social field in which racism and other forms of abuse persist and demonstrates that sport can include practices that are definitely 'not cricket'.