By Robert Craddock in Mumbai
October 24, 2004
THE Australian cricket team is again under fire for the "hardcore abuse" dished out to rival nations.
As the Australians head to Nagpur for Tuesday's third Test against India, South African opening batsman Gary Kirsten has blown the whistle on Australia's sledging, claiming the world champions mix humour, subtle technical digs and hardcore abuse to unsettle opponents.
Kirsten, who played 18 Tests against Australia over almost a decade, claims Australia and his South African team were the two biggest sledging sides of his era.
Popular with the Australians, Kirsten generally enjoyed the banter but felt there were times the Australians went too far, such as when coloured batsman Justin Ontong was given a "roasting" when he made his Test debut in the Sydney Test of 2000-01.
Ontong was ushered into the side at the request of South African board president Percy Sonn, who was trying to promote the cause of multi-racial cricket.
"When he returned to the dressing room, (Ontong) sat down, considered what he was about to say, and then said it: 'If that's Test cricket then I don't particularly want a part of it'," Kirsten wrote in his autobiography, Gazza, to be released in South Africa next week.
"He'd been absolutely roasted. One of the least offensive jibes was to call him Percy Sonn's love-child, but there was a non-stop barrage of abuse and clever comments that only the Aussies could come up with.
"It was deeply personal and, in my view, totally unnecessary. I have no problem with sledging but it has to be an even match otherwise it is nothing more than schoolground bullying."
Kirsten's claims follow former English captain Mike Atherton's description of Australia last week as "general bad eggs" and current English captain Michael Vaughan's claim that "they know only one way to play it ... in your face and especially in your ears".
Since the introduction of Australia's spirit of cricket pact a year ago, Ricky Ponting's team have tried to eradicate personal sledging. Their patience, though, has been tested with several sharp exchanges with India's combative off-spinner Harbhajan Singh in the first two Tests.
Kirsten said he was warned by Kepler Wessels before his international debut at the SCG in 1993 to expect a verbal grilling from the Australians.
"He told me they would try to destroy me mentally, get inside my head and kill me off. He said they routinely targeted young players and players on debut, first and foremost, before turning their attention to the big guns, the key players who often held the fortunes of the team in their hands."
But it was not until later that summer that the Australians opened fire.
"Warney led the way and tore into me the most. He was still at a particularly talkative stage of his career. It's funny how most of us calm down and become a lot more controlled once we turn 30, and Warney was no exception.
"But I also had the impression, sometimes, that the rest of the team looked to Shane to take the lead when a member of the opposition needed a bit of a blast.
"Shane saved his best efforts for when you were standing next to him at the non-striker's end.
"I recall him telling me that I was wasting both my time and his -- and that I didn't belong on the same field as him -- and also that I might want to consider a career change if I wanted to make a living.
"Generally I'd have to say they were clever rather than just dirty, although I was also the subject of plain, unimaginative, hardcore abuse. But when they try to work on your mind as well as just your emotions they become much more effective.
"The very best sledging has a technical edge to it, and when that is backed up by bowlers as good as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne it really does affect you."
Kirsten also reveals how Shane Warne nicknamed him Tom, in honour of Tom Cruise, after an embarrassing incident when he tried to chat up a group of women at a trot meeting in Adelaide in 1994, unaware they were the wives of the Australian players.
"That night I had great difficulty sleeping. The abuse I was sure to get on the field the next day chilled me to the bone," he said.
Kirsten said nothing was said when he walked out to bat, but the taunts started when Shane Warne, setting his field, said loudly to Ian Healy: "How are we going to get out Tom Cruise today?"
"There followed a verbal roasting for the next 20 minutes ... I didn't last much longer. Warnie still calls me Tommy to this day."
The Sunday Telegraph