India were playing the ICC knockout tournament quarter-final against Australia at Nairobi's Gymkhana Club ground in 2000. Glenn McGrath, who made the ball talk, and chatted with batsmen to make them more nervous, was bowling. But he was left with a did-he-really-say-this amazement as Sachin Tendulkar, known to strictly express himself with the bat, stepped out and hit him, and then let go a few words. Uncharacteristic, but very effective, as it put McGrath off his stride.
Tendulkar scored only 38, but his belligerence for once had succeeded in upsetting McGrath's rhythm. Although he almost always won these battles, it was known that if denied early success, McGrath could wilt. Australia, who sledged and won the game too, were not ready for this counter. McGrath went for 61 runs in nine overs without taking a wicket and a young Yuvraj Singh blasted 84 down the order. The favourites lost by 20 runs.
Sizzling hotVirat Kohli is a raging hit in Australia, with words and action. Always ready to take on the Aussies in their game, he has vowed not to back off. The Aussies sense a weakness in his combustible nature, reminding the new Test skipper that it's the hosts who lead the series and that he is behaving as if only he mattered. But to Kohli's credit, his bat is sizzling hot as well, and he has aggregated 499 runs so far. His 169 in the MCG Test helped India draw in the end while his second innings 141 in Adelaide, as stand-in skipper, almost made Australia rue their decision to set India a fourth innings target.
Always ready to take on the Aussies in their game, Virat Kohli has vowed not to back off. (Getty Images)
Mind games are integral to professional sport these days. Coaches and sports psychologists picking through the opposition's weaknesses in team sports back these verbal duels. They see it as a weapon to push rival players out of their comfort zone. It is no longer a match of technique. At the top level, it is as much a battle of temperament, about shaking the opponent's confidence and focus. However, needling the opposition is all about timing. It should be used selectively to have an effect. Australia are leaders in the war of words because most teams walk away with tail tucked between their legs if they are losing. But India, since 2007, have given it back, win or lose. However, the unity of purpose, vital to make it a team approach, is missing in the Indian ranks. Kohli has been criticised and some experts warn that his provoking rivals could end up hurting his teammates. Thus, it is more of retaliation for India, which always invites more censure.
The history of cricket provides great examples of these games, won and lost.The late Tony Greig, as England skipper in 1976, gained cricketing immortality after his gamesmanship spectacularly backfired. With a West Indies that included a 22-year-old Viv Richards and Mike Holding about to land for a five-Test series, Greig, as is his wont, declared: "If they are down, they grovel, and I intend to make them grovel." West Indies players didn't see that as just another motivational remark coming from Greig, of South African origin. With Apartheid a hot subject, grovel was a strict no.
In the end, England were left to grovel. Richards, who played only four Tests, hammered two double hundreds and a century. Holding bowled one of the fiercest spells in cricket in the final Test at the Oval, capturing 14 wickets in that game. England were swept aside 3-0. The pace was cranked up every time Greig came in to bat. He managed 51 runs in seven innings, clicking only in the fourth Test at Leeds where he struck a century. The target of widespread anger, Greig even played the clown on the ground to amuse fans. But England paid the price for those words.
Australia skipper Steve Waugh refined sledging, dubbing it "mental disintegration". For once his tactics came unhinged, in the 2001 tour of India. After the hosts won an iconic second Test in Kolkata, Australia were under pressure. With the Indians giving it back as good as they got, even the steely Waugh got distracted, given out handling the ball in the final Test defeat in Chennai.
Coach John Buchanan was known to 'leak' his team strategies, to rattle the opposition. In February 2000, his document on Australia's grand plans to unsettle hosts New Zealand ahead of a one-day series was slipped under the door of a guest at the Wellington hotel. He took it to a radio station, which revealed plans that said Australia must 'intimidate' the Kiwis with 'controlled aggression', that skipper Stephen Fleming was 'a bit lazy early' and all-rounder Chris Cairns was 'fragile'. New Zealand laughed it off, but the Aussies won the six-match series 4-1.
But Aussie gamesmanship almost led to India forfeiting the Melbourne Test in 1981. India skipper Sunil Gavaskar was protesting that he had nicked after being adjudged leg before against Dennis Lillee. But he lost his head when the fast bowler gave him a send-off. He almost made his partner Chetan Chauhan to walk out before the manager stopped that in the nick of time. India went on to win the Test.
There has hardly been a dull moment against Australia since a young India side won the inaugural 2007 World Twenty20. However, Harbhajan Singh's retaliation in the Sydney Test of 2007-8 backfired. The Ravindra Jadeja-James Anderson confrontation did not lead to a ban last year only because it happened in the relative privacy of the dressing room corridor.
Retaliation has had serious consequences in a sport like football, nothing more prominent than the 2006 World Cup final, where Zinedine Zidane was sent-off for head-butting the taunting Marco Materazzi, with Italy going on to seal the penalty shootout. Cricket being a non-contact sport, incidents down the ages have had more humour than anger. The current confrontation between India and Aussie players may thus attract more eyeballs, but will struggle to retain its anecdotal value.