OPINION: Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will - no hang on, that isn't right.
Words can be vicious weapons. They can cause stress, anger and insecurity. They have sent many a sportsman to the psychologist's couch. Joe Frazier never forgave Muhammad Ali, syllable for syllable the greatest verbal puncher in sporting history, for calling him an "Uncle Tom".
Alistair Cook called the current Ashes series a war and it is - a war of words.
David Warner derided Jonathan Trott, branding him "pretty poor and pretty weak" and much else besides. England's anchor batsman for the past few seasons, who just a year ago was scoring runs for fun at the Basin Reserve, is now at home, ill from the stress of it all.
Australia may say - well, you started it. But that would take away from some of the former greats of the game. Steve Waugh famously told Herschelle Gibbs he had just dropped the World Cup. Merv Hughes would sledge a batsman in a swimming pool.
Some were funny. Javed Miandad once called Mr Movember (and the rest of the year) a "big, fat bus conductor". A few balls later Merv had his man and ran past Miandad shouting "tickets please".
Some were crude - and funny. After a staring match in the West Indies, Viv Richards said to Merv, "Don't you be staring at me man. This is my island, my culture. And in my culture we just bowl." Or was it bow? Viv was king of the Windies.
Merv responded, "In my culture we just say f… off."
Australia has been insecurely asking "Where the bloody hell are you?" and then telling people to "eff off" for decades. They invented sledging. In the early 20th century a rabbit salesman nicknamed Yabba would sit on Sydney's Hill and barrack.
When Douglas Jardine, the captain of the Bodyline series, swatted a fly, Yabba shouted "leave our flies alone, Jardine, they are the only friends you have over here". They immortalised Yabba in bronze. But like many a bully, the Aussies didn't like others sticking it back up them.
Glenn McGrath completely lost the plot once. The great fast bowler taunted Ramnaresh Sarwan by asking what a certain part of Brian Lara's anatomy tasted like. Sarwan responded, "I don't know. Ask your wife." And McGrath went berserk.
Others looked on and sensed weakness. Then England's Barmy Army turned it into an art form. From uncouth origins, the Barmy Army went from being an English version of the Hill, to something altogether more refined. It is not absurd to claim that they have been a significant part of England's recent Ashes success.
The Barmy Army became organised. A trumpeter joined the ranks. And they began to get under Australia's skin. "You all live in a convict colony" is sung to the tune of Yellow Submarine. "God save your Queen" is a regular anthemic taunt of the republicans.
Then the Barmies started to go after individual players. Mitchell Johnson was a particular target. "He bowls to the left" sang hundreds of English men and women, throwing their arms to the left, "He bowls to the right", arms swinging the other way, "That Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite." Johnson admits it got to him. Tony Gwynn Junior (find the clip on YouTube) responded to a heckler by placing his mitt in front of his backside and operating it like Kermit's mouth every time the heckler shouted out. Gwynn's "talking out of your arse" mime turned the heckler into the figure of mockery.
But Johnson had to resort to a psychologist. He said, "It definitely affected me. It's pretty obvious. The songs are catchy, and it's really hard to not hear them." Billy Cooper, the Barmy Army's trumpeter, said, "I would never be in a position to criticise someone for sledging because essentially our role, if we can get on top of some of the Australian players and put them off a bit, then we can help our team in that way."
While the Army are now after Warner as public enemy number one, others have criticised the sledging in the series. When the Aussie captain told James Anderson to "get ready for a broken f…ing arm", many thought it was unacceptable. Certainly little that comes out of the mouth of an Aussie ever gets lost in translation.
There is a simple solution to all this sledging. Some want to turn off the stump microphone, to spare the audience the bad language. But instead we should turn up the stump mic. As soon as the players know there is a global audience hanging on their every word, they will soon refine their language. And who knows, like the Barmy Army they may even refine their wit.
It's all part of the theatre. The Barmy Army have gone from a boorish bunch of semi-hooligans, to a comic part of England's success - "our 12th man" says Alistair Cook - who raise thousands of dollars for charity in every country they visit.
Meanwhile Johnson has gone from insecure juvenile pantomime villain to alpha male in the mould of Dennis Lillee, who has been mentoring the fast bowler. Johnson says himself, "Throughout history it's all about intimidating."
Johnson was talking about fast bowling. But he could just have easily been talking about fast talking. It's all in the delivery.
- Sunday Star Times
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