'I can't see evidence that abuse contributed to our dominance.'

'I can't see evidence that abuse contributed to our dominance.' Photo: Getty Images

Now the euphoria at a well-deserved Ashes whitewash has died down, it's time to mention something else. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to read with dismay that ''Australia has warned the Proteas to brace for a repeat of the sledging that almost led to tempers boiling over during the first few Ashes Tests''.

After a few years of relatively mild on-field behaviour from the Australian Test team, the first two Tests of this series saw a return to the worst. Highlights included Warner shouting, ''Ya f---ing wanker,'' at a departing batsman from the team post-wicket huddle; constant humourless aggressive abuse to batsmen right up in their face from Johnson; and repeated abusive ''send-offs'' to parting batsmen. I had hoped that the improvement in behaviour in the later Tests signalled a sea change, but that hope has been dashed.

Steve Waugh started it all as captain, under the banner of ''mental disintegration'' of the opposing team and, with some recent respite, such outbursts have been pretty much the norm for the Australian side ever since.

It is ugly and boorish, and embarrassing as well as disappointing to watch it as an Australian. Some myths about it should be dispelled. First: ''There's always been sledging in cricket; things are no different now.'' ''Sledging'', yes, but it fudges things to apply that one word to yesteryear's practices and today's relentlessly aggressive and expletive-loaded abuse. Ian Chappell is sometimes credited with having inaugurated modern sledging. He was a tough, uncompromising captain, but things are way beyond the line he drew. At least twice on television this series he expressed disappointment at how bad things are now. He sees the vast difference between the gibes of his day - when having some wit was also part of what counted - and today's humourless stream of abuse.

Second myth: ''Why pick on Australia, everyone does it?'' That's at best partly true. After the Australians began it (the previously dominant West Indians were never as bad) other teams have at times followed suit, but only sometimes, and nearly always less aggressively. The Australians have led the way for the past 20 years. It's worth noting how the English players responded on the field. Mostly, there was a slightly bemused look on their faces, sometimes even a faint smile, as if they couldn't quite believe that these men don't realise how crass they are being.

Third myth: ''You might not like it, but it works; this abuse gives Australia an edge.'' I don't believe it. We didn't win for all those years partly because we carried on with this abuse. Despite Steve Waugh's slogan, we carried on with the abuse because we were winning and we revelled in the domination - and that's also why we went rather quieter when we stopped winning.

The clear reason we won so well across that period is that probably four of the best six cricketers Australia has ever produced were in the team, along with several others from our 15 all-time best. They could all have behaved like Mother Teresa and we'd still have dominated.

Some might say the abuse eased off in Tests three to five because by then it had already done its job of rattling the opposition. I can't see a shred of evidence for thinking that spewing out abuse contributed to our dominance. Our success is well explained by many other things. Darren Lehmann and Craig McDermott helped get us back up by instilling a new resolve and confidence. And as commentators have noted, the recent series in England was closer than it looked. Add in Johnson's bowling - which gets wickets because he can put it on the right spot at 150km/h, not because he abuses the batsmen - and also the bouncier pitches that favour us over visitors, and there's plenty to explain the turnaround, not to mention England's own overall feeble performance.

Remember when tennis players started shouting and swearing and throwing racquets? Some argued that this aggressiveness gave players an ''edge'', was even necessary for tennis greatness. A generation of quietly dominant Swedes gave the lie to that.

Test cricket likewise - and for us here that means the Australian team - needs to clean up its act. This will require a concerted effort by Cricket Australia. And the current is not too strong to swim against. Even many in the team look as though they'd be happy without the abuse, and most people I've talked to would support a change. And it would be nice not to have to agree any more with English people telling me the Australian team has too long been graceless in reaching victory.

I'm not proposing a return to some mythical golden era when cricketers were true gentlemen, just to basic decency and civility on the field. Of course Test Cricket should be fiercely contested, and played courageously, wholeheartedly, even (within limits) ''aggressively''. It is a really wonderful game; and a hard-fought Ashes series is as good as it gets. But when even Australia's perhaps best and toughest captain, in Ian Chappell, makes it clear he thinks the on-field behaviour is beyond the pale, I reckon it's time for a change.

Representing others carries a responsibility towards them. It is because our Test cricketers represent us, it makes sense for us to take pleasure in their success, and so also makes sense for us to feel embarrassed when their on-field behaviour is ugly. The players don't need to be saints or stuffed shirts, but because they represent us in the nation's team they have a responsibility to us to behave in a way we consider decent. And if it is widely thought that the current behaviour is sometimes unacceptably bad, then Cricket Australia too has a responsibility to us to see that it changes.

Christopher Cordner teaches philosophy in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.