Mike Rowbottom

Mind games in sport. Not new. Not at all. WG Grace, the revered - and feared - cricketer who carried his bat from this life in 1915, aged 67, bears testament to that.

Grace, famously, was a man of many talents. A medical practitioner, he played football for the Wanderers - the Manchester United of their day - and won the 440 yards hurdles in the National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace in August 1866.

However it is as a cricketer, indeed The Cricketer, that he is best remembered. He played the first-class game as a Gloucestershire and England all-rounder for a record-equalling 44 seasons, during which time he made 126 centuries. And much of that time was spent in annoying and confounding his opponents, particularly Australian opponents.

Aside from being a stickler for the rules, Grace earned a reputation for sharp practice.

When it came to tossing the coin at the start of matches, for instance, as the coin flew he would call out "The Lady." Sovereigns at the time had Queen Victoria on one side and Britannia on the other. 

Another celebrated example of Gracemanship occurred when he once refused to leave the crease when he was given out, apparently responding to the official with the raised finger: "They’ve come to see me bat, not you umpire."

WG Grace, the majestic Victorian cricketer who was never averse to winding his opponents up whenever he had the opportunity...©Getty Images
WG Grace, the majestic Victorian cricketer who was never averse to winding his opponents up whenever he had the opportunity...©Getty Images

Grace himself became the target of what would now be recognised as a classic sledging when the Essex fast bowler Charles Kortright, whose frequent appeals for his wicket were turned down by the umpire, finally accomplished the deed unanswerably by knocking away two of the great man’s stumps. 

As W. G. made his reluctant way to the pavilion, Kortright called out to him: "Surely you’re not going, doctor? There’s still one stump standing."

Wavy lines, fast forward…to yesterday’s athletics meeting in Yokohama, where world 100 metres champion Fred Kerley of the United States called out his Italian rival Marcell Jacobs after clocking his fastest debut time for a season of 9.88 seconds.

The 28-year-old American, who will defend his title in Budapest this summer, said he was "up for any challenge" as he set sights on the man who beat him to the Olympic title in Tokyo and whom he has not had the opportunity of racing since.

"Track and field is a competitive sport, so any given day we can compete against the top guys in the world is a wonderful feeling," said Kerley.

"Hopefully he don’t duck out of this race.

"I’m in Morocco tomorrow so it’s on and popping."

As a statement it was a world away from the language of the great Victorian cricketer; but the sentiments were the same.

The Morocco mention was a reference to the fact that the two men are scheduled to meet in a 100m "double header" at the Rabat Diamond League next Sunday (May 28) and again at the Florence Diamond League on June 2.

The mention to ducking out was a thinly veiled reference to a belief voiced on Kerley’s side of the Atlantic that the Italian has been consciously avoiding him. Those on the other side of the Atlantic insist that Jacobs has been legitimately injured at certain key times.

Whatever you believe, Kerley’s latest addition to this to-and-fro has nudged up a little further the anticipation of events in Rabat and Florence - and, crucially, in Budapest later this summer when the American will defend his world title.

It is, frankly, good for the sport’s profile. No one is suggesting this "trash talking" should go as crassly far as some recent examples we have witnessed in boxing, where "trash" has been a polite word for some of the things said. 

And of course retracted in mutual exchanges of "respect" after the fights are over. But a bit of grit creates the oyster…

Later yesterday, on a characteristically blustery day in Bermuda, there was more evidence of an "on and popping" rivalry teetering on the brink of open acrimony. 

That evidence came in the first event of the second World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meetings of the day, the women’s long jump, where Quanesha Burks and fellow United States athlete Tara Davis-Woodhall, in mental terms, duked it out.

There was history between them - a rivalry which escalated earlier this year when Davis-Woodhall used her husband’s Instagram account, her own apparently having been blocked by Burks, to issue a challenge to her rival: "Anywhere, anytime! I’ll pay for your flight."

Davis-Woodhall also pledged $5,000 (£4,000/€4,620) to tempt her rival into a one-on-one meeting.

This flurry of online activity, reportedly, came in response to Burks saying she doesn’t need the "hype."

This reportedly referred to Davis-Woodhall’s flurry of online activity…

Davis-Woodhall’s Twitter account has 39.5k followers, and she is unabashed about her desire to "get more eyes" on her event.

Eyes were on the meeting in Baton Rouge on April 29 when Burks set a wind-legal mark of 6.95 metres that was at the time the best recorded in 2023.

But Davis-Woodhall won the meeting with an effort of 7.05m that was ineligible for record purposes because of a following wind given as 5.9 metres per second - 3.9mps above the allowable limit.

Words were exchanged between the two on social media regarding who could leave Baton Rouge with the best bragging rights, with Davis-Woodhall maintaining her pre-eminence while also contesting the wind reading.

Davis-Woodhall, who it transpired last month was stripped of the national indoor title she won in February and served a one-month suspension after testing positive for cannabis, has since moved on.

The planned head-to-head did not come to pass - effectively nixed by Burks’ Twitter post of “7.9.23”, the date of the 2023 US Championships.

But, as Davis-Woodhall was able to tell The Lap Count on citiusmag: "Well news for you! The 1 vs 1 is not going to happen but a showdown will be happening in two weeks’ in Bermuda on USATF-Bermuda track meet."

She had got a late invitation to make her first trip to Bermuda.

And lo, the contest came to pass. And lo, it was worth the wait. On the day after her 24th birthday Davis-Woodhall took the lead with a wind-assisted 7.03m in the second-round, and repeated that in the third-round. But Burks finished the third round in the lead after recording 7.04m.

Monumental stuff. But Davis-Woodhall wasn’t finished, and with her last jump she soared out to another wind-assisted effort that earned her the victory - 7.11m, with a following wind just 0.1mps over the limit…

"I am so, so thankful for the meet judges to get me into this meet," Davis-Woodhall told The Royal Gazette.

"I got in very, very last minute, so its unbelievable to be here, I've never been to Bermuda but now I will come back."

Quanesha Burks has been involved in a war of words with fellow US long jumper Tara Davis-Woodhall ©Getty Images
Quanesha Burks has been involved in a war of words with fellow US long jumper Tara Davis-Woodhall ©Getty Images

She said she felt her first effort, red-flagged, was well over seven metres.

"My first jump I swear it had to be 24 feet, it was massive," she said.

"I felt what I needed to do but I was at 7.03 and she was at 7.04, so that was a bit surprising, but I didn't let it get to my head and I just tried to stay focused.

"I felt everything that I've done at practice in that final jump, I couldn't ask for more. I knew I wanted to jump seven metres as much as  I can, I trust what I am doing that I will jump seven metres."

The celebrations were as mighty as the competition - and Burks was on hand for a respectful embrace.

On her Twitter feed, Davis-Woodhall re-tweeted and commented upon a critical post saying she had celebrated "like she won the Olympic title" and which offered "major credit to Burks being gracious in defeat."

Davis-Woodhall’s response was unwavering: "7.11 deserves this. I WORK TOO HARD NOT TO CELEBRATE.”

In her interview with The Lap Count Davis-Woodhall commented at one point: "I do want to reiterate that the 'beef' is all out of love for the sport and wanting to see it grow. I have no ill feelings toward Quanesha. She is a bomb-ass jumper."

To be continued…