Race Row Spoils Cricketing Classic

15 01 2008

The row over alleged racism in the second test between India and Australia has been raging in the media, and as with so many things, in particular sporting matters, I do have some rather strong opinions. So far I’ve chosen not to mention them but with the third test looming tomorrow now seems as appropriate a time as any. Both teams will hopefully now set aside differences and get on with the game which hopefully bring an end to what has been a very sorry week for the world of cricket.

Let me begin by congratulating the Australians on a remarkable achievement, equalling their own record of 16 successive Test match victories, the 16th of which, even under the cloud of controversy, took remarkable skill and ability. I don’t care what anyone says, the Australians won because they deserved to. Umpiring decisions definitely cost India dearly but what separates the best from the also-rans is the fact that champions (such as the Australians certainly are in Test cricket) make the most of their luck.

A prime example of this came in the first Test in Melbourne. Yuvraj Singh was adjudged not out when he was clearly out. A few balls later he was given out when he wasn’t. By contrast Andrew Symonds was given a life (one of at least three) on 30 and went on to make a sensational 162 not out. His battering 61 off 100 balls in the second innings owed nothing to luck either, and his performance throughout the five days showed why he is the world’s best all-rounder. Brilliant batsman, capable bowler, fantastic fielder.

Unfortunately the controversy after the match overshadowed what was an excellent game of cricket. RP Singh and Brett Lee can both be very proud of the way they bowled (and the latter can even be proud of the way he batted) and the batting of Symonds, Hogg, Laxman, Tendulkar, Hayden and Hussey was sensational. Five centuries, three of them big ones and eight half centuries, three bowlers picking up four wicket hauls and one getting a five-fer. That all adds up to one hell of a game.

Of course that is not what the match will be remembered for. I’ve said for a long time that Bucknor shouldn’t be umpiring, although in the past my criticism was more of his sight than his hearing (which seemed to be the sense that failed him this time). Benson should never have been an elite umpire, he’s guaranteed to make at least one error every single match. So when I heard the two were umpiring this one my first thought was “uh-oh” and so it proved. Bucknor has borne the brunt but Benson was just as bad.

Ponting should clearly have been given out when he edged Ganguly down the legside but then equally shouldn’t have been given out lbw to Harbhajan (again!). If you live by the sword, you die by the sword, so that one evens out quite well. The same can’t be said for Symonds who survived not only an edge behind off the bowling of Sharma but also two stumping appeals that I can recall, one of which wasn’t even given when referred to the third umpire. However one of the decisions that some Indian fans have claimed was wrong (Clarke’s catch off Ganguly) looked fine to me.

It was certainly not as egregious as the catch Dhoni claimed off Pietersen in the summer. I think the Indians should remember that incident before accusing other teams of claiming catches that they shouldn’t have. Yet even the terrible standard of the umpiring is not the issue that the match will be remembered for. Sledging has again come under fire. Good cricket is aggressive cricket, and the Australians typify this more than any other nation. There is, however, a line, one Anil Kumble has claimed was crossed.

I do think he owes Ponting (and the Australians) an explanation for his comments after the match, which bordered on accusing the Australians of cheating. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism, they may be many things (convicts, illiterate, alcoholics etc) but they’re not cheaters. Yet it wasn’t so much what was said after the match that crossed the line, so much as what was said during. Brad Hogg was reported (although this complaint has been withdrawn now) for using the word “bastard” and Harbhajan Singh was initially banned for allegedly calling Symonds, a black man, “monkey”.

Taking each in turn I think, and this seems borne out by the actions afterwards, that Hogg’s words were pretty tame. To begin with there’s an argument that he was saying it more as a throwaway remark than an insult, like when you call a mate a “lucky bastard”.

Then there’s the fact that I myself saw Sharma mouth a Hindi phrase implying Steve Bucknor sleeps with his sister when the latter didn’t given Symonds out (when he edged behind). Even if this wasn’t spotted, one of the defences used for Harbhajan is that what he actually said was a Hindi slight against Symonds’ mother. Unless insulting someone’s mother is more acceptable than insulting their father, there’s no difference.

However when looking at the Harbhajan situation I can’t help but wonder if, in the absence of video or audio evidence, we should assume guilt or innocence. There’s such an immense stigma attached when an innocent person is accused of racism, a stigma that doesn’t even go away if they’re later vindicated that it is surely the case that we presume someone to be innocent until proven guilty. Of course I doubt that this would have been entirely satisfactory for Symonds but that’s simply unfortunate.

Perhaps the ideal solution to the problem would have been for the match referee to simply fine Singh the maximum, donating the fine to an anti-racism charity. If Symonds believes he was racially abused he can have no quarrel with that and equally, even if Harbhajan protests his innocence, I see no reason for him to object to supporting an anti-racism drive. Whatever was the ideal solution, we’re past the point of no return.

With two more Tests, and then a triangular one-day series, still to come both captains have some work to do. It would be a good idea for both to sit down to talk with one another. Likewise Symonds and Singh need to leave the matter of the racism allegation in the hands of the ICC and publicly state that they will abide by whatever decision is reached. Perhaps an on-screen shake of the hands, be it between Harbhajan and Symonds or Ponting and Kumble, and a clear message that whatever happened, the game must go on. It is, lest we forget, meant to be about having fun!


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