Let’s play the game, not politics
20 Jan 2008, 0414 hrs IST,Shashi Tharoor
It is dangerous to act as if the undoubted financial weight of India in world cricket entitles us to our own set of rules. Despite the witty private comment to me of a senior BCCI official – “why shouldn’t we now behave in the ICC as the US has always behaved in the WTO?” – we should not destroy world cricket over a misplaced sense of national pride. Racism is as abhorrent when a bunch of under-educated young Indians in our stadiums make monkey-like gestures as Symonds comes out to bat, as it was when Mike Procter walked routinely into a dressing-room from which coloured players were barred.
With the Perth Test underway as I write, the news that the Harbhajan case is on hold till the end of the month, when his (and India’s) appeal against his three-Test ban for alleged racial abuse will be heard, offers a brief respite in which to consider some of the broader issues that have emerged from the recent cricket fracas in Australia.
The cricketing aspects of the controversy are clear enough. India suffered from umpiring that was incompetent and quite conceivably biased, and it was right to make it clear that Steve Bucknor no longer enjoyed the confidence of the touring team. What appears to have been overlooked, though, is the question of why the BCCI did not object to Mr Bucknor’s standing well before the series even began. This is hardly the first time the egregious gentleman has erred against Indian players, denied reasonable appeals, and refused to take recourse to available technology which in multiple cases would have vindicated the Indian side. Indeed I can hardly recall a Test match involving India in which Mr Bucknor has stood in the last decade which was not replete with such incidents: Tendulkar has been a repeated victim. Could the BCCI not, with all appropriate discretion, have privately indicated that Mr Bucknor was not welcome to stand in matches involving India, well before he was appointed (yet again) for a series? Did we have to wait for him to cost us a Test match before we finally declared that enough was enough?
Again, was there nothing that could have been done about the Harbhajan crisis before the dung hit the fan? Australia is the world capital of sledging in sports; the very tactic was invented by them. Australian cricketers pride themselves on their mental toughness and believe other teams are deficient in this attribute; they therefore resort to unpleasant comments, usually involving references to the opposing players’ mothers, sisters or wives, in an effort to disturb the opponents’ concentration and distract them into making errors. The approach involves crude psychology, and while it is rarely witty (“how’s your wife and my kids?” is how an Australian slip fielder once greeted a homesick English batsman arriving at the crease), it is often effective: angry players make rash mistakes. Does the BCCI provide anti-sledging counselling to our players, training them to ignore such provocations and instructing them not to offer any of their own? Was any special attention paid to the hotter-headed amongst our team members, a category into which Harbhajan clearly falls? Would a cooler head have tapped Brett Lee on the posterior with a bat, thereby prompting Andrew Symonds to unleash the diatribe that in turn allegedly provoked Harbhajan’s punishable response? Cooler heads are not just born, they can be made; but there is little evidence that our team management thought that counselling on such on-field matters was likely to be as important as net practice.
Once the complaint was lodged, how hard did we work to get it withdrawn before it came to a hearing? It is not clear that we did; instead of Kumble speaking to the insolent Ponting when the latter said it was already too late, could a higher-level approach to Cricket Australia, pointing to the likely consequences for the tour if this matter got out of hand, have prevented matters coming to a head? The nationwide outrage at the three-Test ban that followed caught our administrators by surprise. But was it wise to imply that the very charge was unacceptable? (Indians are hardly incapable of racism, despite the country’s long and honourable record of opposition to South African apartheid, a system within which Mike Procter played and flourished before discovering its evils in Sydney.)
Once we have lodged an appeal, though, we have every obligation, as a responsible and law-abiding country, to honour its findings. To imply that we would reject any guilty verdict as a slight to our national honour is to undermine the very process in which we have engaged. Once again, the best thing would be to see if the complaint can be withdrawn and the proceedings quashed. But if that is now legally impossible, we have no choice but to present our best arguments to the appeals judge — a professional who, unlike Procter, actually understands the rules of evidence and the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” — and then to accept his verdict in good grace, whatever it is.
If the judge finds that Harbhajan did say what the Australians accuse him of saying, and that the intent was to disparage Symonds’ racial origins, then we must accept the punishment he imposes, without further cavil. It is dangerous to act as if the undoubted financial weight of India in world cricket entitles us to our own set of rules.
Despite the witty private comment to me of a senior BCCI official — “why shouldn’t we now behave in the ICC as the US has always behaved in the WTO?” — we should not destroy world cricket over a misplaced sense of national pride. Racism is as abhorrent when a bunch of under-educated young Indians in our stadiums make monkey-like gestures as Symonds comes out to bat, as it was when Mike Procter walked routinely into a dressing-room from which coloured players were barred.
Yet one area in which India should definitely use its financial clout is in denying the benefits of Indian corporate sponsorship to players who have violated the spirit of the game. After the appalling behaviour of young Michael Clarke in Sydney, I wouldn’t trust him to tell me the time of day, let alone buy a product he endorses. It seems to me entirely reasonable that Indian companies should rethink the value of associating with such behaviour. If Australian cricketers want to win at all costs, let them realize that there will be costs — to them. But let us always, whatever the provocation, play the game.