Wednesday, 30 January 2008

'Hot' Cricket

During a recent visit to a 'continental' restaurant in the North Indian city of Amritsar, I was amazed to discover a novel way of offering toothpicks - by poking them into green chillies. Until I was informed by my uncle that this is how they served chillies. This was certainly food for thought, or hot food for acidic thought - have five years of living in Australia made me too 'western' in my perception of the world and am I, therefore, more likely to want toothpicks than chillies? Maybe it is as simple as the fact that despite having grown up in the land of spices, my gastronomic ability to appreciate anything 'hot' has always been limited.

I had a similar reaction to the heat wave of the 'racism' controversy in cricket that not only swept India and Australia, but also radiated to other parts of the world as witnessed on CNN during my two-day sojourn in Singapore. However, even though it was the peak of winter in northern India at the time, I found myself in the middle of the most heated reaction to the Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds row in this part of the country. The umpteen television channels played and replayed the umpiring decisions of the Sydney Test, hunted down Singh's relatives for comment, and conducted opinion polls in a bid to invoke/represent public anger. And as I packed my bags and sat on the morning train to New Delhi from where I was to board my outward flight to Australia, I was unusually sweaty. Then there came iced coffee and former Australian captain Steve Waugh's column in an Indian newspaper putting the fiasco down to a matter of 'cultural difference'. That explained many fiascos to me - both in my personal life and in the big bad world. It was a magic phrase. But I still dreaded that I was flying to Sydney and not directly to Adelaide. Perhaps I was only worrying about how Australians would react towards me.

Sydney was calm. Adelaide was calmer still. I came to the hasty conclusion that cricket-mad and newly-moneyed, Indians had as usual made a mountain of a molehill. My friendly next-door neighbour, a 'mainstream' Australian and cricket buff, encouraged me to purchase a ticket to the Adelaide Test. He also added that given Symonds' made nothing of being abused while in India, there should not have been a repeat of the episode here. I concurred. And then it was suggested that Singh never used the word 'monkey', but instead employed the Punjabi insult 'maa ki'. Cultural difference indeed, I thought. The Indians withdrew a complaint against Brad Hogg. Peace at last? I was nonetheless beginning to feel the Adelaide summer. Sipping water at my desk, I glossed over most of the readers' comments accompanying the story on the Adelaidenow website. India won the Perth Test. Redemption for the wronged? My father told me on the phone that Indians were getting very excited about the possibility of winning in Adelaide and drawing the series. The test was a draw. Adam Gilchrist's retirement took away some of the bite from the still-pending 'race' decision. But the test series was over, and India was still here. I was relieved.

Yesterday, I bumped into the ever-dignified Sachin Tendulkar while strolling along Rundle Mall in Adelaide city. Was it a sign I should have paid more heed to my 'Indianness' while forming an opinion on Australian soil?
Yesterday, Harbhajan Singh was also cleared of race charges. But as I booted my laptop this morning and read the story in the The Australian, it struck me that the matter was bigger than cricket and politics. 'Cricket caves in to India's demands', it said. Possibly true, I thought. And then I opened The Times of India, which read - 'Australian media cry foul over Bhajji decision'. For the first time in weeks, I was saddened and not angered by the disparate readings of the situation. There was no urge for water, just a heartfelt desire to ask people at the top and those down below to let go - not just for the 'spirit of the game', but in the interests of that goodwill which is not enshrined in any national, international or cricketing constitutions. I have spent a very personally and professionally rewarding period of my life in Australia - and I cherish the independence, the friends and the surroundings it has given me. At the same time, my identity is incomplete without factoring in my Indian upbringing. Am I torn? Is the current discord breaking my heart? Probably. But I hope my healing and that of my countries is speedy and scar-free.


nandini said...

you've struck the right cord on the current racial abuse situation, and given the fact you are residing in australia, it just reminds me of the many indians settled abroad facing a similar situation when it comes to cultural diffenrences.

Arka Bhattacharya said...

I am very very dissapointed with your recent post. You should do more research about what actually happend.

1. The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Governer general and former cricket Neil Harvey all critisized the Australian cricket teams on field behaviour.

2. Andrew Synonds provoked Andrew Symonds in case you didnt know Harbhajan patted Brett Lees shoulder on a brilliant delivery as an act of good sportsmanship and as a result Andrew Symonds sweared at Harbhajan Singh. He said "No one is your fucking freind in the Australian cricket team and other foul language. Note that Andrew Symonds also did the same thing in India as well and nothing was done against him as usual.

3. Mike Procter has a history against Asian teams including Pakistan. You should do some research in this area! he banned Rashid Latif for 3 matches for claiming a catch he actually didnt take. Fast forward 2008 he took no action against Ricky Ponting who claimed a catch but clearly he didnt take. Without evidence he banned Harbhajan singh without considering the facts of the case and he stated that "Harbhajan Singh made a racial remark without any doubt" how can someone be so biased?

4. Channel 9! is the new Fox news! channel. Its the most biased, racist and unfair news channel on earth. They did a cricket show on Harbhajan Singh! and without his knowledge branded him a racist. It showed a one sided episode of the Monkey affair without highlighting how it started in the firts. No one in Channel 9 has so far mentioned that Andrew Symonds wasnt allowed to talk to Harbhajan Sinh in this series and he did! not only did he swear! but he showed poor sportsmanship as well.

5. In India where Australia toured for the ODI series it was an Australian crowd! under the influence of alcohol abused the crowd and called them monkeys which is how this whole thing started in the first place.

4. Darren Lehman, Glen Mcgrath and Ian Healy have all made racist comments to the Srilankan team and no one has been banned for 3 test matches by any umpiring official.

5. Talking about crowd behaviour! what happend when South Africa toured Australia? They were all called Kafirs by Australian crowds.

6. Last tour Saurav Ganguly gave Umpire Buckon a zero! for his umpring! the South Africans did the same thing. The CEO of Australian cricket board did absolutely nothing! except bring the incompetant umpire back to Australia. Aleem Darr's visa meanwhile was cancelled before the tour.

Enough is enough! stop trying to defend this racist country! Asian teams and other teams around the world have been tortured like this since the last decade. Indian cricket board will not and should not put up with Bullshit especially when it now is in a powerfull position. The Indian team is fighting for what it believes is right. The australian media keeps claiming that Australians have not been charged for poor behaviour instead Indians and Srilankans have! is it any suprise?? No one is saying Indians are angels! but lets have some fairness in this game of cricket. Clearly Australia is the most poorly behaved team on earth! and people are angry because no one in the Australian team gets any suspension or fines.



RobertS said...

Thanks for the excellent article Sukhmani. It was incisive and thought provoking. Both sides have been at fault in the present imbroglio. And players and fans of both teams need to take a deep breath and resist inflaming the situation.



ps. Nothing is worse than Fox News - apart from Bob Francis

Arka Bhattacharya said...

hey robert! i may have gone a bit over the top! back there but as everyone knows this is a very heated topic right now. Your right both sides should just calm down! and me included.

Arka Bhattacharya said...

January 31, 2008

Posted by Mukul Kesavan 5 hours, 20 minutes ago in

Shock and Awe

Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar put the BCCI on notice after Mike Procter's decision to hand Harbhajan Singh a three-Test ban © GNNphoto

The two greatest Test series India has played in recent times have been against Australia: 2001 at home and 2008, Down Under. There's a curious symmetry to these two contests: India won the first one, 2-1 and lost the second one 1-2. Harbhajan was the pivot on which both turned: as a hero in the first (he took an astonishing 32 wickets in three Tests) and as a villain in the second, after his run-in with Symonds. If the 2001 series saw the beginning of Tendulkar's transformation into an attritional player, the one just ended saw that master-craftsman persona discarded as Tendulkar went back to being the Master. And in both series India stopped a great Australian team's astonishing winning run: Waugh's team and Ponting's, were looking for a seventeenth consecutive victory and both were thwarted by unlikely defeats.

In the seven years between these two 21st century contests, international cricket was dominated by two developing narratives.

One was driven by the strength of the Indian economy, the purchasing power of its consuming middle class and the consequent and massive increase in the television revenues controlled by the BCCI. The Indian board became the paymaster of world cricket and cricket's calendar became India-centric. This made other countries understandably uneasy and when incidents like the Sehwag controversy in South Africa provoked the BCCI to flex its muscles, Anglo-Australian commentators saw not an evolutionary shift in cricket's centre of gravity, but a thuggish take over, while south Asian fans and journalists saw a western unwillingness to acknowledge the end of empire.

The second story was a growing South Asian unease with the successful Australian attempt to claim the moral high ground in world cricket. Australians don't like it but the country's cricketers are widely seen as potty-mouthed bullies who manage to get away with murder partly because they sledge strategically and partly because the Australian definition of 'hard but fair'—filth on the field and a beer off it—seemed to have been swallowed whole by the umpires and match referees who supervise international cricket. Every time Ponting tells television cameras that after 2003 the Australian team cleaned up its act and then cites figures to show that Australian players have been brought before the match referee much less often than any other major Test side, aggrieved Indian supporters put this down to Australian hegemony. They remain convinced that umpires are willing to sanction manly truculence (obscenity, lewdness and intimidation) but not shrill petulance (jack-in-box appeals, visible disappointment) because the former affects players while the latter is directed at umpires. This sense of being hard done by is reinforced by the pattern of bad decisions suffered by touring teams in Australia, Kumar Sangakkara's appalling decision being perhaps the worst in recent times.

Australian cricket is hegemonic for the best possible reasons. Australia has had the best cricket team by miles for more than ten years, its coaches have, at one time or another, have tried to drill Australian skills into other national squads, its sports science and its training methods are cutting edge and Channel 9's cricket telecast has taught the world how to cover cricket. But because its players fetishize a hardnosed take on the game, they, unlike the West Indies in their pomp, are universally unloved and in recent years the Ugly Australian stereotype has been rendered uglier by Ponting's charmless leadership.

Indians don't think much of Ponting for several reasons. His first tour was dogged by rumours of bad behaviour, his second tour was an embarrassment (he scored less than a dozen runs in three Test matches), his onfield aggression struck Indians as offensive, his unlovely habit of spitting into his palms and rubbing them together left desis wondering how he got people to shake hands with him and not only did he look remarkably like George Bush, he behaved like him too.

Bush invaded Iraq and then managed to get the invasion ratified by the United Nations after the fact. Anglo-American rhetoric about the legitimacy of pre-emptive war is similar to Australian cricket's argument that bullying (so long as it wins matches) can be justified as robustness. 'Hard and Fair' in the world defined by Bush, begins to read like 'Shock and Awe'.

It is in this charged context that the just concluded Test series between India and Australia unfolded, and in the second Test at Sydney, the two grand narratives of 21st century cricket, India's growing economic clout and Australia's cricketing hegemony, met like unsheathed live wires. It didn't help that the tension between the two teams had been personified. Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh took it upon themselves in the recent one-day series between the two countries to answer sledging with fevered aggression. Harbhajan went on record to say that Australian behaviour was 'vulgar' and that they were bad losers. We are now told that he had a run-in with Symonds in Baroda, so when Sreesanth didn't make the squad to Australia, he was, for the Australian team, the Ugly Indian.

From the Indian point of view, the Sydney Test was a textbook illustration of the way in which an Australian series is loaded against the opposition. The Indian team got a slew of awful umpiring decisions, the Australians did their tiresome all-in-the-game-mate routine, Clarke exploited a gentleman's agreement to claim a dodgy catch, Ponting disclaimed a catch and then unsuccessfully appealed for another that he had obviously grounded (and, post-match, barked at an Indian reporter who questioned him about it), then reported Harbhajan for racially abusing Symonds.

The most satisfying part of Hansen's judgment is his characterisation of Michael Clarke as an unreliable witness © Getty Images

When Mike Procter upheld the Australian charge and banned Harbhajan for three matches he brought the two live wires into contact and the lights nearly went out on the game. Indian players have been on the receiving end of the match referee's kangaroo court before and know it to be dysfunctional. Procter is a notably inept match referee who presided over the shambles created by Darrell Hair and the Pakistan cricket team last year. For him to have taken the word of the likes of Michael Clarke, who as a batsman had stood his ground after being caught off a massive edge at slip and who as a fielder had confidently claimed a bump ball catch, over the testimony of Tendulkar who insisted he hadn't heard 'monkey' being said, was the final straw. The most satisfying part of Hansen's judgment is his characterisation of the slippery Clarke as an unreliable witness.

I think it's likely that Harbhajan called Symonds a monkey, but judgment can't be based on what I or anyone else thinks: it rests on what can be proven. There was no corroborative evidence in the Harbhajan affair and the hostilities of the Sydney Test had destroyed any trust between the two sides, leaving the Indian team in a state of thin-skinned rage at being robbed. Procter managed to compound this mess by unequivocally finding for the Australians without explaining how he had come to his conclusions.

This is when India flexed its muscle, but the 'India' in question wasn't the BCCI, it was the Indian team. Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar, the two most senior players in the Indian side, one its best bowler and the other its best batsman for nearly twenty years, put the BCCI on notice. They insisted that the Board stand by Harbhajan and made it clear that the team was unwilling to go on with the tour if Procter's decision wasn't reversed.

Journalists who think the BCCI used the occasion to assert itself are just plain wrong. The Indian board has no interest in cricket as such: witness the absurd schedule it framed for the Indian team. Left to itself, the Board would have hung Harbhajan up to dry (as it had sacrificed Bishan Bedi over the 'Vaseline' affair decades ago) and gone on with the tour: it was Tendulkar's ultimatum that goosed them into action. Press criticism of the BCCI's brinkmanship in chartering a plane to fly the team home from Adelaide if the appeal went against Harbhajan, could just as well be directed at the Indian team, because I'm certain that the old firm, Kumble & Tendulkar, had something to do with the arriving one-day specialists being quartered in Adelaide in solidarity with Harbhajan.

I suspect the reason for this last flourish was the report that Judge Hansen was likely to consider new audio evidence that had not been made available to Procter. The tapes didn't have Harbhajan saying 'monkey' but they had Hayden telling Harbhajan that a word he had used amounted to racism. My guess is that the possibility that the Australians would spin this as clinching evidence, drove Kumble and Tendulkar to circle the wagons in Adelaide. And here's the thing: it worked. The Australians agreed to press the lesser charge. Having set up this eyeballing contest, they blinked.

Is this the end of the rule of law as we know it and the onset of anarchy? No. On the evidence of the third and fourth Tests, it feels more like the dawn of a new age of civility on the ground and a possible end to sledging. There was a time in Test cricket (a very long time) when Australia and England were more equal than the rest and the game survived that asymmetry. It'll survive this one.

jim said...

You people make blogging worthwhile, definitely not a wasteland with folks like you gabbing, and I will compliment the blog owner SK for exceptional writing and content in all these posts. Cricket besides, the other stuff is great and I am glad to read around the sport and find sane and reason ruling the day. My hat is off to you!