Dick Francis, once a jockey for the late Queen Mother’s horses, found a second career post retirement as a mystery writer whose stories explored the darker side of racing. The time is ripe for a former cricketer to do the same.
The year is barely a week old and we’re already headlong into a fresh cricketing scandal. This time around it’s a race row between India and Australia – with an Australian cricketer alleging he was racially abused by an Indian player. Ah, sports in the global village. You gotta love it.
It all started way back when (alright, two and a half months ago) when Australia were touring India. A bunch of spectators in Vadodara marked Andrew Symonds, an Australian player of West Indian and British descent who was born in England, as the “enemy” thanks to his on-field clashes with Indian hotheads Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh – two players least likely to take it like proper Indians – and began baiting him in the presence of a South African journalist.
Said journalist was more than a little taken aback when the Indian spectators around him began imitating monkeys. He asked one guy close to him what he thought he was doing. “He looks like a monkey,” the man apparently said. There are two ways to take this comment: one, he was alluding to the fact that Symonds was “black” and that he thought black people are less than human; two, he thought Symonds, literally, looked like a monkey.
The first would clearly be an example of racism. The second would have been his opinion. We don’t know which it was. But either way, it wasn’t very nice. If it was a racist comment then it was despicable and I hope he felt it burn when Symonds went on smash the ball all over the place. If it was his idea of a clever bit of namecalling, I hope he’s sitting at home watching the current drama play out on TV and coming to the realization that wit is not his forte.
The South African journalist later asked a member of the Australian press contingent if Symonds had mentioned the incident to him. The Australian said no and asked Symonds about it. Symonds appeared to have forgotten all about it but when quizzed, replied yeah, he remembered something of the sort but didn’t make much of it.
Next up, Mumbai where a massive row broke out when a group of idiots were captured on camera, scratching their armpits and hollering and jumping about. If they were looking to make it onto TV screens, they got their wish and more. Symonds was reportedly very upset and charges of racism were made against the crowd. Everybody fell over themselves excusing / castigating those men in the crowd who were eventually arrested but then released.
The best explanation, without doubt, was the one offered by one BCCI official that the monkey was sacred in Hinduism and thus the crowd was praying to Hanuman. That’s right – the sight of Symonds on the field brought out intense religious fervor in Indian cricket fans. And they invariably pray by yelling “monkey” and scratching their armpits. Ladies and gentlemen, a pause for applause here for the Board of Control for Cricket in India. They never disappoint.
In the middle of all this, Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh apparently tried his hand at sledging and ended up calling Symonds a monkey. After the match was over, Symonds came over to the dressing room and gave Harbhajan a short lesson on racism. Calling someone a monkey, where Symonds came from, meant that person was sub-human, an inferior breed. A charge that Australians are especially sensitive to because this attitude informed (white) Australian attitudes towards the Aborigines for years. Harbhajan, much contrite, said he’d had no idea and would never do it again.
Australia won that series in India and two and half months later, the Indians showed up in Australia for a rematch. The first test ended in a defeat for the visitors but the second test proved to be a real fight and the visitors put on a good show in spite of what seem to be rather more frequent umpiring errors than usual. (Understatement: it’s an art.) Then came The Incident.
Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan were at bat. Brett Lee was bowling. Harbhajan hit a delivery and ran down wicket for a run and along the way hit/patted Lee’s backside with his bat. Maybe this is how people express their affection in Jalandar or perhaps he felt he hadn’t hit the ball hard enough and therefore needed to hit the bowler as well to show the strength of his arm – hell, maybe it was the cricketing version of what basketball players do with their hands. Who knows what he was thinking? Harbhajan hasn’t yet explained and Lee has been absolutely mum on the subject. But Symonds got an eyeful of this and, perhaps because he enjoyed needling Harbhajan, decided to stick up for his teammate. So he and Harbhajan exchanged a few words.
And according to Symonds, this is when Harbhajan called him a monkey. Again. And not just any monkey but a “big monkey”.
I’ve heard a lot of people, by which I mean Indians, talk about how “monkey” is not a term of racial abuse in India and so Harbhajan never meant it like that. And as far as that goes, while “monkey” is definitely not a term of endearment (well, okay it can be but I don’t think that’s how they’d use sledging or having an altercation), they’re right – Indians don’t use it in the sense that Westerners do. However, if Harbhajan did use the term in Sydney, he did so after being informed of the connotations that the term carries in Australia – and as such he deserves condemnation.
The key question though, is did he use the term?
Michael Clarke, Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds say he did. Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh himself say he didn’t. The umpires didn’t hear anything and the stump mics didn’t pick anything up. So it basically comes down to whose word do you believe?
Mike Proctor, the South African match referee, decided the Australians had it right in this instance. He said as a South African, he recognized a racist attack when he saw it and it was quite clear to him that Harbhajan had not only said it but that he meant it as a racial slur. Since Proctor is so well versed in racism, then he might also understand the point that many Indian fans are making today: black man, known for sledging, accuses brown man, known for temper, of racism -> brown man denies it -> umpires don’t hear it, stump mics don’t pick it up -> another brown man says he was right there and he didn’t hear it -> two white men say they heard it loud and clear -> white man says he believes the white men.
The character of gentlemen should give everybody involved the benefit of the doubt in this instance. Just as we don’t want to believe that Tendulkar flat out lied to protect his teammate and that Harbhajan said that term/ meant it as a racial slur, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this is some sort of orchestrated campaign by the Australians to bump an effective bowler off an opposing team. Given the lack of hard evidence, it could have been resolved on field as a matter between gentlemen. But it wasn’t (and some people would say it’s because the Aussies have proven themselves to be no gentlemen) and so here we are.
However, if Ricky Ponting actually believed such a incident had gone down, he was perfectly justified in doing what he did. A fact that nobody pointed out more strongly than Ponting himself. Racism isn’t acceptable just because the target is a white man (Symonds isn’t but there have been other examples in the past) and a white team has every right to report an incident if it feels justified.
But now that he’s taken this step, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the years given Australia’s propensity to sledge. Some people, like Peter Roebuck, have called for Ponting’s head (for his attitude as well as his actions) and indeed, Australia may well come to regret this incident, but in the years to come? I think Ponting did everybody a favor.
I suppose in the short time to come you’re going to see some amount of retaliatory action, just like some allege the Australians are doing right now, but now that race has come into the open as a factor in a sport as beloved as cricket, there is no way it can be swept under the carpet by fatcats like the BCCI.
And now that the top dog in international cricket has stepped forward to make use of race laws, it should open the floodgates for other teams. After all, if Australia the hardy world champions don’t think it’s whiny behavior to stand up against racial abuse, why should other teams feel shy? And now that words like “monkey” and “bastard” are deemed racially sensitive, look for sledging to subside because really, who knows what might be culturally sensitive? Thus we come full circle and decide that abuse is abuse, whatever we call it. If you want to call someone names, make sure it’s someone from your own team because that’s the only way to ensure that you’re not stepping over some invisible line.
Good for all of us. Hard luck for Harbhajan, though.