Monday, 14 January 2008

Australian monkeys...

I can say this as a 'person of darker skin' - this racism thing is getting out of hand.

Last week, Harbhajan Singh, an Indian bowler, called Andrew Symonds a monkey: a 'bandhar', if you want the Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi. Ricky Ponting immediately reported the alleged offence, claiming it was 'racist', to the umpire, earning Bhajji a three game suspension.

Later, Ricky called it 'a little thing' - then why the f*** report it, dear? Australia complaining about another team's sledging is a bit like a politician complaining about someone else avoiding responsibility.

Tim de Lisle's article on cricinfo was brilliant, and I'll be quoting from it quite a bit:

something about the Harbhajan Singh affair doesn't feel right.

In fact, three things don't. First, it takes two to tangle. Andrew Symonds is a well-known sledger, as is Harbhajan. Mike Procter is asking us to believe that one party was severely at fault while the other was not at fault at all, and that doesn't ring true.

The second problem is that Procter listened to eight hours of evidence and then swallowed Ricky Ponting's view of things whole. Ponting is a sledger too, and he and Harbhajan have been needling each other on and off for nearly seven years. Ponting has often got out cheaply to Harbhajan: if anyone were to call him Bhajji's bunny, it would be harsh, and cheap, but fair.

Hmmm. Anybody smell something rotten in Sydney...perhaps the fact that Ricky wanted Bhajji out of the way?

The accusation? Racism. Ok, in Western countries, calling someone a monkey (outside of a child climbing like one or prefacing it with 'cheeky') is a bit dodgy. But on the subcontinent, 'bandhar' gets thrown around all the time - monkeys are seen as intelligent, lively, sly, clever, scheming. It's a step down from the other names you could call someone and often has an affectionate tone to it, though I doubt that was the case here - if it was actually said. To quote Mr de Lisle again:

His job as a match referee requires him to decide whether Harbhajan called Symonds a monkey, and if so, what he meant by it.Procter had to look at the remark through the lens of racism, but he might equally well have peered through the lens of speciesism. Bringing monkeys into a sportsmen's spat is demeaning to monkeys.

Amen to that. What really makes one feel like you've stepped into a Salvador Dali painting here is the fact that if Harbhajan had called Symonds a c**t, nobody would have batted an eyelid. In addition to that, this incident is being looked at through a Western lens - someone needed to consider the cultural context in which the word 'monkey' was said.

And yes, you read that right: it isn't even clear that Harbhajan SAID anything. It wasn't picked up on video or by the stump mikes - the latter being a bit odd, considering he was in his crease. The fact that Procter had to listen to EIGHT HOURS of evidence is indicative that there was serious doubt in the matter. Sachin Tendulkar, known as one of the gentlemen of the game, vouched for Harbhajan. This is a man who would walk from the crease if he were on 99 and knew he'd edged it, before the umpire raised his finger. I have no doubt that if he felt that Bhajji had been wrong, he'd have stepped up and said so.

Now, India's not completely in the right here - God knows the subcontinental teams appeal excessively, are overly dramatic, and are so manipulative they put a chiropractor to shame. That means they have very little goodwill on tap when things go wrong. They need to learn to shut up and play the game.

But I'm still disturbed by this part of the report:

Procter handed out a three-match ban to Harbhajan Singh, saying he was sure "beyond reasonable doubt" that a racist taunt had been directed at Andrew Symonds, but the Indians have claimed the document was extremely flimsy. The bit that has especially offended them is a line in the document which says, "I believe that one group was telling the truth". The players felt Procter had alleged they were lying and they didn't think there was any fairness to the verdict.

Mike, let's have a chat. No video, no stump mike, no tape that is incontrovertible proof - you're not sure of anything, mate. And for you to state "I believe that one group was telling the truth" is tactless at best and deliberately inflammatory at worst. But there's one more thing you need to consider (with deepest apologies to my Saffa mates - do comment, please):

You're a 61 year old white, South African male, who grew up invested in apartheid. Of the mostly white Australian team, known to be extremely provocative sledgers, you said, "I believe [they were] telling the truth," essentially accusing the non-white team of lying. As far as we know, you have no external evidence (which should have made this a 20 minute job), you showed no awareness (nor willingness to become aware) of cultural context, and you didn't even consider that both teams might have gotten it a bit wrong.

Where do you think the next charges of racism are going to be levelled? I know it crossed *my* mind.

But enough is enough. Let's put an end to this - let's bring back the behaviour for which the phrase 'that's not cricket' means something: fielders admitting they didn't take a clean catch, batsmen walking when they know they're out and silence on the field. Let their playing do the talking. Over to Mr de Lisle one last time:

Sledging has been rife for years, and it stinks. It's a sad, feeble way to try and take a wicket. Bowlers should use the ball, and their talent: that's what they're for. Batsmen who answer in kind, like Kevin Pietersen, who allegedly yelled "Fetch it!" at Symonds last year to give the impression that he was a specialist fielder, are little better.

It's sometimes said that fans wouldn't enjoy watching a game conducted largely in silence. But the outpouring of emotion on all sides this week - including an impressive number of two-eyed Australia fans - shows that the cricket-loving public are deeply disgruntled as it is. And silence is no problem at all. Curtly Ambrose didn't sledge, and people loved watching him.

Talking is the commentators' job. And the fans'. And the captains' - as long as they are addressing their own side, or the umpires, or the media, and not saying anything as crass as Ponting's claim that this row was "one little incident". If it was so little, why did he report it to the umpires, and set the ball rolling towards turning the incident into a diplomatic one?

Twelve years ago, a great Australian cricketer was asked for his views on sledging. "If a fellow attempted it under me," the old fellow replied, "I would have given him one warning and, if he repeated it, I would have made sure he was not selected again." That was Sir Don Bradman, speaking at the age of 87. Bradman wasn't always right, but he certainly was on that occasion. Sledging demeans everyone who practises it. It sours the game.

He's right. You don't look like professional sportsmen fighting a hard game, you look like insecure boys on the playground. Sledging made the accomplishments of Shane Warne, one of the greatest bowlers the game had ever seen, less than they were. One will always wonder if he could have done as well with his mouth shut, just showing us what he was capable of.

Hang your heads in shame, Australia - you've brought dishonour on your uniforms, your flag and your fans. You're renowned for fighting hard, but fair, and winning through your grit and ability.

I'll end this with words repeated on my blog over and over again: actions, not words, matter. Show us the poetry of the game - we don't want to hear it.

Now *that* would be cricket.

And dead sexy, to boot.

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