The international game lurched towards a major crisis yesterday when India threatened to suspend their tour of Australia. The threat comes in the wake of the International Cricket Council's decision to hit Harbhajan Singh, the Indian spinner, with a three-Test ban for making a racist remark to Andrew Symonds, the only non-white player in the Australian side, during the ill-tempered second Test in Sydney.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India has appealed against the outcome of the hearing and the sentence imposed on Harbhajan, who was deemed guilty of calling Symonds a "monkey" by Mike Proctor, the match referee, during an on-field altercation on the third day of the Test. The BCCI will delay its decision to continue with the tour until the appeal has taken place, and instructed its players yesterday to remain in Sydney rather than travel to Canberra to prepare for Thursday's scheduled two-day match against an ACT Invitational XI.
Australia won the second Test by 122 runs in a controversial manner with just eight minutes of play remaining. It was a triumph that enabled Ricky Ponting's side to equal its own record run of 16 consecutive victories. But the match will now be remembered as much for several poor umpiring decisions most of which went against India as the wonderful cricket played and the ugly incident between Harbhajan and Symonds.
The exchange took place while Harbhajan was batting and Ponting, the Australian captain, reported the alleged comments to the match officials. Neither of the on-field umpires, Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, nor the match referee, with the aid of on-field microphones, heard what was said, and Harbhajan denies making the remark. Yet Proctor, in a case of one person's word against another, chose to come down on the side of the Australian. In a statement the BCCI said : "The incident involving India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and Australia all-rounder Andrew Symonds and the subsequent hearing by the ICC match referee and his conclusions are, to say the least, distressing. The Indian Board does not accept the findings of the match referee and has decided to challenge the unfair decision to suspend Harbhajan Singh as it deems it patently unfair.
"The Board will appeal to the ICC to review the decision of the match referee and suspend its operation until the appeal is disposed of. The Indian Board realises the game of cricket is paramount but so, too, is the honour of the India team and for that matter every Indian. To vindicate its position, the Board will fight the blatantly false and unfair slur of an Indian player."
James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, does not believe the tour will be cancelled and has asked the two captains, Ponting and Anil Kumble, to try to resolve the situation. Whether Kumble, who criticised the Australian players for the way in which they behaved during the Test, is willing to reconcile is another matter. "There are a number of difficult and complex issues that have arisen out of the match," said Sutherland. "I think that emotions have run high and I'm sure in the cold, hard, light of day the two captains can get together and discuss any residual differences that may be existing."
Racism has no place in sport, or anywhere for that matter, but there is a certain irony about Ponting reporting Harbhajan to the match officials. For years Australia have been the most confrontational and abusive side in cricket, a team prepared to go to any length to undermine the confidence and concentration of an opponent. Steve Waugh, the former Australia captain, described the tactic as "mental disintegration". It may have helped his side become the game's major force but it remains an unpalatable way of playing the game.
Ponting's actions have brought a mixed response from people in Australia. There are many who believe, and Australians say it more often than anyone else; "that what goes on in the middle should stay in the middle".
In the modern world this is a dated view but there are plenty of Aussies who believe that Ponting is hypocritical and has been soft for "dobbing" Harbhajan in trouble. There is also a fear here that from now on a complaint will be made to an umpire on every occasion an Aussie player swears or makes an abusive comment to an opponent. Had this been the case when Glenn McGrath and Merv Hughes were playing neither would have played in consecutive Tests.
The most serious matter, however, concerns the ICC and its umpires, and the ability of the governing body to police the game. At times it has been hard to work out who runs international cricket, the ICC or the BCCI. Cricket in India generates substantially more money than the rest of the cricketing world put together and without their support and assistance the ICC would be lost.
The incident brings back memories of The Oval in 2006, when Pakistan refused to return to the field of play after being accused of ball-tampering cheating. The actions of Inzamam-ul-Haq and his side, along with those of the umpires, resulted in a Test being abandoned. The reaction to this event, as with that at The Oval, will discourage officials from taking a firm stance on any major issue in the future, a policy that can only do further damage to the integrity of the game.
In an attempt to support its officials the ICC has resisted India's demands to drop Bucknor from next week's third Test in Perth. In India, Bucknor and Benson have been blamed for their side's defeat and the BCCI wanted the 61-year-old Jamaican prevented from officiating after a series of blunders in the second Test.
BEST OF ENEMIES: Australia and India's war of words
* 2 Oct 2007 After Australia beat India in a one-day international in Kochi, Harbhajan Singh criticises the tourists for their "vulgar" behaviour.
* 17 Oct As India win the final match, in Bombay, four of their fans are ejected for directing monkey chants at Australia's Andrew Symonds.
* 29 Dec Yuvraj Singh is cleared of dissent during the first Test in Melbourne following charges that he stood his ground for several seconds after umpire Billy Bowden gave him out.
* 4 Jan Harbhajan is charged with using abusive language during the second Test after Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, reports him to umpire Mark Benson following an altercation with Symonds.
* 6 Jan Harbhajan is banned for three games for allegedly calling Symonds a "monkey". India make counter-accusations against Brad Hogg. India captain, Anil Kumble, accuses the Australians of underhand tactics, while manager Chetan Chauhan is angry at some umpiring decisions.
* 7 Jan Indian officials halt the tour pending Harbhajan's appeal.