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When it's just not cricket

The hugely acrimonious fall-out between India and Australia is unfortunate but hardly surprising, given the game's long and unhappy history when it comes to mixing sport, politics and race. Stephen Brenkley reports

There was an eerily familiar ring to Anil Kumble's words. In the dramatic fall-out in every sense following the Sydney Test match, India's captain said: "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game, that's all I can say." The team he had in mind was not Australia.

Whereas, when Bill Woodfull spoke almost exactly 65 years ago the team he had in mind was most definitely Australia. "I don't want to see you Mr Warner," said Australia's captain to the opposition's manager, as England pummelled his team with bodyline bowling in Adelaide and provoked a diplomatic incident. "There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket, the other is not."

The juxtaposition of those comments confirms both that there is nothing new under the sun and that despite the obvious wisdom of doing so, there is a marked reluctance to learn from history. Cricket has always had a proclivity for not only getting mired in politics but also for allowing incidents on the field to fester off it, until one team or the other, or both, threatens to take their bats home.

The roll call is long and ignominious. If Bodyline was perhaps the acme of all bust-ups involving players there have been plenty more. The past couple of decades alone have given us the Shakoor Rana Impasse, the Ranatunga Incident, the Tendulkar Affair and the Darrell Hair Episode. If there is consolation to be taken from the present unhappy events it is that in every case it seemed for a few days, sometimes weeks, there would be a huge schism in the game. Eventually, everything continued in a state of relative normality until the next time.

Of course, Kumble's assessment was, in its way, a case of obfuscation. He might have been miffed (and he might have garnered a huge degree of sympathy) at the manner in which Australia achieved their epic victory in the second Test but the main point of contention is the three-match ban dished out to his fellow spin bowler, Harbhajan Singh, for a breach of the International Cricket Council's Code of Conduct.

Harbhajan was found guilty under Clause 3.3 after match referee, Mike Procter, pronounced himself satisfied that Harbhajan had referred to the Australian player, Andrew Symonds, as a "monkey". India immediately felt compelled to stand on their dignity. They have some recent previous to take into consideration. It would seem to demonstrate an unhealthy disinclination to take punishment when it is meted out. True, if Harbhajan said what it is said that he said, then a three-match ban would seem appropriate but if he did not, India's appeal is entirely understandable.

None the less, it is only six years since India were involved in a huge spat after a match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth. On that occasion, Harbhajan was one of six players disciplined by match referee, Mike Denness, for various misdemeanours. India were especially angry because Sachin Tendulkar was one of those penalised and since his status in the sub-continent is that of God rather than man, the Indian Board found it unpalatable for a charge to be brought and sentence to be handed down by a mere mortal.

The third match of the series did not take place as an official Test after the South Africa board unilaterally sacked Denness. The ill-feeling generated threatened to undermine India's series against England which followed almost immediately. Ultimately (but only in the nick of time) they backed down.

India might be all too willing to show their clout as the game's economic powerbase (a case of don't shove us around otherwise we will take our bats home and then where will you all be?) but it is the past they are truly railing against. Until not long ago, it was the custom for the likes of England and Australia to patronise all other countries.

Whatever the specific rights and wrongs of the unsavoury shenanigans in Sydney in the past few days, it is hard to quell the gut feeling that Australia had it coming. For most of the last 30 years and actually for most of the time before that (except when Woodfull, poor lamb, felt he had reason to feel so aggrieved) Australia have prided themselves on playing it hard.

When men like Ian Chappell were in charge in the Seventies, he just got on with the job of attempting to rub the opposition's noses into the dust without giving much thought for what anybody else thought. A more recent incumbent, Steve Waugh, lent the rough stuff a quasi-psychology. Rightly lauded for his own mental toughness, he was fond of referring to the "mental disintegration" of opponents. However Old Stoneface liked to dress it up, it all came down to sledging.

Since Ricky Ponting took over, he has been on a crusade to annex the moral and aesthetic high ground. Indeed, Australia have seemed less obviously vocally belligerent under his charge, though the swagger has been ever present. But they have still pushed matters, as though they all know what they can and cannot say under the Code of Conduct and stop just short of breaching it.

Symonds, who was born in England, plays it as hard as anybody, which since he was brought up in Queensland is natural. While it might not be strictly relevant to the present case and Symonds, do not forget, approached Harbhajan after what he perceived as a slight against his team-mate Brett Lee a straw poll among regular followers of international cricket would find Symonds extremely low on the popularity list. But in cricket, if it is not one thing, it has always been the other. England found themselves in trouble in Pakistan in late 1987 when their captain, Mike Gatting, objected to his treatment by the Pakistan umpire, Shakoor Rana. The photograph of Gatting wagging his finger at the umpire sent shockwaves round the sporting world. In that case the repercussions were enduring: England did not tour there for another 13 years.

If that was the sort of incident that was supposed to be forever halted by the advent of neutral umpires it was not. In 1999, the Australian umpire Ross Emerson prompted an almighty row by calling Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing in a one-day international between Sri Lanka and England in Adelaide. Sri Lanka's captain Arjuna Ranatunga led his players to the edge of the pitch, play was held up and Sri Lanka appointed big-time lawyers to ensure the justice they wanted was done.

Then came Darrell Hair in the late English summer of 2006, when he penalised Pakistan for ball tampering at The Oval. Pakistan, who refused to take the field after tea, were deemed to have forfeited the match which was awarded to England, but Hair has never stood again in a match of any significance.

In the wake of the current match, India have objected to the umpiring of both Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, who did indeed perform poorly. The trouble was that almost all their debatable decisions went against India. But Benson should not be condemned for giving out Sourav Ganguly, caught at slip by Michael Clarke in India's desperately fraught second innings.

Benson was unsighted but he took the word of Ponting, who said the catch was clean. This should be the way of things but since the evidence of the camera is that the catch was grounded and that Clarke might have known it the word of Ponting will never carry the same weight again.

India have asked for Bucknor to be removed from the third Test in Perth. Or else, seems to be the implicit threat. But they must know that this cannot happen and that the ICC cannot allow it to happen for the sport to retain credibility. It is enshrined in 3.1.7 in the Standard Playing Conditions to which all nations subscribe: "Neither team will have a right of objecting to an umpiring appointment."

Benson and Bucknor, whose effigies were burned in India yesterday, might have got off lightly. In February 1956, when England A toured Pakistan they were incensed by the umpiring. On the eve of the final day of the match in Peshawar, a group of England players, after an official bash, jocularly abducted the umpire, Idris Begh, and poured a bucket of cold water over him. Hardly surprisingly, it prompted cables between MCC and Pakistan. The present row needs a dose of cold water, and quickly.

Outbursts and outcasts: When bad blood between teams has tarnished recent tours

* DARREN LEHMANN, 2003 Became the first Australian cricketer to be suspended for racism following outburst in Brisbane in 2003. Sri Lankan players complained after Lehmann was heard making racist comments when returning to dressing room.

* AUSSIE WINTER 2005/06 Two separate incidents during South Africa's tour of Australia. South African players complained of racial abuse from Australian supporters during the Tests in Perth and Sydney.

* BALL-TAMPERING, 2006 Pakistan refuse to take to the field following allegations of ball tampering by umpire Darrell Hair during Test with England at The Oval. Home side awarded match and, therefore, the series as Inzamam-ul-Haq becomes the first captain to be deemed to have forfeited a Test match.

* JELLY BEANS, 2007 England fielders accused of throwing jelly beans on to wicket as Indian batsman Zaheer Khan arrives at the crease during Test match at Trent Bridge last summer.

* HERSCHELLE GIBBS, 2007 Banned for two Tests for racist comments during match with Pakistan at Centurion. Remarks to team-mate were picked up by stump microphone.

By James Mariner