Dominic Lawson: Have the Australians been caught out?

It might have been an unwise remark, but this neutral finds it impossible not to sympathise with the Indians
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The Independent Online

Is it racial abuse to call someone "a monkey"? Under the modern dispensation, it is if the person so described believes it is. The International Cricket Council subscribes to this interpretation and as a result has banned the Indian spin-bowler Harbhajan Singh for the duration of the current Test series against Australia, after he allegedly called the Aussie player Andrew Symonds "a monkey".

The president of the group representing Indian Australians, Raj Natarajan, protested admittedly somewhat disingenuously that "the Monkey God is one of the revered idols of Hindu mythology and worshipped by millions. It is surprising that it was considered a racist term."

As might have been expected, the Indian cricketing authorities, the BCCI, have furiously denied that Harbhajan, or indeed any of their players, is a racist, and absent an official exoneration have even threatened to abandon the Test series. If that were to happen, it would make this the most politically damaging cricketing encounter since the notorious "bodyline" series of 1932, in which a carefully executed plan of physical intimidation by the England fast bowlers caused an unprecedented diplomatic rift between Australia and "the mother country".

At the height of that conflict, the English team manager, Pelham Warner, visited the Australian dressing room to inquire after the health of the Aussie captain, Bert Oldfield, who had been struck several fearsome blows to the body by the lethally quick Harold Larwood. From his prone position on the treatment table, Oldfield delivered a devastating rebuke to the self-righteous Warner: "I do not want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is playing cricket, the other is making no attempt to do so."

Those remarks are as well known as any in the history of cricket. So it surely cannot be an accident that the studious Indian captain, Anil Kumble, declared in a press conference after the recent match in Sydney: "Only one team was playing within the spirit of the game. That's all I can say." Apparently the Indian press present stood as one to applaud Kumble's comment.

It might have been an inflammatory and unwise remark, but this neutral finds it impossible not to sympathise with the Indians. Regardless of whatever Harbhajan might have said in the heat of conflict, the Australians not least Andrew Symonds played the entire match in their usual unremittingly hostile spirit, successfully intimidating even the neutral umpires into making decisions which were scandalously unfair to the visiting side.

Above all, there is something deeply unappealing in the fact that the Aussies the Aussies! have been the ones to go running to the authorities to complain about verbal abuse on the field. I spoke yesterday to the former England captain, Michael Atherton, who had experienced as much abuse as any from Australian sides over the years. He told me that, when he started, "the Australians were a disgrace. They would just gob off at you all day long. Some of us could take it, some couldn't".

The point, of course, was to establish who couldn't take it and concentrate the abuse on those who were less impervious to the insults. The former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, openly admitted the purpose of the whole exercise it was part of a policy, he said, to bring about "mental disintegration".

Atherton told me that, by Waugh's time, the cricketing authorities had already acted to reduce the worst of the abuse; but, he added,"the Aussies would still find ways of getting under opponents' skins, even if it meant saying things to each other that were clearly directed at the incoming batsman".

You might dismiss this as just the moaning of losers which in practice has meant pretty much everyone who has played the Australians over the past 20 years. So, see if you like this bit of playful banter: when the New Zealand player Chris Cairns came in to bat against an Australian side shortly after his sister had been killed in a train accident, he heard or so it was reported some of the fielders making "choo-choo" noises at each other. Of course, this was nothing so crude as direct abuse and since it involved no racial element, it was clearly of no great political concern to the game's governing body.

The current Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, is understandably sensitive to the charge that he is a "dobber" Aussie slang for one who informs to the authorities. An article appears under his name in today's issue of The Australian in which he declares: "I was particularly disappointed to hear television commentators suggest during the Test that I was a 'dobber' who had opened a 'Pandora's box' by making a report of what I believed was racial abuse towards Andrew Symonds. Over the past two years, match referees have made it clear at the start of every series that it is the captain's responsibility to immediately report any form of racism from either the crowd or on the field.

"When I heard what had taken place with Andrew I immediately informed the umpires and then left the field at the end of the over to inform our team manager, which we are instructed to do. There is absolutely no place for racism in sport or society generally, and I fully support the International Cricket Council's anti-racism policy."

I wouldn't want to impugn Mr Ponting's journalistic skills or sincerity, but those remarks read as if they were copied out of some sort of ICC best practice manual. They are politically correct, in every sense of the term, but don't come near to acknowledging the genuine dismay that many feel at the way in which a relatively trivial remark itself a response, even by Symonds' own account, to some ripe language on his part has led to the banning of a great player by the game's authorities.

Perhaps the Indians' reaction has been excessive. It can never be a sensible reaction to threaten to abandon an entire Test series, however politically inept the decisions of over-fussy officialdom. Yet such criticism would not take account of the peculiar intensity of this particular cricketing battle. India increasingly feels its own emerging significance as a mighty economic power, as the "old" economies of the West fade in relative significance.

Moreover, India now sees itself, and not the apparently unconquerable Australians, as the true superpower in world cricket. It is not just that the intense love of cricket in India as anyone who has been there to witness it can attest makes the English obsession with football seem dilettante by comparison; on numerical grounds alone, there are more cricket fans in India than in the rest of the world combined.

If the cricketing authorities want to insult those billions, then they are free to do so: on the other hand, it is they, as a result, who might end up looking like monkeys.