Daily Archives: 12 November 2007

An interview with Prem Panicker (Part 2)

In the first part of this three-part, in-depth interview with Prem Panicker, we talked about his views on racism in cricket in the wake of the Andrew Symonds incidents in India in the recently concluded India-Australia ODI series. This followed our “conversations” with Australian journalist, Peter Lalor (part-1, part-2).

Prem Panicker is a valued and articulate Indian writer. He writes mostly on cricket, but, like Peter Lalor, writes on almost everything under the sun – politics, science, travel, literature, sports and more. Prem Panicker blogs actively too.

In Part-2 of our interview with Prem Panicker, we talk about post-victory celebrations, aggression, sledging, match-fixing and much more.


i3j3: Recently, we have heard comments from Jason Gillespie, Ricky Ponting, et al, saying that there will be boisterous crowd participation in the forthcoming summer. They have also urged players like Muralitharan and Sree Santh to show fortitude. What are your views on those comments in the light of their comments on crowd behaviour elsewhere?

PP: I could wish they would leave the topic alone, if they have nothing of purpose to contribute.

How would it be, for instance, if the Indian captain was to say, before the next Australian tour of India, that the visitors will likely find our crowds somewhat boisterous and uninclined to mind their p’s and racist q’s, and advice that the visitors just grin and bear it? Clearly, such comments are counter-productive, even if they are not intended that way.

Gillespie and Ponting and others may not have meant it that way, but that sort of comment comes dangerously close to handing the crowds a license.

i3j3: Did you think the Australian team celebrated humbly and appropriately on the victory podium at the conclusion of the last edition of the Champions Trophy? In light of this, what are your views on the comments by Andrew Symonds on the Indian celebrations on winning the Twenty20 World Championship?

PP: Oh shoot, way too much is being made of that. What in any case is a “humble” celebration?

I think it is disrespectful to push and shove a dignitary on stage, the way the BCCI president was pushed and shoved.

I saw that incident, and I did not think it was racist, or white supremacist, or any such – it was a bunch of young men, suffering – if that is the word – the adrenalin surge of victory in a hard fought sporting contest and behaving in a distinctly adolescent fashion. Sure, you do expect a higher standard of behaviour, you do wish your sporting heroes could be ambassadors for the country at large – but equally, isn’t it a bit much to demand such standards of behaviour from people not trained to it?

Ponting and others subsequently apologized to the individual concerned and that apology was accepted in the same spirit by Pawar; isn’t it counter-productive to rabbit on about it endlessly?

Symonds’ comments in that column were daft; they sounded juvenile in the extreme. Victorious teams have been greeted with ticker tape parades before – including quite a few Australian teams and individual sportsmen; for members of some other team to characterise such national celebrations as extreme and uncalled for is churlish.

That brings up something I have speculated on, in the aftermath of that incident. I have interacted with Aussie players and the management in the past, when I covered cricket regularly for Rediff, and always found them incredibly media savvy.

Unless things have changed dramatically, comments of the kind Symonds made are not likely to be underwritten by the management. That makes me wonder – did the player talk to some ghost writer and, inter alia and without meaning anything by it, say something on the lines that the hoopla is over, and it is time for the Indians to come back to earth – comments a ghost on the lookout for the sensational sound byte then expanded on?

Knowing how the whole ghost-writer business works, I suspect that some such thing happened here. This is not to absolve Symonds, but merely to try and explain an act that is to the best of my knowledge uncharacteristic of visiting Australian sportsmen.

i3j3: There has been a perception for a while now – backed by observations and some fact – amongst Asian cricket Players and fans that “white” cricketers and fans alike constantly and consistently demonstrate prejudice, sanctimony and racism in their attitudes because of their perceived “ownership to the game”. For example, when the quality of umpiring was terrible all around the world, it was seen as a problem that afflicted only the sub-continent. A global solution was made impossible by the finger-pointing. Similarly, the match-fixing issue too. What are your views on this?

PP: For starters, we – as in the “brown” segment of the cricket audience – are quite as prejudiced as the “whites”.

I don’t know whether the examples you point to qualify as racism, but I would certainly not dispute a degree of prejudice. I thought it was particularly so in the case of match fixing – when the issue first hit the headlines, there was a tendency to write it off as one of those dirty things that only happened on the sub continent – a malaise that “white” or, more accurately, players not from the subcontinent were for some reason immune from.

The unfortunate bit about such knee jerk reaction is that it perpetuates, rather than resolves, the problem. If racism, or match fixing, or whatever else, are seen as your problem or my problem and never as ours, as a problem afflicting the game, we are in trouble.

Because then, I sit back waiting for you to resolve what I see as “your” problem; so too does the administration. And problems of this magnitude cannot, ipso facto, be resolved by you or me – it takes a concerted, collective, effort.

Significantly, the issue of match fixing was resolved, after a fashion, only after the Hansie Cronje case hit the headlines and, inter alia, indicated that even “white” players were susceptible to corruption – a fact that had been consistently ignored, even denied, till that point in time.

i3j3: Now assuming that there is this perception of prejudice – whether right or wrong is somewhat immaterial – where do you see this debate going, especially now when the balance of (financial muscle) power is tilting towards the sub-continent?

PP: I think what you are seeing is more nations sharing the decision-making process, where earlier it used to be England, with Australia’s backing. And this is not particularly new – the revolution if you can call it that began after the second World Cup, when the Indian administration was snubbed at Lord’s, and hit back by making a bid to host the third World Cup.

The bid won the support of enough nations to win India the right to host the Cup – and though this is often ignored, that particular incident preceded India’s discovery that it could make money out of the game. So to equate recent developments with India’s emergence as the financial powerhouse of the game is a bit naïve.

It is increasingly fashionable to raise the India bogey and to suggest that India pretty much has its own way when it comes to taking decisions. Again, that is not true. To cite the most recent example, India did not want a Twenty20 World Cup; it said as much, it lobbied with other nations to come down on its side – and yet not one single nation voted along with India on this one.

That should tell you that India’s money doesn’t of itself translate into an automatic leadership position — decisions are still being taken by the majority, and that majority clearly will not be seduced or brow-beaten to take decisions against what they see as being in their interests, so what is this fuss all about?

The best you can say about India’s emergence is that decisions to do with the governance of the game are no longer a monopoly of one or two traditional powers – and I don’t see why anyone needs to wear sackcloth over it.

i3j3: Do you feel that it is this financial muscle power that is making teams from India and Pakistan more aggressive on the cricket field against teams like Australia and England?

PP: No. You mean to say a Sreesanth, for instance, is going out there saying to himself duh, more than 80 per cent of the sponsorship of the previous World Cup came from India so let me go out there and be a brat?

Seriously, the answer is no. Indian teams, post-Independence, used to be characterized by a fawning subservience. That changed when the Nawab of Pataudi took over, and led his team out against all comers with something of a swagger. The barest minimal knowledge of our history is enough to understand the early subservience, and the subsequent sense of equality.

Today, India as a country is changing dramatically. Ten years ago, we were largely apologetic about ourselves; today, we celebrate our emergence in various sectors, not least the economic sector. It is a heady feeling, and you see it best reflected in places where the young congregate. Again, ten, twenty years ago, young people kicked over their traces but always, there was this sense of uncertainty about the future. Increasingly, today’s young people replace that insecurity with confidence, with a sense of sureness of purpose and direction.

The national mindset is changing (and the fact that this is a very young nation is highlighting that change dramatically); you could stretch a point and say that such change is occasionally being reflected, not always in the best way, on the cricket field as well.

You could equally say that a team used to losing will over time become apologetic in its demeanour; as you learn to compete and to win (we went through the late eighties and all of the nineties with no significant win outside Indian soil; check the records from 2000 on and you will see that we are shedding the tag of “lambs abroad”, especially in Tests), you develop confidence which manifests in your play and occasionally, translates into your behaviour.

i3j3: Is match-fixing a thing of the past? Can it be completely controlled?

PP: Match-fixing was not even a thing of the past – quantifiable instances of entire matches being fixed are negligibly few. What was pervasive was the trading of information for cash, and the shading of individual performance also for cash – two things that aid spread betting.

The thing to keep in mind is that bookies rarely make significant money on the outcome of a match – not enough, anyway, to justify all that time and trouble to fix an entire team, or a significant part of it. The money comes from the little bets, placed on every possible permutation and combination beginning with how the teams will line up to how the toss will go and who will do what on winning it.

Does that continue? My best guess is yes, though not quite as openly as before. Can you control it? Again, my best guess is no, short of monitoring 24x7x365 the phones and personal meetings of every single player playing the game, and every person who comes into contact with that player. There will be a few who will take a phone call, pass on some information, and pocket a wad of cash; the best the authorities can do is make such transactions tough to pull off.

i3j3: What are your views on sledging? Should it be a part of cricket? And if it is, should there be a line in the sand? If so why?

PP: The prevalent wisdom seems to be, this is a competitive sport, people will “in the heat of the moment” say things and do things, and as long as the limits of decency are not transgressed, anything goes.

So, suppose I am taking guard, the bowler is running in, and from the slips, some bloke yells out ‘Hey mate, guess who is doing your wife just now?’

Is that within bounds, or outside of them? Okay, how about if the hypothetical voice yells out ‘Hey, mate, your knees are knocking, not scared are you?’, is that permissible?

You would say the first instance is not on, the second is harmless. Really? As a batsman, I don’t need you saying anything to me, when my entire focus is on the ball about to be bowled – so then the question is, when debating the merits or otherwise of sledging, should the debate be confined only to the insult-quotient of the words used?

The debate over sledging has been one endless exercise in hair-splitting. Cricket’s laws proscribe any deliberate attempt to disrupt the concentration of the player – what is the point of laws that are not even remembered, let alone upheld?

i3j3: What do you think of the recently concluded India-Australia ODI series?

PP: I was interested in it for various reasons. For starters, Australia had to cope with the exit of two giants who have spearheaded the team to victory for over a decade. The last time Australian cricket suffered such significant losses, it took much tears and hard work and heartburn before the team could be rebuilt; I was curious to see what would happen this time.

From an Indian perspective, the administration in recent times has been geared to hinder, not help. The question of a coach for the side has assumed farcical proportions. There is heartburn, within and without the team, over the presence of some of the ageing superstars. And the team acquired a new captain who would need to stamp his authority over a dressing room lately divided between three contemporary greats.

All things considered, I thought a 4-2 result was complimentary to India; that it was not a 3-3 ending owed equally to traditional failings.

i3j3: It is our view that player behaviour, in the name of gamesmanship, has deteriorated over the years. What do you think ICC should do to curb it?

PP: Simplify the current regulatory process. Today, if I misbehave (including in ways that can impact on the opposition and thus influence the course of the game), nothing happens. The umpires have at the end of play – horse, stable door, anyone? – to make a report; the erring player is then invited into cricket’s version of the headmaster’s room. He is fined, and those fines are more often than not underwritten by his daddy, that is to say the cricket board. How is any of this a deterrent?

One important part of the on-field umpire’s brief is to keep order on the field. If the ICC has any sense, it will give that responsibility back to the umpires, together with the authority to enforce on-field discipline. I’ve heard of the soccer-style red/yellow card method of policing being mooted for cricket, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

The baseline thinking should be, discipline is an on field requirement, and its enforcement should equally be on the field of play, not at some later date. Imagine if Zinedine Zidane had to go to the match referee’s room after play (accompanied maybe by a high priced lawyer), explain his head butt and maybe pay 50 per cent of his match fee?

i3j3: It is also our view that many teams in international cricket are trying to ape Australia in the sledging-stakes. Is this a healthy trend?

PP: No, for reasons already elaborated on. Sledging is, most times, an attempt to unfairly disrupt the concentration of the opponent, and cricket legislates against such practices. When there is applicable law, why do we need an extensive debate?

i3j3: How do you rate crowd behaviour and crowd participation in the game in the subcontinent, compared to places like Australia, England and South Africa?

PP: Each country has its own peculiar set of problems; we have ours. Among them, you could list the fact that increasingly, audiences who are actually into the game prefer to stay home and watch on telly, while those who come to the grounds seem impelled to treat it as a party, an excuse to kick over the traces and hope that if their behaviour is sufficiently outrageous, they will make it to the giant screen. Add to that the fact that cricket is increasingly getting to the smaller venues, ones without a cricket-watching tradition, and you add an extra element of volatility to the crowd that creates its own set of problems.