It should have been a terrific four-match series between two sides that were going hammer-and-tongs at each other; two of the best sides in international cricket today. The two sides boasted some fine cricketers. It is conceivable that Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee, Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag would walk into any cricket team in the world. These were fine cricketers playing a terrific game. They should have been engaged in a terrific contest. They should have left a wonderful memory of a hard-fought, yet, attractive series that lingers in the minds well after the actors have left the field.
Indeed, the four-match Test series gave a lot to savour. We saw some imaginative captaincy from the two captains. We saw Anil Kumble emerge as a statesman and an ambassador of his team. We saw Ricky Ponting captain his team brilliantly in snatching a tense victory in Sydney. We saw two stunning centuries and in excess of 400 runs from Sachin Tendulkar who was accorded a standing ovation everytime he walked on to bat! We saw some sustained spells of accurate, penetrative, and at times, sensational fast bowling from Brett Lee. We witnessed the kind of elegance from the blade of V. V. S. Laxman that makes people draw breath and exclaim “how did he do that?” in several of his digs. We some imposing batting from Matthew Hayden who dug deep to score centuries almost at will. We saw the old, and sometimes forgotten, warrior in the moder-day spin-trinity, Anil Kumble, reach his 600th wicket. We saw a Team India that was down 0-2 in the series that pulled off a sensational victory in Perth, the traditional strong-hold of the Australians. We saw a kid who was still in the wet-behind-his-ears stage of his international career, who was denied a wicket when a batsman was on not much, walk up to the same batsman an congratulate him when he left the field, having made 162! In the very next match, we saw that same kid bowling one of the best spells of fast bowling that I have seen in a long time to Ricky Ponting. Surely, on another day, this would have been the kind of story that sells romance novels the world over!
Instead, a day after the series, there was much posturing, much finger pointing, much debate, much acrimony. The word bully was used so often that real school-yard bullies would be within their rights to demand another term to elevate their status to a newer high!
The series had so much grit, fight, skill, romance, determination and class that it ought to be right up there as marquee series go. Instead it will be remembered as one that was dominated by recriminations, court-room-hearings, finger-pointing, derogatory remarks, cultural hatred, racial hatred and much more. We had lost perspective. It was, as Dileep Premachandran writes in The Guardian, a “tawdry affair”, in which “there were no winners”.
In the aftermath of the tour, Monkeygate, the Harbhajan Singh racism saga has dominated sport pages and blogs and radio talkback — not only in India and Australia but the rest of the cricketing world too! Much has been written and said.
In these pages that have been written and consumed, India, through the BCCI, has been labeled a crazed, mad, bully of world cricket. This may or may not be right. But then that is the perception the world over; one that needs to be critically — dispassionately too, perhaps — analysed and assessed. There are as many as five articles in todays’ The Age and The Australian that touch on this topic. There will be, no doubt, many others that ask the same question. It is a question that does need to be asked for the future stability of world cricket.
But, lest we forget, let us remind ourselves that this is not the first time world cricket has been “held to ransom”. In the modern era, one could argue that Packergate was the first time that the UN-style ICC was held by the proverbials. In more recent times, we have had several incidents that came close to splitting apart world-cricket. I list them here and, for the sake of completeness, provide the nations that were involved as well as a brief description of the episode.
In this list, I do not include one-off school-yard fights like Ponting’s robust and angry questioning of Englands’ specialist-fielder tactics in the Ashes 2005 series, Andre Nel and Sree Santh going hammer-and-tongs and each other, Gavaskar threatening to pull his team off the MCG, Jeyygate, etc. I am concentrating here on issues that threatened to blow world-cricket apart; storms in tea-cups are what the rest were!
- The year 1998-99 saw Muthiah Muralitharan being no-balled in Australia by an Australian umpire, Darryl Hair. The saga threatened to split world cricket apart. As a continuing part of this saga, Sri Lankan captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, a man who had built a reputation of standing up to his opponents, refused to continue the tour and also threatened to pull his team from an Adelaide ODI when Australian umpire, Ross Emerson, called Muthiah Muralitharan again for an “illegal delivery”. The Sri Lankan players, who had copped the goings on in their tour thus far, felt, rightly or wrongly, victimised by the Australian umpires — for here was Muthiah Muralidharan bowling leg-breaks when he was called!
- India was outraged when Mike Denness, the match referee, banned Virender Sehwag for excessive appealing in a Test match agaist South Africa in 2001. On instructions from Jagmohan Dalmiya, the then BCCI President — another man who, like Ranatunga, loved seeing eye-to-eye with his counterparts from Australia and England — India included Virender Sehwag in the next Test match! It was played as an unofficial Test match! Mike Denness was locked out of the Test match! In that match Mike Denness, the former England captain, sanctioned six Indian players, with Virender Sehwag receiving a one-match ban and Sachin Tendulkar receiving a one-match suspended sentence for ball tampering! This wasn’t the first time that an Indian had been sanctioned by a match referee. So why was there outrage and effigy-burning at Denness’s decision? What bought things to an ugly head was the seeming imbalance of Mike Deness’s decisions. In that same match, we had South African captain Shaun Pollock who had appealed even more vociferously, aggressivelyand continually for an lbw against V V S Laxman in India’s first innings! We saw, therefore, that the oft-repeated bias-argument which suggested the “R” word in the actions of match referees. The Indians felt, rightly or wrongly, victimised.
- Enter Shoaib Akthar, the Pakistan speedster: He was banned for throwing by an ICC committee that was chaired by Bobby Simpson. Jagmohan Dalmiya, by then the President of the ICC, gave Akthar the equivalent of a presidential pardon and that allowed Pakistan to continue to field Akthar in its games! Once again, world cricket was threatened by brinkmanship. A crisis was averted.
- A by-now familiar actor, Darryl Hair, re-enters the scene in the most recent saga that threatened to split world cricket: The ball-tampering fiasco which was fuelled by England’s suspicions resulted in Darryl Hair effectively labelling the Pakistan team as cheats. The resulting no-show by the Pakistanis, who had Bob Woolmer as coach then, resulted in the first forfeit in international cricket! Pakistan moved to have the umpire removed. He was not only removed, but was sacked from ever umpiring again!
- And now, Monkeygate…
Malcolm Knox reviews some of these episodes in an article in The Age (Saturday 2 Feb 2008).
There is a pattern here. Sri Lanka have been involved in one spat. Pakistan has been involved in two spats. India has been involved in two spats. The people at the other end have been, in order listed above Australia (notionally), England (notionally), Australia (notionally), Australia (notionally) and Australia. At a surface-level, there is a pattern here; a pattern of both mistrust and abuse. There is also a pattern of incompetence on the part of the ICC. One needs to just scratch at the surface of all of these episodes to know that the ICC has a lot to answer for, although, as Malcolm Knox says, “The ICC might be a convenient punching bag” for everyone. It is, no doubt, a powerless and toothless organisation.
We have to accept that teams from the sub-continent have grievances (some legitimate and some not so legitimate) with the colonial manner in which the game has been organised and run in the past. There are racist undercurrents and there are undercurrents that the game was invented to serve the best interests of England and Australia and their friends.
But to call India a bully because of its current financial clout would be to ignore the foundations, the symptoms as well as the cause of much of these grievances. After all, Sri Lanka and Pakistan do not have financial clout. And yet, they brought the game to its knees not once, but three times in the recent past!
As Malcolm Knox says, Bodyline itself wasn’t about money!
And if it was only about money, world cricket had better be scared. Very scared! For the amount of money in Indian cricket is set to double — or even treble — over the next 10 years with the introduction of the Indian Premier League. Bollywood actors and cash-rich Indian business houses have splurged money on the eight IPL teams. Some of them have invested nearly $80m in their team franchise. They will spend much more than that on buying players! They will also expect their money to multiply to $800m over a 10-year period! So, if we think that the BCCI is flexing its muscles only because of the money it controls now, we should be prepared for it to flex its whole body in ten years’ time.
But to assign money as the root cause of much of this would be to, unfortunately, miss the point. The 1999 flexing of muscles by Sri Lanka is a case in point. There was, then, a perception of injustice. That perception persists. The ICC and the world game needs to fix that first.
No doubt India is cash-rich. Nike paid $43 million to kit the side for five years! No other team can match that in the world of sport! The Indian cricket team is cash rich and sponsors continue to queue up to be associated with the team. The BCCI knows it has this money too and often uses this often to get the ICC to act the way it wants it to.
Most Indians will be, as Dileep Premachandran says, uncomfortable with both the power as well as the BCCI’s excessive greed. India is not a country that has thrived on having power on the world stage in any sphere — leave alone cricket. Nor has it demonstrated a need to indulge in “naked displays of strength”.
However, across the sub-continent there is a new brigade that is bursting through. A new brigade that is more confident. A new brigade that is more brash. A new brigade that is not quite like the V. V. S. Laxman who will smile placidly when told that his mother is a so-and-so and still manage to flick the next ball gloriously for a four! A new brigade that wants to look its tormentor in the eye — not because the new-brigade is necessarily good, but just because they know they can! A new brigade that has, in Harsha Bhogle’s words, an abiding memory “of visiting journalists and cricketers coming to India and making fun of us. We were a country finding our feet, we were not confident; we seethed within but we accepted. The new generation in India is not as accepting — it is prouder, more confident, more successful. Those bottled up feelings are bubbling through.”
As Dileep Premachandran says in The Age, there is certainly “a new, prosperous brigade that takes perverse pride in sticking it to the old world.” A new brigade that can do what their parents wanted to, but could not!
The sub-continent has vivid memories of being dictated to by an imperial power; of being sneered at by visiting teams; of being continually mis-understood. The food wasn’t good enough. The organisation wasn’t good enough. The travel wasn’t good enough. The hotels weren’t good enough. The grounds and facilities weren’t good enough. The pitches weren’t good enough. The logistics wasn’t good enough. The umpiring wasn’t good enough. The crowds weren’t good enough. The accent wasn’t good enough. The mores weren’t good enough… The list is endless. And it is not merely about people lampooning the accent. It runs deeper than that.
India and Australia head the new order in the game. India has the money and an emerging talent. Australia is right at the peak of its prowess as a cricketing and sporting nation. And that prowess shows no sign of diminishing. The two nations, together, have a responsibility to the game — to grasp it out of the colonial shackles of mistrust and misunderstanding. A mistrust that inbreeds a desire for the sub-continentals to square the historically imbalanced ledger.
In this hour of need, Indian cricket and world cricket needs ethical and responsible leadership. But world cricket needs to cleanse itself of its deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion too. This mistrust and suspicion is symmetric. There are no one-way streets in this town! If these suspicions are not removed, we will have Bodyline, PackerGate, MuraliGate, DennesGate, ChuckerGate, TamperGate, MonkeyGate… over and over again, with the old-world on the one side and the sub-continent on the other.
I was heartened though, by a comment from Inderjit Singh Bhindra in todays’ Australian when he said, “If we are feeling bad about something we should not repeat the same thing. It’s no remedy for what has happened in the past to repeat the past. We have to learn from history. I have been a student of history and we don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.”
Inderjit Singh Bhindra, former BCCI President — and peace-maker in the Adelaide pit-stop of the Monkeygate train — is the man that most people tip as Malcolm Speed’s replacement when the Australian’s term, as Cheif Executive of the ICC, ends soon. This thought might send shivers down the spine of people who think that India has too much control of world cricket already! Especially if we pitch that alongside the known fact that Sharad Powar, the current BCCI President will, in 18 months’ time, be President of the ICC!
In particular, Australians may feel that Bhindra’s role in brokering a peace in Adelaide with Creagh O’Connor, the Chairman of Cricket Australia, undermined the whole judicial process. To say that would be to be in contempt of Justice Hansen’s court. However, it is quite likely that, in Bhindra, India does have a statesman and a leader that is able to bridge sub-continental emotions with old-world ways. Both need to be understood and it is likely that this moderate would be one that brokers a greater understanding and delivers stability.
In an interview to Mike Coward from The Australian today, I. S. Bhindra says “What we want is on the basis of every country being equal. We want equity, justice and fair play. We don’t want money to be the main factor propelling the game of cricket. Of course money is important, it is important everywhere. But it shouldn’t be important to the extent of dictating decision-making.”
We all await a better future for world cricket. The game deserves it. And the best place to start much of this repair would be at the ICC. If not, there will be many more engrossing series that will be forgotten — only controversies will remain in our collective minds.