Saturday 12 January 2008

Bollyline: Cricket, racism and hypocrisy

So the Indian cricket team’s decided to suspend their current tour of Australia, because of a three-match ban imposed on spin bowler Harbhajan Singh (left) for alleged racist abuse. But is India the victim of a "blatantly false" judgment and an "unfair slur" as it claims?

Well let’s get one thing from the start. Those who have tried to claim that calling Australia’s only black player Andrew Symonds a "monkey" might be some kind of cultural misunderstanding, because Hindu mythology venerates the monkey god Hanuman and therefore calling Symonds a monkey cannot be considered a racist term, are liars and apologists for racism, whether Harbhajan Singh ever uttered the insult or not. The ‘monkey’ chants that that Symonds endured from sections of the crowd when he toured India in October 2007 were clearly not meant as a compliment on his god-like qualities either.

The claim that the Australians misheard a less explosive insult in Hindi or Punjabi (and there must be doubts they are expert in either language) and that match referee Mike Proctor therefore unfairly treated Singh without sufficient evidence is at least more credible. But the point is that the second Test was a bad-tempered affair with insults flying back and forth, and what is perhaps more surprising is the level of sympathy that the Indian team has received from some in Australia. Commentators have accusing the Australian team of creating a poisonous atmosphere of abuse, with the Sydney Morning Herald accusing captain Ricky Ponting of damaging the reputation of the country and of presiding “over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.”

On the face of it, it seems hypocritical that the very national side that has elevated the ‘art’ of sledging – abusing the opposition to bring about what former captain Steve Waugh called “mental disintegration” – should protest when its dubious tactics are turned against it. Clearly when trading insults is tolerated, it will inevitably escalate until the abuse becomes racially motivated. And it’s not as though Australia has a blameless record when it comes to racism – witness the guilty-verdict against batsman Darren Lehmann for racially abusing Sri Lankan players outside their dressing room in 2003, which led to a ban from 5 one-day internationals.

But that doesn’t mean that black cricketers, whether international players or in a local team, shouldn’t demand that racism is never tolerated. It may be true that Australian sledging created the conditions for abuse that could easily cross into racist taunting, but that is an argument for cleaning up the game, not for ignoring Andrew Symonds because of the macho culture he plays within. Cricket’s apparent acceptance of sledging at an international level trickles down to every level of the sport, increases the chances that it will be emulated at a national and local level, that any black player will face racial abuse and that nothing will be done. Attempts to tackle racism head-on in other sports has started with a clamp down on the general acceptance of abusive behaviour and the International Cricket Council needs to start following the same path.

What can be seen as an over-reaction by India to the charges against Harbhajan Singh, which have been presented as an insult against the entire nation, are a result of the rancour and ill-will that the tour has generated and perhaps in part because of a sense of grievance about a number of poor umpiring decisions against it. India feels like the victim. But it would nevertheless have been better for the world’s most powerful cricketing nation to have maintained its insistence on a fair process whilst vigorously condemning racism and calling for tougher action against sledging. If nothing else, the ‘Bollyline’ row has forced the international cricketing authorities to start addressing racism rather than pretending incidents like those involving Darren Lehmann, or South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs racially abusing Pakistan fans a year ago, are isolated cases.

But will the ICC act? Claims by its President Ray Mali that it has defused the row by removing umpire Steve Bucknor, whose decisions were criticised in the second Test, suggest that it has little interest in looking for anything but short-term solutions.

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