Australia incensed by Harbhajan reprieve
In a front-page article in Wednesday's Sydney Morning Herald, an unnamed Australian cricketer has hit out at the decision, which was only reached after Cricket Australia persuaded their five players at the hearing to downgrade their charge against Harbhajan from racism to abusive language. Instead of being banned for three Tests as per the original verdict, he was fined 50% of his match fee.
"The thing that pisses us off is that it shows how much power India has," the anonymous contracted player told the paper. "The Aussie guys aren't going to make it [the accusation] up. The players are frustrated because this shows how much influence India has, because of the wealth they generate. Money talks."
In what the paper described as a "brazen act of provocation", the Indian board chartered a plane to whisk their one-day squad from Melbourne - the venue for Friday's Twenty20 fixture - to Adelaide, so that they could fly home to India if the charges against Harbhajan were not dropped. The move was described by MV Sridhar, the team's assistant manager, as a "show of solidarity".
Friday's match alone - the curtain-raiser for the lucrative CB Series - is expected to attract a crowd in excess of 90,000, and Cricket Australia, fearing the loss of millions of dollars in TV rights, sponsorship and gate takings, opted not to call India's bluff. It was also believed to be under pressure from broadcasters who could have sued had the series been abandoned. The Australian reported the players had an often fiery meeting with Cricket Australia officials during the fourth Test and it was agreed the charge would be lowered if Harbhajan apologised.
An Indian pull-out would have threatened Sri Lanka's participation in the CB Series as well. Arjuna Ranatunga, the chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket, and other senior board officials told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier that the board was keeping an eye on the developments in the hearing before deciding whether to commit to the tour or not.
The issue was resolved late on Tuesday night, when Cricket Australia and the BCCI issued a joint statement, saying Symonds and Harbhajan had "resolved" the issue and that both captains were also "satisfied with the outcome".
Australia's unofficial opinion, however, is less placatory. The team maintain that Harbhajan abused Symonds both in Sydney and three months earlier during an ill-tempered one-day series in India. In audio evidence supplied by Channel 9 - and played before the appeals commissioner, Justice John Hansen - Matthew Hayden is heard remonstrating with Harbhajan. "You've got a witness now, champ," says Hayden. "It's racial vilification, mate. It's a shit word and you know it."
Harbhajan can be heard protesting that Symonds started the verbals, but the actual word is inaudible on the tapes. "Ultimately, truth has prevailed," said the BCCI vice-president, Rajiv Shukla. "India has always stood against racism. Cricket is the victor in all this."
Ranatunga, a former Sri Lankan captain, called for a ban on sledging and hoped the Australians would learn their lessons from this controversy.
"Australia have had these issues with some touring sides," Ranatunga told Reuters. "History shows whenever they get it back, they struggle. Sometimes they also need to learn a lesson. I'm a great believer they should stop all shouting in the grounds."