November 16, 2007

Greg Chappell's Punch & Judy Show

Is Chappell asking us to accept that he had a hissy fit then and cried 'racism' when it wasn't

I feel for Greg Chappell. It's bad enough that he was punched by a disgruntled fan so hard that he thought his jaw was broken. What made his trauma worse was that he knew the brute was a bigot. And then the really horrible part: the BCCI covered it all up. He wrote to the board about it but the Board did nothing. In a documentary about his time as coach made by the ABC, Chappell told us how he knew the man was a racist : "There are plenty of Indian cricketers the guy could have attacked but he chose to attack me." Right. Chappell was the only white man there. His assaulter was black. What other conclusion is possible? Not only was Chappell punched, the Herald Sun reported that Judy, his wife, was pushed over.

The Punch and Judy show is a puppet play that's been a traditional entertainment in English seaside towns since the seventeenth century. It features a hunchbacked brute called Punch who amuses his audience of little children by beating his wife Judy with a stick, trying to murder their baby and generally behaving in a grotesquely criminal fashion. The puppet master is called the Professor.

In Chappell's new rendering of the show, Punch represents the BCCI, racist Indian fans and scheming Indian players. Judy represents the nurturing Chappell, and the Baby is Indian cricket. Judy does everything she can to raise the baby right but Punch doesn't let her. He hits everyone with his stick and his audience instead of being horrified is amused, in keeping with the child-like, amoral nature of oriental spectators.

This would be an amusing play but Chappell keeps changing the script. A day after the newspapers filed stories on Chappell's racist ordeal, the BCCI rubbished the reports, saying that it had done everything necessary to upgrade Chappell's security and categorically denying Chappell's claim that he had been the victim of a racist assault. You would expect the Board to say that, only in this case, Chappell seemed to agree.

"It's old news," he told the Indian television channel CNN-IBN. "It was a very emotional time when I made these remarks. It's a long way back and I'd like to talk about other things now."

This is more than a little odd. Chappell seemed happy enough to let the documentary be completed without comment or correction and a charge of assault aggravated by racism is a serious one. The documentary is called 'Guru Greg' and gives us Chappell's take on his time in India. The 'racist' assault happened in January so Chappell's had plenty of time to ask its producers to work in any second thoughts he had into the narrative of the film. So why would he let the allegation of racism stand in the film only to pass it off as an emotional outburst later?

The answer as supplied by Chappell himself, seems to have to do with business. Chappell has just accepted a three year contract with the Rajasthan cricket board to take charge of the state's cricket academy. So he wants to move on. It's hard to know what to make of this. Is Chappell asking us to accept that he had a hissy fit then and cried 'racism' when it wasn't? Or is he saying that it was racism and what he said in the film stands, but his current contractual commitments make it inconvenient for him to repeat the charge, given that Lalit Modi of the Rajasthan cricket board is also a grandee in the BCCI? Neither explanation flatters Chappell. The first makes him seem neurotic, the second suggests a cynic playing two different markets with alternative versions of the 'truth'.

Or maybe Chappell doesn't know what he means. Perhaps his Punch and Judy show, like the traditional seaside entertainment, is meant to play as farce. And perhaps Greg isn't Judy. Perhaps he's Punch, flailing about with his stick not because there's a reason but because that's what he does.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi