Controversy January 5, 2008

Ponting and the case against Harbhajan

The Symonds affair and the charge of racial abuse laid against Harbhajan Singh by Ricky Ponting could change the way in which international cricket is monitored and regulated

The Symonds affair and the charge of racial abuse laid against Harbhajan Singh by Ricky Ponting could change the way in which international cricket is monitored and regulated. I say ‘could’ because the affair could also pan out straightforwardly with punishment for Harbhajan and no general consequences for the game.

If there is any corroborative evidence (besides the testimony of Symonds, Matthew Hayden and Ponting) that Harbhajan used racist taunts when he responded to Symonds’ comments by confronting him on the field, Harbhajan should not only be banned for the period laid down by the ICC’s rules, the BCCI should put the spinner on notice: it should warn Harbhajan that any subsequent offence will result in his banishment from international cricket. The board equivocated in the matter of racist abuse from spectators in Vadodara and Mumbai; it mustn’t make that mistake again. Mike Proctor hasn’t revealed the specific comment(s) for which Harbhajan is charged, but the rumour in Australian newspapers is that Harbhjan called Symonds a monkey. Chetan Chauhan, the Indian team manager, has been reported saying that Harbhajan denies having said this; he is also reported as saying in the same breath that ‘monkey’ in Indian usage isn’t a derogatory word. If the report is accurate, this is exactly the kind of shiftiness that the touring team’s management should avoid. If Harbhajan called Symonds a monkey he should go down; preferably forever.

Newspaper reports seem to suggest that the umpires didn’t hear the exchange that gave rise to the charge. Channel 9 has reviewed its audio tapes and found no record of the offensive comments either. They do, however, have recordings of the subsequent chat which involved Hayden, Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan. So it is possible that these tapes have Harbhajan referring to his comments, perhaps even apologizing for them. In the pictures that I saw while watching the telecast, I saw Harbhajan making what seemed to be conciliatory hand gestures. If he was apologizing and his apology contains the offending word and if that word is ‘monkey’ or something similarly racist, that should be evidence enough.

The other possibility is that in the course of the hearing, Tendulkar, who was batting with Harbhajan at the time and who seemed to have heard part of the exchange, isn’t able to whole-heartedly exonerate Harbhajan. It’s unlikely that he’d explicitly ‘shop’ a team-mate but Tendulkar’s an honourable man and if he heard Harbhajan flinging racist abuse about, he might be reluctant to perjure himself. This is an unlikely outcome: in his public statements about the spat, Tendulkar has said that he heard nothing objectionable said, but it’s just possible that in the grave context of a quasi-judicial hearing, his account of the incident might subtly change in ways unfavourable to Harbhajan.

However, if neither tape nor Tendulkar backs up the Australian charge, then international cricket’s in trouble. Hayden has been quoted as saying that the Australian’s have a very strong case. If the case is based on the kind of connections that are being reported in Australian press, the evidence is underwhelming. The Sun-Herald has reported that the Australian case will be based on the argument that Harbhajan is a ‘repeat offender’. The Australians will, apparently, allege that Harbhajan used the monkey taunt against Symonds in the seventh ODI in Mumbai in October. Michael Slater, who commented on that match, has backed up that claim. The trouble with this argument is that the Australian team didn’t lodge a complaint against Harbhajan at the time and I haven’t heard or read Slater going on record about Harbhajan’s Wankhede behaviour before the current crisis.

Given that Harbhajan and the Australians had tangled in the course of the series and Harbhajan had alleged after the 2nd ODI that the Australians had abused Indian players with ‘personal and vulgar’ words, the ‘repeat offender’ argument, without other corroborative evidence, will seem like a way of settling scores, rather than punishing bigotry. Harbhajan could equally argue that Symonds’ comments were part of a pattern of offensive Australian behaviour. This is what he said after the second ODI in India:

“After the match Harbhajan was not laughing and said the Australians had shown themselves to be bad losers after their defeat to India in the semi-finals of the Twenty20 World Cup. "They clearly did not like that," Harbhajan said in the Sydney Morning Herald. "They are a very good cricket side, but that does not mean that they can do whatever they want to do. They say they play the game in the right spirit, but they don't in reality. There is nothing gentlemanly about the way they play."

After being dismissed by Michael Clarke in the 84-run loss, Harbhajan waited mid-pitch and pointed his bat. "I was responding to a lot of vulgar words that were said to me," he said. "I don't have any problem with chitchat on the field, so long as it is about the game. But when it is very personal and vulgar, that is not on. They think you cannot fight back and they do not like it when you do.”

Cricket has been down this road once before. Some years ago Rashid Latif was accused by Adam Gilchrist of calling him a ‘white c__t”. Latif denied the charge and was exonerated; it was his word against Gilchrist’s and there was no way of proving the charge. If the Harbhajan-Symonds dispute ends the same way, the consequences could be larger. If it turns out that Ponting made an accusation of racism which the Australians couldn’t back up, the accused Indians will be left with a lively sense of grievance and injury. There’ll be no shortage of people arguing that the Australians tried to opportunistically fit Harbhajan up in the middle of a closely contested Test match, or, more seriously, that Ponting recklessly used cricket’s adjudicatory process to intimidate and unsettle an opponent.

Australian cricketers famously leave on-field quarrels on the field. Ponting has chosen to take Harbhajan to ‘court’. Slater supports the decision because racism is unacceptable and he’s right. Racism is unacceptable. But if Ponting can’t come up with the evidence for a ‘conviction’, if his case is based on Symonds’ word and Harbhajan’s ‘prior form’, I can see players and officials asking for stump microphones to be left on all the time so that allegations of this sort in the future can be settled by technology. I can also see players retaining libel lawyers and disputes like this one being resolved in real law courts.

If Mike Proctor finds against Harbhajan, Indians might simmer awhile, but the Australians will have been vindicated. If he clears him, there’s a real chance that on-field chat will be systematically monitored in the future, and Ponting’s recourse to the match referee might well be remembered as the day Big Brother came to stay.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi