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The two greatest Test series India has played in recent times have been against Australia: 2001 at home and 2008, Down Under. There's a curious symmetry to these two contests: India won the first one, 2-1 and lost the second one 1-2. Harbhajan was the pivot on which both turned: as a hero in the first (he took an astonishing 32 wickets in three Tests) and as a villain in the second, after his run-in with Symonds. If the 2001 series saw the beginning of Tendulkar's transformation into an attritional player, the one just ended saw that master-craftsman persona discarded as Tendulkar went back to being the Master. And in both series India stopped a great Australian team's astonishing winning run: Waugh's team and Ponting's, were looking for a seventeenth consecutive victory and both were thwarted by unlikely defeats.
In the seven years between these two 21st century contests, international cricket was dominated by two developing narratives.
One was driven by the strength of the Indian economy, the purchasing power of its consuming middle class and the consequent and massive increase in the television revenues controlled by the BCCI. The Indian board became the paymaster of world cricket and cricket's calendar became India-centric. This made other countries understandably uneasy and when incidents like the Sehwag controversy in South Africa provoked the BCCI to flex its muscles, Anglo-Australian commentators saw not an evolutionary shift in cricket's centre of gravity, but a thuggish take over, while south Asian fans and journalists saw a western unwillingness to acknowledge the end of empire.
The second story was a growing South Asian unease with the successful Australian attempt to claim the moral high ground in world cricket. Australians don't like it but the country's cricketers are widely seen as potty-mouthed bullies who manage to get away with murder partly because they sledge strategically and partly because the Australian definition of 'hard but fair'—filth on the field and a beer off it—seemed to have been swallowed whole by the umpires and match referees who supervise international cricket. Every time Ponting tells television cameras that after 2003 the Australian team cleaned up its act and then cites figures to show that Australian players have been brought before the match referee much less often than any other major Test side, aggrieved Indian supporters put this down to Australian hegemony. They remain convinced that umpires are willing to sanction shrill petulance (jack-in-box appeals, visible disappointment) but not manly truculence (obscenity, lewdness and intimidation) because the first is directed at umpires while the second stays between players. This sense of being hard done by is reinforced by the pattern of bad decisions suffered by touring teams in Australia, Kumar Sangakkara's appalling decision being perhaps the worst in recent times.
Australian cricket is hegemonic for the best possible reasons. Australia has had the best cricket team by miles for more than ten years, its coaches have, at one time or another, have tried to drill Australian skills into other national squads, its sports science and its training methods are cutting edge and Channel 9's cricket telecast has taught the world how to cover cricket. But because its players fetishize a hardnosed take on the game, they, unlike the West Indies in their pomp, are universally unloved and in recent years the Ugly Australian stereotype has been rendered uglier by Ponting's charmless leadership.
Indians don't think much of Ponting for several reasons. His first tour was dogged by rumours of bad behaviour, his second tour was an embarrassment (he scored less than a dozen runs in three Test matches), his onfield aggression struck Indians as offensive, his unlovely habit of spitting into his palms and rubbing them together left desis wondering how he got people to shake hands with him and not only did he look remarkably like George Bush, he behaved like him too.
Bush invaded Iraq and then managed to get the invasion ratified by the United Nations after the fact. Anglo-American rhetoric about the legitimacy of pre-emptive war is similar to Australian cricket's argument that bullying (so long as it wins matches) can be justified as robustness. 'Hard and Fair' in the world defined by Bush, begins to read like 'Shock and Awe'.
It is in this charged context that the just concluded Test series between India and Australia unfolded, and in the second Test at Sydney, the two grand narratives of 21st century cricket, India's growing economic clout and Australia's cricketing hegemony, met like unsheathed live wires. It didn't help that the tension between the two teams had been personified. Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh took it upon themselves in the recent one-day series between the two countries to answer sledging with fevered aggression. Harbhajan went on record to say that Australian behaviour was 'vulgar' and that they were bad losers. We are now told that he had a run-in with Symonds in Baroda, so when Sreesanth didn't make the squad to Australia, he was, for the Australian team, the Ugly Indian.
From the Indian point of view, the Sydney Test was a textbook illustration of the way in which an Australian series is loaded against the opposition. The Indian team got a slew of awful umpiring decisions, the Australians did their tiresome all-in-the-game-mate routine, Clarke exploited a gentleman's agreement to claim a dodgy catch, Ponting disclaimed a catch and then unsuccessfully appealed for another that he had obviously grounded (and, post-match, barked at an Indian reporter who questioned him about it), then reported Harbhajan for racially abusing Symonds.
When Mike Procter upheld the Australian charge and banned Harbhajan for three matches he brought the two live wires into contact and the lights nearly went out on the game. Indian players have been on the receiving end of the match referee's kangaroo court before and know it to be dysfunctional. Procter is a notably inept match referee who presided over the shambles created by Darrell Hair and the Pakistan cricket team last year. For him to have taken the word of the likes of Michael Clarke, who as a batsman had stood his ground after being caught off a massive edge at slip and who as a fielder had confidently claimed a bump ball catch, over the testimony of Tendulkar who insisted he hadn't heard 'monkey' being said, was the final straw. The most satisfying part of Hansen's judgment is his characterisation of the slippery Clarke as an unreliable witness.
I think it's likely that Harbhajan called Symonds a monkey, but judgment can't be based on what I or anyone else thinks: it rests on what can be proven. There was no corroborative evidence in the Harbhajan affair and the hostilities of the Sydney Test had destroyed any trust between the two sides, leaving the Indian team in a state of thin-skinned rage at being robbed. Procter managed to compound this mess by unequivocally finding for the Australians without explaining how he had come to his conclusions.
This is when India flexed its muscle, but the 'India' in question wasn't the BCCI, it was the Indian team. Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar, the two most senior players in the Indian side, one its best bowler and the other its best batsman for nearly twenty years, put the BCCI on notice. They insisted that the Board stand by Harbhajan and made it clear that the team was unwilling to go on with the tour if Procter's decision wasn't reversed.
Journalists who think the BCCI used the occasion to assert itself are just plain wrong. The Indian board has no interest in cricket as such: witness the absurd schedule it framed for the Indian team. Left to itself, the Board would have hung Harbhajan up to dry (as it had sacrificed Bishan Bedi over the 'Vaseline' affair decades ago) and gone on with the tour: it was Tendulkar's ultimatum that goosed them into action. Press criticism of the BCCI's brinkmanship in chartering a plane to fly the team home from Adelaide if the appeal went against Harbhajan, could just as well be directed at the Indian team, because I'm certain that the old firm, Kumble & Tendulkar, had something to do with the arriving one-day specialists being quartered in Adelaide in solidarity with Harbhajan.
I suspect the reason for this last flourish was the report that Judge Hansen was likely to consider new audio evidence that had not been made available to Procter. The tapes didn't have Harbhajan saying 'monkey' but they had Hayden telling Harbhajan that a word he had used amounted to racism. My guess is that the possibility that the Australians would spin this as clinching evidence, drove Kumble and Tendulkar to circle the wagons in Adelaide. And here's the thing: it worked. The Australians agreed to press the lesser charge. Having set up this eyeballing contest, they blinked.
Is this the end of the rule of law as we know it and the onset of anarchy? No. On the evidence of the third and fourth Tests, it feels more like the dawn of a new age of civility on the ground and a possible end to sledging. There was a time in Test cricket (a very long time) when Australia and England were more equal than the rest and the game survived that asymmetry. It'll survive this one.
A shorter version of this post appeared earlier in the Telegraph, which can be read here
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Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.