January 17, 2012

Shanaka Amarasinghe

To whom is it an insult anyway?

Shanaka Amarasinghe
Virat Kohli, captain of the victorious Indian team, holds aloft the trophy, India v South Africa, Under-19 World Cup final, Kuala Lumpur, March 2, 2008
Kohli was quite Australian after winning the U-19 World Cup in 2008  © Getty Images
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Recently Virat Kohli was fined for showing his middle finger to the Sydney Hill crowd in response to insults, that Kohli described as the “worst he’s ever heard”. Which brings us to the reference points Kohli probably has, and the cultural dichotomies in a cricketing world that is held together purely and exclusively by its appreciation of the game.

History tells us that Kohli is not averse to a bit of good old swearing himself. When but a wee lad, and captain of the U-19 World Cup-winning side some years ago, he came under justified criticism for the hostility of his celebration – one that would have made Captain Haddock blush in its choice of language. Judging by his general demeanour on the field, Kohli looks an intense bloke who can handle himself. But appearances can be misleading. The U-19 victory celebration showed that, for anthropological reasons that we cannot go into here, the release of tension and emotion generally manifests itself in fairly offensive language. Kohli, in taking offence and reacting to the Sydney crowd, seems to be holding them to a higher standard than he holds himself.

Aussie crowds are passionate about their sports. They have also been passionate about hating the enemy, and aren’t shy about making that fact known. These are presumably qualities that Kohli shares. So does he have the right to react as he does? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

While discussing the whole hand gesture and subsequent fine, a Sri Lankan friend who had spent a lot of his life in Perth disclosed the abuse he took from the crowds at the WACA. He revealed that he and his family had been asked to maybe repatriate to their ancestral homeland - in not so polite a fashion. A discerning cricket fan who had grown up in Western Australia and had been disciplined during his schooldays by Tom Moody’s father (who happened to be his principal at school), he remarked how distressed he was by the fear of imminent physical violence. This sort of abuse is not on, and it is no surprise that evictions of spectators from Australian grounds are commonplace.

But this wasn’t exactly Kohli’s experience was it? He was never in any real physical danger, and his lot was not any better or worse than that of any opposition fielder on an Australian boundary line. The fact, though, is that in South Asia, slights against mothers and/or sisters are viewed in a very dim light. This is what riled Kohli.

It is the same sort of cultural difference that led to the unsavoury scenes between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds in 2008. Legend has it that Harbajhan called Symonds a monkey, which can be construed as among the worst racial slurs to aim at someone of Symonds’ lineage. The subsequent negotiations - sorry, investigations - led to the conclusion that Harbhajan had, in fact, used a Hindi phrase that sounds like “monkey” instead. The fact that this word was closer in meaning to what the crowd may have insinuated to Kohli, didn’t seem to matter, because it was not racist. Funnily enough, in Sri Lanka (I can’t speak for other countries), calling someone a monkey is almost a term of endearment or affection. Therein lies the rub.

The cultural divide between cultures in the way English is spoken, understood and assimilated will always make cricket, on occasion, a volcano. At other times, though, it is a melting pot – without, I would argue, the need to be sanitised. What is needed is a little education.

Asia does not carry the same sort of historical racial baggage that England, Australia or South Africa do. Similarly, the cultural mores and references of Asia are alien to straight-talking, no-nonsense non-Asians. If we all stopped being so uptight about it all and enjoyed the diversity, though, things might become far more interesting and inclusive. A case in point is congenital Western inability to grasp the Asian bob of the head. You know the one. The one that says “yes”, “no” and “maybe” in one economical swivel. It drives tourists bananas (oops, there’s the monkey theme again). Native English speakers in the cricketing world are used to a nod for a “yes”, or a horizontal shake of the head for “no”. This in-between bobbing does nothing but infuriate them, hilariously.

And Asian teams will continue to infuriate with their niggle and cheekiness, and non-Asian teams will continue to be dominant and unwittingly offensive for no fault of either party. It’s what makes cricket fun.

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Posted by John on (January 19, 2012, 5:33 GMT)

Be careful when "sledging" Australian crowds. All big sporting matches in Australia have large minority crowd support for the team Australia is playing. So sometimes the "Barmy Army" make a Perth test look like a home game for the England team. Graeme Smith objected to crowd sledges in Perth once, but they were delivered in Afrikaans (most likely by the Saffers in the crowd, surely). It is possible the comments Kohli objected to came from the "swami army". The essence of the effective sledge is that it has to be funny!

Posted by Stanley D'souza on (January 18, 2012, 5:32 GMT)

Brillant Shanaka'

Fully agree. Must be compulsory read for cricket fans who throng the stadiums. The crowd wants to have a good time and the opposing team members are generally the victim.It percolates down to grade cricket too.One exception was Ravi Shastri who used to be booed by his home crowd in Mumbai, I always admired his resilience.However the best weapon to counter this abuse/comments is a sense of humour. The crowd really loves when you interact.

Posted by Suresh Murugaser on (January 18, 2012, 5:30 GMT)

Very timely and to-the-point article Shanaka!

Being Sri Lankan/Australian myself (although living back in SL now!)and having played cricket in Australia, I am well aware of the lengths the average Aussie cricketer or punter can go when heckling the opposition.

Sure, in their minds, they don't mean any harm, but the fact of the matter is that the Asian psyche is not used to the depths some of these people can go to in order to elicit a reaction from you.

I remember many years ago how John Snow, the big English pacie, was even pulled by his shirt by an over-enthusiastic (or perhaps over-tanked?)Aussie fan - perhaps in Sydney.

My advice to the Aussies in particular is, by all means come and watch a match, cheer and have fun (like we do in SL with the bands and dancing), but let decency prevail. Applaud the good shot, ball or catch and appreciate it "live", but there's no need to get vituperative about it!

Posted by longmemory on (January 18, 2012, 2:52 GMT)

While I agree with almost everything said in this nice and balanced piece, I am tired of this nonsense about South Asians not taking kindly to insults about their mothers and sisters. What a load of bull that is. The main insults heard in most North Indian languages - and that extends into Pakistan as well - are basically motherf....r and sisterf...r (in translation). These are very common insults in Tamil as well. I can't speak for other languages. Virat is Punjabi and insults to his mom and sister is pretty much 90% of the cusswords he must have heard all his life.

Posted by Jibs on (January 17, 2012, 12:56 GMT)

Hmmmm, flip side of the argument; when a white skinned sportsman calls an Asian something like that - anyone remember Herschelle Gibbs calling the whole Pakistani team some (obviously) racist words on the field of play ?

Posted by susan on (January 17, 2012, 10:53 GMT)

Young Indian never play good cricket like Australian and England

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