Shanaka Amarasinghe January 17, 2012

To whom is it an insult anyway?

A terrible racial slur in one culture is your everyday greeting in another

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.