Champions Trophy 2006 October 23, 2006

Fighting fire with a flame-thrower

Fazeer Mohammed

Chris Gayle ain't happy with Michael Clarke © Getty Images

The table tennis ball bounced past, blissfully uncontested, as I was still rejoicing in the magnificence of following through on a fearsome smash, utterly convinced that the point was already mine.

"Don't try that again if you not prepared for it to come back," said one of my uncles, a better-than-average table tennis player and cricketer who was using my grandmother's dining table to teach me an important lesson that remains as fresh as the day it occurred more than 30 years ago.

Last Wednesday's verbal clash between Chris Gayle and Michael Clarke in Mumbai brought home the relevance of that bit of advice, and also reinforced the belief that when it comes to the concept of "do so ain't like so", Australia's cricketers are the unrivalled world champions.

In his tour diary entry on the incident, Gayle inferred that Clarke was the instigator of the confrontation, and while conceding that his protracted tirade against Clarke deserved some form of punishment, it was disappointing to see the man who triggered the whole thing - at least from the Gayle's perspective - get off scot free.

It also did not go unnoticed that the match officials made no report of the incident until the next day, by which time Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, had already passed his judgement in implying that the only way the credibility of the disciplinary process would be upheld was if Gayle was brought to book.

Of course, from the moment the matter came within the purview of match referee Mike Procter for investigation, the issue was no longer if Gayle should be disciplined, but what would be the nature of the censure. It was not surprising either that Clarke was absolved.

An outstanding allrounder that he was, Procter clearly lacks an even hand in arbitrating matters that involve Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. An outrageous charge you say? Well, what other conclusion is there after his response to journalists' queries that the Aussies were getting away with an abundance of excessive over-appealing in last November's series against West Indies, stating that players from those countries are more aggressive, and that had to be taken into consideration? In other words, there is one rule for those three and another for everyone else.

It was heartening to hear Ramnaresh Sarwan - who led the side superbly in the field in the absence of the injured Brian Lara - in his post-match comments alluding to the Gayle-Clarke tete-a-tete and suggesting that players who like to dish out should be prepared to get some back.

Sarwan knows only too well how to give back, his instant response to Glenn McGrath's malicious remark on the fourth afternoon of the Antigua Test in 2003 causing McGrath to completely lose his cool. I wonder if John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, would have been so eager in rallying to the defence of McGrath in the furore that followed the incident if he knew what his compatriot had said in the first place.

Every team in every sport, at one time or another, engages in baiting the opposition, winding them up to try and trigger a loss of concentration. But it is more than a little annoying that, having legitimised and institutionalised an underhand practice as "mental disintegration" (the pretentious terminology of former captain Steve Waugh), the Australians recoil in self-righteous indignation when they find themselves on the receiving end.

Which is why, in the sporting context, if you want to upset the best in the world, sometimes to have to fight fire with an inferno. The opponent strikes a match, you respond by burning down his house. It is an overreaction, but an overreaction with a purpose - to let him know in terms that he can best understand that you're not taking any foolishness.

Lara is a past master at being both an instigator and flame-throwing responder, especially against the Australians, which is why they fear him so. They will always speak in the most glowing terms about Sachin Tendulkar because they think they have his measure as far as beating them off his own bat. But they can't handle Lara, what with the ability to dissect and destruct with his scything blade, while at the same time sallying forth with enough caustic lyrics to keep them on edge.

In this context, I'm reminded of Javed Miandad's attempt to test the sweet spot of his bat on Dennis Lillee's head during Pakistan's 1981-82 tour of Australia. Miandad was no doubt saying more than a thing or two to the fiery fast bowler, which was a bit of a reversal for Lillee, who was accustomed to having the last (very strong) word, especially against timid players from the Indian subcontinent.

Put off his stride by Miandad, Lillee kicked him on the back of the legs on the way back to the top of his mark. As anyone with any sort of broughtupsy would know, to kick someone, even lightly, is just about the lowest form of degradation towards another human being.

It necessitated a strident reaction, and as Miandad drew his blade back in a backlift higher than anything ever managed by Lara, the presiding umpire stepped in to save Lillee from the response he deserved. Do so really ain't like so, and they need to be reminded of that occasionally, even if it costs 30 per cent of a day's pay.