January 9, 2008

Some balance, please

True, India were sinned against in the Sydney Test, but they're no innocents, and the reaction of the media back home has been consummately over the top

Men overboard: protesters in Patna enlist the help of donkeys to express their outrage at the poor umpiring in Sydney © AFP

If India's media are to be believed, the Indian players are angels, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an unpatriotic Gandhi-hater and should be condemned to watching Navjot Sidhu expressing his views on a dozen television channels.

By hauling up a player for a racial slur (just as all who drink are not alcoholics, all who use racially charged words are not racists), the match referee has apparently called into question our manhood, nationhood, honour, Gandhian way of life, support for Nelson Mandela in the days of apartheid, and the sacrifices made by our martyrs.

Yes, we lost a Test. Yes, the umpiring was horrendous. Yes, the charges against Harbhajan Singh might not hold up in a court of law. But do we have to go overboard like this? One television channel dragged out Harbhajan's mother, that expert on racial slurs and leg-before appeals, to share her thoughts with us.

How do we drop so quickly into us-and-them mode? The media paranoia feeds itself. If one channel demands an apology from Australia, another displays greater patriotism by asking for the Test result to be nullified. Pundits push themselves to the head of a gathering trend. Or, if they are Sidhu, suggest that Indian bowlers should kick the umpires as they approach the wicket to bowl. If this is what a Test player feels, what of the regular effigy-burners and professional naysayers?

That mythical creature, the Average Man, wants the team to return home, we are told. Politicians speak for the Man in the Street (who is there because politicians, in their rush to defend the millionaires abroad, have omitted to build a house for him).

"This is not about cricket," Sidhu thunders, "This is about national honour." The President-elect of the ICC, Sharad Pawar, is upset. This is not something trivial like farmers committing suicide, which he can ignore in his other avatar as the Minister of Agriculture. This is the real thing. The BCCI runs the ICC and the media run the BCCI.

Brinkmanship is our national sport. The way India treats the ICC is no different from the manner in which the "veto powers", England and Australia, did in their heyday. When the cycle turns and the power base shifts, we will have at least nine countries waiting to get at us for all that we are doing to them now.

Pawar has the bogey of Jagmohan Dalmiya on his shoulder. Didn't that worthy threaten to split the cricket world more than once? Didn't he save India's honour, nationhood, manhood and all other hoods by annulling the result of a match in South Africa a few years ago? How can Pawar go one better? Can he annul Australia's nationhood?

The board could not have asked for a better chance to show its patriotism. The players could not have asked for a bigger distraction from their own pathetic display in the second innings at Sydney. Two batsmen got poor decisions. What about the others? Is batting through two sessions to save a Test beyond the ability of the greatest batting line-up in the world? As for the board, the criticism about pushing the players into Tests in Australia without adequate time to acclimatise themselves is now residing under a carpet somewhere.

It is all so convenient.

But what of the incidents? We have been mixing apples and oranges. The boorish behaviour of Ricky Ponting and his men is independent of the umpiring boo-boos, which have nothing to do with what Harbhajan Singh said to Andrew Symonds. By bundling it all together, and then garnishing the mix with almost plausible quotes and Peter Roebuck's unusually over-the-top reaction, the Indian media have taken breast-beating to new levels.

A clever lawyer can pick on anything Symonds said and give it a racial twist. Even honourable cusswords like "bastard" and "son of a bitch" can be seen as insulting the parental uncertainty or animal origins of all non-whites. Logicians call this reductio ad absurdum - stretching a proposition to its logical absurdity. But logic has been a casualty in this fracas.

Let's get a sense of balance. No Indian writing or broadcasting from Sydney mentioned that replays showed Sachin Tendulkar was out leg-before when he was in the twenties. He added roughly the same number of runs that Symonds did after being reprieved when he was first out.

Brinkmanship is our national sport. The way India treats the ICC is no different from the manner in which the "veto powers", England and Australia, did in their heyday. When the cycle turns and the power base shifts, we will have at least nine countries waiting to get at us for all that we are doing to them now

Ponting's integrity may be in question after he claimed a catch off Mahendra Singh Dhoni though the ball touched the ground. Just as you can't be a little pregnant, you can't be a little upright. Integrity is indivisible. But if the two captains had an agreement regarding catches close to the wicket, then Mark Benson was right in turning to Ponting when Sourav Ganguly was caught. After all, Steve Bucknor was further away from the action.

Indians are not innocents. The average number of Tests played by the Sydney XI is 65. That's enough time to learn all the tricks. Ishant Sharma, in his third Test, showed you don't need to have played 65. His ridiculous time-wasting tactic of walking out with two right gloves would have embarrassed a schoolboy.

For a team that is trailing 0-2 in a Test series, India are on top Down Under. This is remarkable. It is the result of a combination of the BCCI's financial arrogance and media-inspired jingoism. This is dangerous, however exciting and ballsy it might be for an Indian. For it is this combination that makes huge headlines of incidents that might otherwise be handled with delicacy and tact. Already the ICC has replaced Bucknor for the Perth Test (question: if India had long-standing disputes with him, why didn't the board object at the start of the tour?). This may be good PR, but it is a bad precedent to set.

Likewise with the Harbhajan case. The ICC can neither revoke the ban nor endorse it without getting into a bigger mess. The Indian media are probably getting ready to speak to Malcolm Speed's relatives even as you read this.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore