January 15, 2008

Gavaskar's double role

Sunil Gavaskar is bomb-thrower and bomb-defuser put into one, who somehow manages to operate as the chairman of the ICC's cricket committee while also acting as peppery columnist and media provocateur

How many hats should Sunil Gavaskar wear? © Getty Images

The usual excuse for misbehaviour on the cricket field is that it was done in the spur of the moment, in an excess of competitiveness, under the pressure of the situation. It doesn't always render such incidents forgivable, but it sometimes makes them more understandable: after all, these are young men strung up to concert pitch fighting for their livelihoods and in the name of national honour.

What to make, though, of those who should know better, those with vast experience and great reputations, who commit sins of tact and taste? What to make of those who hold roles in the game gravid with responsibility yet who cannot help making mischief?

Step forward Sunil Gavaskar, who somehow manages to operate as the chairman of the ICC's cricket committee while also acting as peppery columnist and media provocateur. The ICC finds itself in a tight corner, as ever, as it strains to arbitrate on the matter of Harbhajan Singh's verbal skirmishings with Andrew Symonds. You might expect all at the organisation to be pulling in the same direction towards a calm-browed settlement that allows both teams to move on with honour.

Well, unless someone has presumed to write under nom be plume "Sunil Gavaskar" in a syndicated column in various Indian newspapers, you would expect wrong. Because here this senior officer of ICC has launched an attack on a referee of ICC that can do nothing, but damage to the organisation, to the relations between countries, and to the game itself.

"Millions of Indians want to know if it was a 'white man' taking the 'white man's' word against that of the 'brown man'," Gavaskar wrote. "Quite simply, if there was no audio evidence, nor did the officials hear anything, then the charge did not stand."

Millions of Indians might want to know this - but it doesn't actually make them right. Does Gavaskar himself believe this to be true? If so, he should say it. And if he does believe it, then he should almost certainly resign, for if the ICC is a bastion of "white man's justice", Gavaskar bears some of the blame for having failed to change it.

On the other hand, maybe he hasn't been paying attention. After all, how many times has audio evidence ever been definitive in any case of on-field behaviour? The stumps mikes didn't pick up Glenn McGrath's tirade at Ramnaresh Sarwan in 2003, nor did the umpires David Shepherd and Srinivas Venkataraghavan make any report, but that didn't stop the failure of the ICC referee to take action being an abysmally weak decision.

That referee, of course, was Mike Procter. He was also the referee at the Oval in 2006 when Inzamam ul-Haq had his Achilles-like sulk, and at Melbourne in 2007 when Yuvraj Singh had his Paris Hiltonesque pout. There are some good arguments that while he bowled magnificent inswinging yorkers off the wrong foot, Procter has been a serial failure in enforcing the ICC's code of conduct. But you'd be forgiven for wondering exactly who is helped by the following assessment of his work by Gavaskar: "This is what has incensed the millions of Indians who are flabbergasted that the word of one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Sachin Tendulkar, was not accepted. In effect, Tendulkar has been branded a liar by the match referee."

Again with the "millions of Indians"! It's not me folks - it's those "millions of Indians". In fact, this debating point is a much less impressive notion that it seems. India has a population of 1.13 billion. There's probably at least a few million who believe in flying saucers. Should we really pay them serious heed? It's also far from clear that Tendulkar has been branded anything at all, for we know precious little of what was said during the relevant proceedings. Perhaps Gavaskar knows more that he lets on; if he does, it is disingenuous of him not to explain how he knows it. Perhaps he knows as much as we all do; if so, he is hastening to a conclusion on little more than supposition.

Nobody can be happy that the Sydney Test, and cricket, was dragged into ignominy. No Australian can be gratified that the deportment of their national team contributed to it. But the free bandying about of the word "racism", and the use of phrases like "white man's justice", might just make a few people look like particularly obnoxious hypocrites.

It is strange that he [Gavaskar] should be so gravely concerned about the damage Mike Procter has done to the ICC's authority, and so little aware of the damage he is doing himself

Which brings us back to Gavaskar. Because all this "monkey" talk can't help but remind the cricket bibliophile of the chapter in Gavaskar's autobiography Sunny Days (1976) in which he recounts the blood-spattered Kingston Test of 1976 where Bishan Bedi famously declared his innings closed rather than risk further injury for his batsmen from the West Indian pace enfilade. Here's a sample:

To call the crowd a 'crowd' in Jamaica is a misnomer. It should be called a 'mob'. The way they shrieked and howled every time Holding bowled was positively horrible. They encouraged him with shouts of 'Kill him, Maaaan!' 'Hit im Maan!', 'Knock his head off Mike!' All this proved beyond a shadow of doubt that these people still belonged to the jungles and forests, instead of a civilised country....

Their partisan attitude was even more evident when they did not applaud any shots we played. At one stage I even 'demanded' claps for a boundary shot off Daniel. All I got was laughter from the section, which certainly hadn't graduated from the trees where they belonged....

They were stamping their legs, clapping and jumping with joy. The only word I can think of to describe the behaviour of the crowd is 'barbarian'. Here was a man seriously injured, and these barbarians were thirsting for more blood, instead of expressing sympathy, as any civilised and sporting crowd would have done....

The whole thing was sickening. Never have I seen such cold-blooded and positively indifferent behaviour from cricket officials and the spectators, to put it mildly, were positively inhuman.

"To put it mildly!" The reader would wish the author to get off the fence and share what he really thought! In hindsight these are unattractive passages. Actually, at the time they were unattractive passages for that matter. For these weren't cross words exchanged on the field; they were crude lines penned in repose and with malice aforethought. Perhaps they should be seen as reassuring. If Gavaskar can have become such an important figure in the ICC after perpetrating such passages, Harbhajan could in time represent India at the United Nations.

The point is, of course, that Gavaskar should not be that important a figure at the ICC. Pelham Warner acted as chairman of selectors for England while working as the cricket correspondent of the Morning Post, but that was in the 1920s and 1930s, and he wrote such namby-pamby nonsense that it hardly mattered. Cricket today is constantly bemoaning the lack of professionalism shown by its administrative classes. Gavaskar's dual role as bomb-thrower and bomb-defuser has become a key exhibit in the case for change.

The Queensland politician and oaf Russ Hinze was famously asked about his conflict of interest in owning racehorses while acting as minister of racing. "It's not a conflict of interests," he replied. "It's a convergence." Gavaskar seems to share the same attitude. But it is strange that he should be so gravely concerned about the damage Procter has done to the ICC's authority, and so little aware of the damage he is doing himself.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer