January 24, 2008

The thin line between hard and fair

You don't need to give lip to play tough. After the ructions of Sydney, Australia got it just right in Perth

Everything, but not the kitchen sink: Brett Lee gave the Indians no quarter at Perth, but his behaviour was not objectionable in the least © Getty Images

What a difference a Test can make. In the first week of the new year, cricket was left wounded and dishonoured. Now, after a hard-fought and enthralling game in Perth, the sport seems to have reclaimed not only its dignity but also its health.

The events in Sydney tested loyalties. The mood of the moment demanded that positions be taken, and no one was immune to the pressure. But Perth has perhaps made it easy for all of us to view Sydney in the right perspective. Cricket, like any other sport, is a fiercely competitive activity worth getting passionate about; but there is a line beyond which lies ugliness and chauvinism. That line was breached in Sydney.

"Spirit of cricket" is a much used, much misunderstood term. But it can be said that spirit was glimpsed and felt in Perth. There was grace in defeat and humility in victory. Australians have rarely made excuses for defeats, and Ricky Ponting, who was baffled and wounded by accusations that he was arrogant and lacked comprehension about what the fuss in Sydney was really about, conducted himself marvellously at the post-match press conference. He was relaxed and forthright, gave his opponents fulsome credit, accepted his team's failure, and made not a mention about umpiring errors.

While Australia were being put under the cosh on the first day, a senior Australian journalist wondered aloud if the burden of having to watch their behaviour had had an effect on their game. Certainly, some appeals ended abruptly, and Shaun Tait even did the unthinkable by apologising to Sachin Tendulkar for having appealed for a caught-behind after the ball had brushed the elbow guard. And on the second day, an English journalist worried if the loss of the Perth Test would put pressure on Australia to go back to their snarling ways.

But sometimes a point is missed. Australia were no less formidable or tough a team under Mark Taylor, who didn't need to be profane in order to be aggressive. It was he who took a bunch of rookie bowlers to the West Indies and beat the champions in their den. And it was he who fashioned the idea of scoring four runs an over in Test cricket. The credit for turning the Australians ugly will go to Steve Waugh: mental disintegration is his unfortunate legacy.

A word or two has always been exchanged in the heat of battle and it will continue to remain so. No one wants a hard game to become antiseptic, but no cricket match is won by swearing at the opponents. Australia lost in Perth not because their attitude was soft. It was their skills that let them down.

Perth has possibly been an interesting learning experience for the Australians, for they were forced to conform to the code of conduct even when they were cornered. There has been a perception that the natural instincts of the Australian players fits oddly with the image Cricket Australia has been desperate to project, and in Sydney the wall simply collapsed when it got tight. The balance between "hard" and "fair" is difficult to maintain at the best of times; it's far tougher when your idea of fairness contrasts with that of the rest of the world.

India is a nation bursting with energy and bristling with confidence. But it also faces the risk of losing its humility, which some confuse as weakness. There is a fine line between assertiveness and arrogance, between firmness and being rigid, and between standing up for what is right and bulldozing

In Perth, Australia managed to walk the line without losing their footing. Brett Lee was the embodiment of the kind of aggression that should be seen on the cricket field. He steamed in over after over and whistled balls past retreating heads; he got Tendulkar by attacking his stumps, and exchanged glares and words with Irfan Pathan, who had let Lee have a few on the first day. It was the perfect example of hostility without nastiness. Tait talked the talk before the match, but couldn't walk the walk when it mattered. By the end of the match even tailenders were lining him up.

There is a lesson in this for misguided Indian players who seem to think that to challenge Australia it is necessary to match them with words. Not being adept in these matters - Australia have practised and mastered the art over years - they end up looking far more crude. It's a fake and shallow aggression that is merely a distraction. Sreesanth, a talented but temperamental swing bowler, once bowled a bouncer to Sachin Tendulkar in a domestic match and charged down the pitch to glare the batsman down. The next ball disappeared over his head as Tendulkar let him know where he stood.

If the young Indian players ever needed a lesson in playing it tough, they needn't look beyond their own dressing room. In Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, India have had three of the toughest ever cricketers, who haven't ever needed to lose their manners to compete. Does Harbhajan Singh ever wonder why even the worst sledgers keep their thoughts to themselves when Tendulkar or Dravid is batting? Those who are easily provoked merely reveal a weakness of character. In any case, there are far worthier things to learn from the Australians.

India at the moment is a nation bursting with energy and bristling with confidence. But it is also faces the risk of losing its humility, which some confuse as weakness. In the words of a perceptive colleague, India is a nation that has found its voice after years of being told to shut up. But there is a fine line between assertiveness and arrogance, between firmness and being rigid, and between standing up for what is right and bulldozing. There is no doubt about India's financial might in cricket. And that the mightiest rules is as much the law of the jungle as it is of civil society. But some leaders are respected while some are feared and loathed. It is up to India to choose where to stand.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Tone on January 25, 2008, 3:30 GMT

    Excellent article! I thought it put things into perspective nicely. Well written Sambit! Again you've demonstrated you intelligence and reason in the face of some pretty over the top hysteria. It's a shame others haven't done the same in their posts on this forum. Especially when it comes to the sportsman ship of the West Indian teams of the 80's and 90's. Viv Richards most certainly was not above sledging and if you asked NZ about the West Indian tour there in 1980. I'm sure that people well remember Michael Holding kicking down the stumps after having a decision go against him, not mention Colin Croft clipping an umpire in the back of the head with the ball as he can in to bowl. I'd also like to point out an incident when Harbarjan Singh stood his ground in a recent ODI against England. AFter being bowled!! Let's get a grip>

  • David on January 25, 2008, 1:50 GMT

    How can this article be well balanced? All I can see are accusations that the Australians brought the game into disrepute and showed arrogance at every turn in Sydney. Come on whatever happened to accepting the umpire's decision taking the good with the bad and being tough skinned. OK there is a line that was overstepped and there is no excuse for that, personal attacks need to be taken out of the game. Sledging as it was originally intended is a part of every sport ever played. Psychology is a major part of the game. Get a player thinking of something other than the task at hand is as valid a skill as any other. How were the Australians being arrogant? Just because they won the series in an amazing fashion and celebrated accordingly? OK someone should have commiserated the batsmen as they walked off. A lesson in humility in loss was given in Perth. No mention of poor decisions. No threats of pulling out of the series. No excuses! The Perth test was candy coated in my opinion.

  • Roofus on January 25, 2008, 0:34 GMT

    I think you need to take a more balanced and neutral look at cricket in general before describing Aus cricket as ugly and mental disintegration as an unfortunate legacy of Steve Waugh. The mistake Waugh made was to publicly label the psychological part of the Australian game as mental disintegration a term open to misinterpretation by the media and anyone who wants to run down the Aus cricket team. So I find it absolutely baffling to hear comments such as these condemning Aus cricket when their is not a test playing nation who is not equally as guilty if not more so of every thing Aus has been accused of in recent times. This includes an Indian team who were involved in any number of controversial incidents during recent tours of England and South Africa. Was the spirit of cricket of these great cricketing nations called into question? This leads me to my point that if Aus were not the such a dominant force in the game would we even be talking about this at all?

  • mike on January 24, 2008, 22:28 GMT

    Great, well-balanced article, Sambit. Parth-pala and satishgn seem to be reading this like they did the Sydney test, through rose-tinted glasses! I didn't feel that the Aussies were any worse (or any better!) than the Indians in terms of sportsmanship, but the Indians were very swift to protest their innocence regarding the Harbajhan debacle. I also felt saddened by the Aussies' apparent inconsistencies regarding sportsmanship, but find it hard to hear India fans preaching their innocence so soon after watching the over-enthusiastic appealing and ludicrously exaggerated celebrations of Singh and Pathan. Behaviour lapses at times with all teams, poor decisions go against everyone, I reckon the Aussies are no angels, but they're rarely whingers.

  • Mohit on January 24, 2008, 21:23 GMT


    That was an excellent article - well written and balanced. I always have the highest expectations from Cricinfo writers and I am rarely disappointed.

    @irememberthebaddays India's "whinging" gets blown totally out of proportion because of the amount of media attention it receives. The Indians were perfectly within their rights to protest the pathetic umpiring. They were also within their rights to feel aggrieved about the Bhajji ruling, especially since they had not even filed a complaint against Hogg for using the B-word.

    All said and done, the Sydney test was a match that we ought to have drawn if not won. Agreed umpires cost us the game, but we could still have battled it out and made a statement. That would have been much louder than all the post match whinging combined.

  • faisal on January 24, 2008, 20:40 GMT

    I find the view expressed in this article as one-sided. While I do think that Australians have been allowed to sledge free by the game-authorities for quite long: its the hue and cry of Indians that surprises me!!

    That particular test was won in a wonderful fashion by Australians despite a few umpiring decisions that went against Indians. Kumble agreed to this catching agreement before this test, so why the fuss ??

  • Mohammad on January 24, 2008, 19:40 GMT

    I dont know why you didnt post my comments....but again that shows that even indian writers are hypocrates.....no surprise there

  • Chirag on January 24, 2008, 19:21 GMT

    No team can be equalled to a great team till it can take the "spirit of cricket" to its correct levels. When India pumped in front of Autralians, it was aggression with the spirit of cricket. The allegations do not go to the words exchanged, they go to the out-off ground complains that are lead over by Ponting. The relentless ideas to claim on incorrect grounds need to be questioned on. Words exchange between Symonds or Harbhajan, between symonds or Sreesanth should not affect anybody. To learn something from Sachin,Kumble,Laxman in terms of temperamanet is not completely true. A show of passion in throwing your T-shirt when you win a series is a passion that India should live up in! Our youngsters should show the courage if they want to rise the way they have in the past few years. Only if India resorts to tricks like the Australians outside the groud, only then can the cricket in India be questioned. Lastly, Steve Waugh was a great captain in all ways!

  • Shantan Kumar on January 24, 2008, 19:12 GMT

    I like the comments about humility and weakness. Yes, Indians definitely feel that if they're humble, it will be construed as weakness. It takes a rare courage to show humility but our youngsters don't seem to understand that. You only have to look at Sachin, Rahul and Anil to understand how to behave on a cricket field. All these antics - of Sreesanth and Bhajji are being watched by millions of kids in India and they will think that it is necessary to show those antics to be a successful cricketer. That's why it's very important for these cricketers to behave properly.

    There are lots of things to learn from Australia without having to learn their bad qualities. We can learn to be professional like them, play for each other like they do and not give up until the last ball of the match. Instead we learn their sledging and become even worse than them. Since we're not brought up in this way, we end up making a fool of ourselves and our country. Grow up boys!

  • Harish on January 24, 2008, 17:48 GMT

    The Australians on this board seem to be arguing that personal abuse is ok while racial abuse is not. Personally I feel both are equally bad. Ban both and get on with the game. And by the way there are other all conquering personalities in other sports like Roger Federer, Tiger Woods nobody seems to hate them. The fact is present australian cricket team is arrogant.

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