March 7, 2008

Goodbye to the summer of spite

Some lessons for India and Australia following three months of controversy and drama that overshadowed some wonderful cricket

The seriousness of some - but not all - of Harbhajan Singh's exploits during India's tour were exaggerated © Getty Images

The comedian Billy Connolly jokes the Queen must think the world smells of fresh paint because everything is new wherever she visits. Until the first week in January, Australia also felt they were adored throughout their country. Crowds always roar when they play, spectators crowd them for autographs and they are pestered for interviews and corporate deals. So they were stunned when the opinions of many dissenters emerged after the dramatic and spectacular Sydney Test victory.

Following issues involving umpiring, race, catching, walking, ungracious celebrations and Anil Kumble's claim only one side was playing in the spirit of the game, the shock self-analysis began. Australia thought about their behaviour and their results started stuttering. Ricky Ponting, who nobody seriously believed should have been sacked after the second Test, has a delicate period ahead as he balances a win-at-all-costs outlook with his desire for the universal acclaim of his nation.

Lesser of two evils
India celebrated when Harbhajan Singh was finally cleared of racially abusing Andrew Symonds during the SCG Test. Instead he was only found guilty of swearing something at Symonds that was so insulting, an embarrassed Sachin Tendulkar struggled to define it during the Adelaide hearing. When Harbhajan's verdict was announced there was collective joy in India for the saving of a hero's reputation. Whatever the outcome, there should have been mourning for the public decline of player standards on both sides. Through the entire situation, from the moment Symonds argued with Harbhajan after he touched Brett Lee's bottom, none of those closely involved could have been proud of their actions.

Stupid ... or worse?
The final controversial act in a summer when the seriousness of some - but not all - of Harbhajan's exploits were exaggerated, particularly in Australia, was his ape-like gestures at a section of the SCG crowd last Sunday. If Harbhajan, who was originally reported during the Sydney Test for calling Symonds a monkey, did make the moves toward the predominately white spectators - he denies it, of course, and the ICC did not rule it worthy of a hearing - does this eliminate the race aspect of the original claim? A man who behaves the same to people of all colours might be classed an idiot, but not a racist.

D is for Denial
As the world's financial powerhouse - a feat they may soon match on the field - India must start taking responsibility. A culture of denial seems to operate from top to bottom. Senior officials say there are no racism problems in the country, they never discussed a boycott of the tour, and a plane wasn't chartered to fly them straight home after the second Harbhajan hearing. Quotes coming from board figures or team managers were often only a day from being disregarded as nonsense, and the players' claims that their words were misheard because they were said in another language were tiring. There is no longer room for India's poor-little-rich-kid act.

Turn up the volume
Australia's line when challenged about their mental disintegration - "What is sledging anyway?" - falls into the same category as India's denials. After forming a document on the spirit of cricket, the Australians consider themselves the game's moral guardians, a stance which opposition teams would find hilarious if it didn't make them so angry. Indian board officials want sledging banned, which contrasts with its team's desire to become as good as the Australians, who struggle to understand why other sides are offended by their words. Arjuna Ranatunga's suggestion to turn up the microphones will allow everyone to judge every team's spirit.

Due to the problems with technology, the on-field umpires need to deal with low catches instead of relying on the word of the players © Getty Images

Not very appealing
The most outrageous leg-before-wicket appeal was conducted by Anil Kumble, who shouted for Brad Hogg's wicket in Sydney even though he hit the ball to cover and ran two. Australians believe India yell for anything and after watching Harbhajan regularly turn to the umpire after balls pitched a long way outside leg, it was tempting to wonder if he knew the rules.

The frequency of Australia's requests have dropped since Shane Warne retired, but they are still well - or cleverly or sneakily, depending on your view - orchestrated. Rahul Dravid rediscovered this when he went courtesy of an "edge" behind to a ball that brushed his pad on the final day at the SCG. With the officials, Mark Benson and Steve Bucknor, already flustered from a hectic Test, the Australians leaned on them throughout the final day and ultimately won. (A lot of skill was involved as well, but a couple of controversial calls certainly helped.) India learned quickly and their appeal against Michael Clarke in the first CB Series final, when Rudi Koertzen gave him out off his pad, was an excellent case of imitation.

Drop the catching pact
One of Ponting's most treasured ideas is an honesty system over low-to-the-ground catches, but in the current technological climate it is impossible for a player's word to be accepted. It is a shame that the inconclusiveness of the television replay creates so much conjecture over dismissals that are more obvious live than in slow-motion replays. If a player claims one that looks suspicious on television his ethics are challenged, which Clarke realised in Sydney. Wonderful catches - the view of Australia - taken by Andrew Symonds and Michael Hussey during the CB Series were doubted by much of India despite the certainty of the umpires. This is one area where the on-field officials should be handed more power even if it means they are occasionally incorrect.

Hooray for Sri Lanka
It slipped the notice of many, but there was a third team in Australia over the past five months and they are welcome any time. Sri Lanka struggled on the field and had their usual unfortunate batch of Muttiah Muralitharan-related incidents - including an unorthodox one when he was part of a group hit by egg throwers in Hobart. Despite the issues there were no complaints and their gentlemanly representatives were fine ambassadors. At the moment there isn't a spot on the Future Tours Program for their next visit to Australia, but please come back soon.

And then there was cricket
Stripped of all the controversy, it was an incredibly fulfilling summer on the field. Ishant Sharma's bowling to Ponting in Perth was the spell of the season and he is so talented that he should leave the sledging and sendoffs to the mortals. Lee's bowling was immense throughout both series and Matthew Hayden's three centuries were crucial to Australia's 2-1 Test win. And it will be hard to forget Clarke's three wickets in the final over at the SCG and VVS Laxman's flicked and driven boundaries earlier in the game. Or the joy of India's celebrations when the Test victory was sealed in Perth and the CB Trophy was collected in Brisbane.

However, the most memorable moments were the receptions given to Tendulkar and Adam Gilchrist whenever they entered or exited a ground. The heartwarming events can be forgotten easily in the emotional haze generated by the heat between the teams. India host Australia in October and an eight-month break might not be long enough.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo