The thin line between hard and fair

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.

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.