Harbhajan Singh and the Aussies

2008-01-31 00:00

India’s threats to charter a plane to take the players back home in the event of an independent judge finding against them in the Harbhajan Singh case counted among the most nakedly aggressive actions taken in the history of a notoriously fractious game.

Harbhajan, initially banned for three Tests, was this week cleared of racially abusing Andrew Symonds, Australia's only black player, after allegedly calling him a “big monkey”. India had threatened to pull out of the tour if the appeal was not upheld.

If this is the way the Indian Board intends to conduct its affairs hereafter then God help cricket. It is high time the elders of the game in that proud country stop playing to the gallery and consider the game’s wider interests. Brinkmanship or not, threatening to take their bat and ball home in the event of a resented verdict being allowed to stand was an abomination. It sets a dreadful precedent. What price justice now?

Not that the attempt made by Cricket Australia to broker a compromise had much more to commend it. Ricky Ponting and his players were entitled to take a stand on principle. As it happens, I thought their strategy unwise because they had fanned the flames. The Australian players may have let rage get the better of them but they were within their rights to demand a hearing. Cricket Australia had no business pusillanimously trying to talk them out of it. Racism was the issue or there was no issue.

As was inevitable, Harbhajan’s appeal was successful. Simply, there was not enough proof to justify a conviction. Once the microphones and umpires did not back up the charges the case was doomed. That does not make Harbhajan a hero. It is high time his senior players took him in hand. Nor is it wise to ignore Australia’s reputation as champion sledgers. Everything has a history.

All around it has been a bad business. Over the years the Indians have often been represented by men with high principles and a strong sense of sportsmanship. Australia has not been so fortunate. It was not an implied threat to the justice system. It was a direct challenge to it. India took part in the creation of the legal framework it disregarded.

That India took exception to the original findings of the match referee was unsuprising. Realising that he was not properly qualified, Mike Procter implored the ICC to appoint someone else to sit at the hearing but his plea fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the ICC has been notably unhelpful in these past few weeks. It is hard to believe that a legally trained professional could have reached the same decision as the former South African all-rounder. Procter is a cricketing man not versed in the intricacies of evidence and may not understand the difference between a balance of probabilities and reasonable doubt.

It was appropriate for India to appeal against the original judgment. An independent and experienced judge was asked to preside over it, a man able to interview all witnesses and to reach a dispassionate verdict. That the duly appointed judge was a New Zealander should not have troubled anyone. The idea that a Kiwi might be in league with the Aussies will come as a surprise to both parties. Judge John Hanson duly applied legal principles and convicted Harbhajan of a lesser charge.

India's conduct was deplorable. That the Australians have been carrying on like pork chops for years was no excuse. India had every right to stand against them, but not to undermine the rule of law. Posturing has cost them the high ground. Indeed, the time has come to take a closer look at the behaviour of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), not least its liaison with the poisonous thieves running Zimbabwean cricket. A man is known by the company he keeps.

Now the Australians must accept the decision and move on. The allegation could not be substantiated. It is as simple as that. It is time to get back to the cricket. Both captains must insist that their players conduct themselves appropriately, a responsibility bestowed on them by the laws of the game.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

• International cricket writer Peter Roebuck, currently in Australia, lives in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

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